Helen Zoe Veit
The first half of the 20th century saw extraordinary changes in the ways Americans produced, procured, cooked, and ate food. Exploding food production easily outstripped population growth in this era as intensive plant and animal breeding, the booming use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and technological advances in farm equipment all resulted in dramatically greater yields on American farms. At the same time, a rapidly growing transportation network of refrigerated ships, railroads, and trucks hugely expanded the reach of different food crops and increased the variety of foods consumers across the country could buy, even as food imports from other countries soared. Meanwhile, new technologies, such as mechanical refrigeration, reliable industrial canning, and, by the end of the era, frozen foods, subtly encouraged Americans to eat less locally and seasonally than ever before. Yet as American food became more abundant and more affordable, diminishing want and suffering, it also contributed to new problems, especially rising body weights and mounting rates of cardiac disease.
American taste preferences themselves changed throughout the era as more people came to expect stronger flavors, grew accustomed to the taste of industrially processed foods, and sampled so-called “foreign” foods, which played an enormous role in defining 20th-century American cuisine. Food marketing exploded, and food companies invested ever greater sums in print and radio advertising and eye-catching packaging. At home, a range of appliances made cooking easier, and modern grocery stores and increasing car ownership made it possible for Americans to food shop less frequently. Home economics provided Americans, especially girls and women, with newly scientific and managerial approaches to cooking and home management, and Americans as a whole increasingly approached food through the lens of science. Virtually all areas related to food saw fundamental shifts in the first half of the 20th century, from agriculture to industrial processing, from nutrition science to weight-loss culture, from marketing to transportation, and from kitchen technology to cuisine. Not everything about food changed in this era, but the rapid pace of change probably exaggerated the transformations for the many Americans who experienced them.
Gabriella M. Petrick
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
American food in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is characterized by abundance. Unlike the hardscrabble existence of many earlier Americans, the “Golden Age of Agriculture” brought the bounty produced in fields across the United States to both consumers and producers. While the “Golden Age” technically ended as World War I began, larger quantities of relatively inexpensive food became the norm for most Americans as more fresh foods, rather than staple crops, made their way to urban centers and rising real wages made it easier to purchase these comestibles.
The application of science and technology to food production from the field to the kitchen cabinet, or even more crucially the refrigerator by the mid-1930s, reflects the changing demographics and affluence of American society as much as it does the inventiveness of scientists and entrepreneurs. Perhaps the single most important symbol of overabundance in the United States is the postwar Green Revolution. The vast increase in agricultural production based on improved agronomics, provoked both praise and criticism as exemplified by Time magazine’s critique of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in September 1962 or more recently the politics of genetically modified foods.
Reflecting that which occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, food production, politics, and policy at the turn of the twenty-first century has become a proxy for larger ideological agendas and the fractured nature of class in the United States. Battles over the following issues speak to which Americans have access to affordable, nutritious food: organic versus conventional farming, antibiotic use in meat production, dissemination of food stamps, contraction of farm subsidies, the rapid growth of “dollar stores,” alternative diets (organic, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, etc.), and, perhaps most ubiquitous of all, the “obesity epidemic.” These arguments carry moral and ethical values as each side deems some foods and diets virtuous, and others corrupting. While Americans have long held a variety of food ideologies that meld health, politics, and morality, exemplified by Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among others, newer constructions of these ideologies reflect concerns over the environment, rural Americans, climate change, self-determination, and the role of government in individual lives. In other words, food can be used as a lens to understand larger issues in American society while at the same time allowing historians to explore the intimate details of everyday life.
Wendy L. Wall
The New Deal generally refers to a set of domestic policies implemented by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the crisis of the Great Depression. Propelled by that economic cataclysm, Roosevelt and his New Dealers pushed through legislation that regulated the banking and securities industries, provided relief for the unemployed, aided farmers, electrified rural areas, promoted conservation, built national infrastructure, regulated wages and hours, and bolstered the power of unions. The Tennessee Valley Authority prevented floods and brought electricity and economic progress to seven states in one of the most impoverished parts of the nation. The Works Progress Administration offered jobs to millions of unemployed Americans and launched an unprecedented federal venture into the arena of culture. By providing social insurance to the elderly and unemployed, the Social Security Act laid the foundation for the U.S. welfare state.
The benefits of the New Deal were not equitably distributed. Many New Deal programs—farm subsidies, work relief projects, social insurance, and labor protection programs—discriminated against racial minorities and women, while profiting white men disproportionately. Nevertheless, women achieved symbolic breakthroughs, and African Americans benefited more from Roosevelt’s policies than they had from any past administration since Abraham Lincoln’s. The New Deal did not end the Depression—only World War II did that—but it did spur economic recovery. It also helped to make American capitalism less volatile by extending federal regulation into new areas of the economy.
Although the New Deal most often refers to policies and programs put in place between 1933 and 1938, some scholars have used the term more expansively to encompass later domestic legislation or U.S. actions abroad that seemed animated by the same values and impulses—above all, a desire to make individuals more secure and a belief in institutional solutions to long-standing problems. In order to pass his legislative agenda, Roosevelt drew many Catholic and Jewish immigrants, industrial workers, and African Americans into the Democratic Party. Together with white Southerners, these groups formed what became known as the “New Deal coalition.” This unlikely political alliance endured long after Roosevelt’s death, supporting the Democratic Party and a “liberal” agenda for nearly half a century. When the coalition finally cracked in 1980, historians looked back on this extended epoch as reflecting a “New Deal order.”
Paul V. Murphy
Americans grappled with the implications of industrialization, technological progress, urbanization, and mass immigration with startling vigor and creativity in the 1920s even as wide numbers kept their eyes as much on the past as on the future. American industrial engineers and managers were global leaders in mass production, and millions of citizens consumed factory-made products, including electric refrigerators and vacuum cleaners, technological marvels like radios and phonographs, and that most revolutionary of mass-produced durables, the automobile. They flocked to commercial amusements (movies, sporting events, amusement parks) and absorbed mass culture in their homes, through the radio and commercial recordings. In the major cities, skyscrapers drew Americans upward while thousands of new miles of roads scattered them across the country. Even while embracing the dynamism of modernity, Americans repudiated many of the progressive impulses of the preceding era. The transition from war to peace in 1919 and 1920 was tumultuous, marked by class conflict, a massive strike wave, economic crisis, and political repression. Exhausted by reform, war, and social experimentation, millions of Americans recoiled from central planning and federal power and sought determinedly to bypass traditional politics in the 1920s. This did not mean a retreat from active and engaged citizenship; Americans fought bitterly over racial equality, immigration, religion, morals, Prohibition, economic justice, and politics. In a greatly divided nation, citizens experimented with new forms of nationalism, cultural identity, and social order that could be alternatively exclusive and pluralistic. Whether repressive or tolerant, such efforts held the promise of unity amid diversity; even those in the throes of reaction sought new ways of integration. The result was a nation at odds with itself, embracing modernity, sometimes heedlessly, while seeking desperately to retain a grip on the past.