Packing School Lunches a Hundred Years Ago

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, March 3, 1913:  Nothing much for today.

Source: Kimball's Dairy Farmer Magazine (September 15, 1913)

Source: Kimball’s Dairy Farmer Magazine (September 15, 1913)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Since Grandma didn’t’ write much a hundred years ago today, I’m going to go off on a tangent.

I’ve often wondered what children ate for lunch a hundred years ago. Today we hear so much about how unhealthy school lunches are—and that even children who bring their own lunch often don’t bring nutritious foods.

.Of course, in the small rural schools a hundred years ago all students needed  to bring their own lunches. I found a great article on packing school lunches in a 1913 magazine:

The School Lunch Pail

Great care is essential in making the lunch and the lunch pail appear attractive, not only for the sake of the child’s appetite, but for his pride as well. Many a lunch has been surreptitiously thrown under a convenient hedge, because the child was ashamed to open it before the critical eyes of his playmate. . .

The foundation of a lunch is always the reliable bread sandwich. There are many dainty and appetizing sandwich fillings to be made from left-overs. . .

You can make the most appetizing custards and puddings in little ramekins. These are easily prepared the day before when you are getting dinner for the home folks. . .

There are a variety of simple cookies and cakes which delight the child’s heart, particularly when baked in “animal” fancy shapes.

No lunch pail is complete without fruit. If it is impossible to obtain fresh fruits, the dried stewed ones may be substituted. Figs, prunes or dates are wholesome and may be made doubly so when stuffed with nuts, peanut butter, or the puffed grains.

Kimball’s Dairy Farmer Magazine (September 15, 1913)

12 Responses

  1. In my early school years we would often take our own lunch, but then we moved where almost every one ate the school lunch. Then we did to :-).

  2. I love the picture and what a quaint description of the ideal lunch. ;)

  3. We didn’t use lunch “Pails” when I was going to school, but I brown-bagged it everyday.
    “…dainty and appetizing” – not really the way we’d describe a sandwich these days!

  4. I like her entry for the day. My grandfather’s was “nothing doing.” You can see one on my blog at
    Always makes me smile.
    I’m really enjoying your posts.

  5. Yesterday was a writing day for me so I went to the library a few towns away so I wouldn’t be recognized and interrupted. I packed a lunch: peanut butter sandwich, cashews, naval orange (already peeled and sectioned), gingersnap cookies, and a bottle of water. It was perfect!

  6. Totally onboard with the cookies, cake and custard but would trade the stuffed dates for more cookies, cake and custard LOL

  7. not sure the government would approve today – but I would, especially the desert items! ;) I still like to brown bag it – I still have my favorites from when mom packed our lunches.

  8. Sounds like a very healthy and delicious lunch menu. Maybe protein on the sandwich. Dried fruits are very good for you. And dates stuffed with nuts are especially good for you. Custards have milk and eggs. No wonder your Grandma looks like she has rosy cheeks in her picture! :)

  9. Sheryl, I love the tangent that you took! It brought back memories of my own school lunches from the 60’s & 70’s… What a sweet article you found!

    Blessings ~ Wendy

  10. I wonder what beverage they carried or if milk or water was served at school to eat with their lunch?

  11. Love this, as well as the cute picture.
    I’ve always learned about farm-/rural-kids’ lives during this time. I’d love to know some about “city-kids”. Care to dig something up for us sometime? ;-)

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