Hundred-Year-Old Advice for Making Breakfast a Pleasant Meal

Two images of young women eating breakfast - one well-groomed; the other not
Source: Household Arts for Home and School, Vol. 2 (Anna M. Cooley & Wilhelmina H. Spohr, 1920)

Is it important to look your best at breakfast? To be frank, I don’t often give much thought to how I look at breakfast, but then I read some advice in a hundred-year-old home economics textbook:

Breakfast is an important meal, not only because of the food that is eaten, but because it marks the beginning of the day and exerts its influence upon the members of the family for the entire day. The members of the family who leave home to work like to enjoy the memory of an attractive breakfast table surrounded by a happy family. It makes them eager to return to their homes as early as possible after the day’s work.

There is too often a temptation to neglect the details of the meal, and too often the personal appearance of the members of the family is neglected. Everyone should appear at the breakfast table as dainty, fresh and clean as possible. Curl papers, untidy hair, and careless dress do not help to start the day rightly, and no girl should feel that she has the right to come to the dining room until she can present a pleasing appearance.

Household Arts for Home and School (Vol. 2) by Anna M. Cooley and Wilhelmina H. Spohr (1920)

Suggested Food Dollar Distribution,1920

Pie chart showing distribution of food dollars
Source: School and Home Cooking (Carlotta C. Greer, 1920)

Today when people talk about how each dollar that is spent on food is distributed across categories, they are often referring to how much farmers get compared to processors, retailers, and others. For example, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2017 farm producers got 7.8 cents of each dollar spent on food, while the retail trade received 12.6 cents, and 36.7 cents went to food services (restaurants).

A hundred-years-ago, the division of each dollar spent for food often referred to how the cost of foods purchased by consumers should be distributed across food categories.  A 1920 home economics textbook said:

How Much to Spend for Food

Anyone, no matter how ignorant or thoughtless, can get rid of money. But it takes a wise person, one who understands values and quality to get value received for money spent. Whether one is purchasing for all the meals of a family or is only selecting a luncheon or one meal, it is desirable to spend money wisely.

The five food groups may serve as a basis for the purchase of foods. It has been suggested that each dollar used in buying foods be divided into 5 parts of 20 cents each.

Out of every dollar spent use:

20 cents, more or less, for vegetables and fruits

20 cents, or more, for milk and cheese

20 cents, or less, for meat, fish, eggs, etc.

20 cents, or more, for bread and cereals

20 cents, or less, for sugar, fat, tea, coffee, chocolate, flavoring

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

1920 Lenten Luncheon Menu

Lenten Luncheon Menu
Source: American Cookery (March, 1920)

There’s been a history of giving up meat during Lent for a long time. I’m not sure exactly what was allowed a hundred years ago – and it probably varied depending upon someone’s religious and ethnic background – but this 1920 Lenten menu clearly suggests that it was common to eat fish instead of meat during this time of year.

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