Hundred-Year-Old Advice: Should Baking Soda Be Added When Cooking Vegetables?

vintage can of Royal Baking Powder
Source: New Royal Cookbook (1920) published by Royal Baking Powder Co.

When I cook vegetables in water, I usually add a little salt to the water. Apparently people a hundred-years-ago wondered whether it was a good idea to add baking soda when cooking vegetables.

Baking Soda in Cooking Vegetables and Fruits

The baking soda will soften the water in cooking beans or cabbage, and the vegetables will cook quicker and more thoroughly, but the alkali has a destructive effect on the vitamins present in these vegetables, and in all fresh foods. Scientists tell us that these vitamins are more important to nutrition than the foods themselves are when deprived of them, and that we lose the good of the food if the vitamins are destroyed. Try adding a little vinegar to the water for beans or cabbage; this will soften them quite as well, and our friends, the vitamins, are not injured by acids, only by alkalis.

Source: American Cookery (February, 1920)

1920 Tips to Prevent Spreading Disease

Woman drinking from a cup.
Source; Household Arts for Home and School (Cooley & Spohr, 1920)

During this cold and flu season, I frequently see tips for staying healthy. A hundred years ago people also want to avoid spreading diseases. Here is a list in a 1920 home economics textbook of precautions to take against infection and spreading disease:

  1. Use individual towels, combs, brushes, and clothing.
  2. Use individual drinking cups.
  3. Do not put fingers or hands to the mouth or face.
  4. Do not put money, pencils, pins, or anything else but food and drink into the mouth.
  5. Use a handkerchief to cover a sneeze or cough.
  6. Do not carry a handkerchief in the hand or leave it lying about. Put it where it will not be seen.
  7. Use gauze or clothes that may be burned when you have a cold; then burn them after use.
  8. Never kiss anyone on the mouth.
  9. Never spit on the floor of any building, or on the sidewalk.
  10. Avoid crowds of all kinds when there is an epidemic.
  11. Isolate yourself when there is an epidemic.
  12. Disinfect all dishes, clothing and other things which have been used by a person who had had a contagious disease.

Source: Household Arts for Home and School (Vol. II) (1920) by Anna M. Cooley & Wilhelmina H. Spohr

1920 Hygeia Open-Mouthed Nursing Bottle Advertisement

Hygeia Nursing Bottle Advertisement
Source: Ladies Home Journal (January, 1920)

Sometimes we look at the past through rose-colored glasses, and everything seems very idyllic. But, actually a hundred-years ago, factories were in full swing, and people were rapidly shifting from traditional ways of doing things to more modern ways that often utilized commercially-produced products. Sometimes this was good; other times it may not have been. For example, in the early twentieth century, a rapid shift was occurring in how infants were fed.

Breastfeeding was in decline, and was viewed as something done by women in the lower socio-economic classes.

The real decline of wet nursing came, of course, with the rise of formula bottle-feeding, which began in the 1910s.  Bottle feeding was convenient (especially for women busy outside the home); it was “scientific”; and it was “modern” – it was what mothers who were “with it” did. From that point of view, only primitive or unenlightened women breastfed.

Source: Breastfeeding History (Made in America: A History of American Culture and Character)

A hundred years ago, magazines contained advertisements for baby bottles that made mothers feel good about bottle feeding. An advertisement for the Hygeia Open-Mouthed Nursing Bottle emphasized how much babies liked the nipple design and how easy it was to clean.

In comparison, today new mothers are encouraged to feed their babies breast milk. It is generally considered superior to formula (and high-quality breast pumps are now available that can make it more convenient to pump and store milk). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 82.3% of the babies born in the U.S. in 2015 started out breastfeeding. At six months, 57.6% of babies were still breastfeeding, though only about 25% were breastfeeding exclusively.

Dish-washing and Efficiency

large old-fashioned kitchen sink
Source: School and Home Cooking (1920) by Carlotta Greer

Dishwashing is one of those never-ending chores, but I don’t stress over it; and I have a very simple process for deciding how to do the dishes. I ask myself, “Are there a lot of dirty dishes?” If the answer is “yes,” I use the dishwasher; if it’s “no,” I wash them by hand.

A hundred-years-ago there were lots of large families – who produced lots of dirty dishes; and almost all those many dishes were washed by hand. So people were looking for ways to wash dishes more efficiently. Here is some hundred-year-old advice:
Dish-washing and Efficiency
There is almost invariably a waste of effort in both the washing and the drying of dishes. This may be due to:
(a) Poorly arranged dish-washing equipment
(b) Inadequate utensils for dish-washing
(c) Lack of forethought in preparing the dishes for washing and in washing and drying them.
Since dish-washing is one of the constant duties of housekeeping, efficiency methods, i.e., methods which accomplish satisfactory results with the fewest motions and in the least time, should be applied to it.
School and Home Cooking (1920) by Carlotta Greer

Hundred-year-old Advice for Eliminating Food Prejudices

Brussels Sprouts on TrayBoth a hundred years ago and now, people have strong food preferences. Some people are pickier eaters than others, but almost everyone has a least a few foods they detest. The reasons for why some foods are disliked are many and varied. Cultural factors may affect food preferences. Sometimes a person develops a strong dislike for a food that they once got sick from. Occasionally foods actually taste different to different people because of genetic differences. For example, cilantro tastes “soapy” to people with a certain gene. Here is advice in a 1920 textbook to students in cooking classes about how to move past food prejudices:

Food Prejudices

Most people have decided likes and dislikes for certain foods. These opinions very often have no reasonable foundation. One taste of a food poorly prepared or a disparaging remark heard in childhood may be the cause for a lifetime’s aversion for a food.

There is no better way to overcome food prejudices than by learning to prepare foods well – to make them tasty and nutritious – and to appreciate their nutritive value. Food prejudices like most others may be overcome by a thorough knowledge of the subject.

Come to the school kitchen with an open mind. When you understand why certain foods are valuable in diet and are able to prepare them skillfully, you may learn to enjoy them. To discover that foods which you previously considered commonplace and uninteresting are tasty, is really a pleasing experience.

School and Home Cooking (1920) by Charlotta C. Greer

1920 Explanation of Why Foods Spoil

Line drawing of molds
Source: School and Home Cooking (1920) by Carlotta C. Greer

It’s always frustrating when food goes bad.  A hundred years ago cooks also worried about food spoiling . Here’s an explanation of why foods spoil in a hundred-year-old home economics textbook:

Why Foods Spoil

Most foods spoil or change readily – fruits decay, milk sours, butter becomes rancid, and meat putrefies. Knowledge concerning the spoiling of foods makes it possible for the housekeeper to preserve foods from one season to another; it gives her the assurance that her preserved fruit will “keep.”

Line drawing of yeast
Source: School and Home Cooking (1920) by Carlotta C. Greer

The decay of foods is due largely to the existence of minute vegetable organisms or microorganisms. These microorganisms are molds, yeasts, and bacteria. The molds (see Figure 88) are visible to the naked eye, the yeasts (see Figure 86) and bacteria (see Figure (89) are microscopic in size. These plants exist everywhere, and in everything (except those things in which the organisms have been destroyed and prevented from reentering), – in the air, in and on foods, and all over our bodies. Like all plants, these organisms require warmth, moisture, and food for their most rapid growth. Oxygen is necessary for the growth of some of these plants.

Line drawing of bacteria
Source: School and Home Cooking (1920) by Carlotta C. Greer

Many foods constitute nourishment for these organisms. It is because these plants exist in food and live upon them that changes in foods result. The mold on bread and fruit, the odor from decaying meat and eggs, the liquefaction of decayed eggs, and the gas from fermenting canned fruit are caused by microorganisms existing and growing in these foods.

School and Home Cooking (1920) by Carlotta C. Greer

1920 Breakfast Menus

4 breakfast menus
Source: American Cookery (January, 1920)

Across the years (and across regions and countries), there has been wide variation in what people eat for breakfast. In the early 1900’s many people ate heavy breakfasts. By 1920 there was a focus on lighter breakfasts for those who did less strenuous labor. The January, 1920 issue of American Cookery magazine contained several breakfast menus. The menus ranged for very light breakfast options to calorie-laden options.