Hundred-year-old Food-related Math Problems

Basket with apples

Word math problems are a great way to engage students in learning how to apply the skills they have learned. Interesting problems encourage students to think creatively about how to solve problems that have applications in the real world.

Both in 2020 and 1920, there were many word problems that are based on food-related topics. However, there are major differences in the problems. Based on a quick scan of food-related problems on Pinterest, restaurant menu, food truck, pizza fraction, and food cost problems are currently popular. Food-related math problems in a 1920 home economics textbook also addressed cost, but with a slight twist. The focus of these hundred-year-old problems was on how to get a given number of calories for the least cost.


  1. A quart of milk gives 675 calories; a pound of lamb chops, 1600; a pound of eggs (eight or nine), according to size, 670 calories. With milk at 17 cents a quart, lamb chops at 48 cents a pound, and eggs at 60 cents a dozen, which food is the cheapest per 100-calorie portion?
  2. Cream of wheat has a fuel value of about 1600 calories and costs 15 cents a pound. Compare the cost of a 100-calorie portion of cereal with that of chops, milk, or eggs.
  3. Large oranges cost 60 cents per dozen. What is the cost of a standard portion?
  4. A good juicy apple yields about 100 calories. Dried apples give about 1320 calories per pound Find the difference in cost of 100-calorie portions, if fresh apples sell at the rate of 3 for 10 cents and dried apples cost 15 cents a pound.

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


1920 Tip: Use Paper Cups to Hold Picnic Salads

potato salad in a paper cupCooks have shared tips across the years. A hundred years ago Good Housekeeping magazine had a tips column called Discoveries. Readers could submit tips, and were paid one dollar for each tip that was used.

Here’s a tip for how to serve salads at a picnic:

Picnic Salad

When going on little picnic suppers – especially in a machine, where one eats by the roadside or in the car seat – individual paper drinking cups are most satisfactory as containers for salads. The salad may be packed in the individual paper cups and garnished attractively with a sprig of parsley in one side. They always call forth favorable comments and are not messy to handle and each person has his own portion easily handed out.  – Mrs. R.H., D.C.

Good Housekeeping (June, 1920)

1920 Directions for Building a Fire in a Coal Stove

drawing of coal range showing a direct draft
Source: School and Home Cooking (1920) by Carlotta C. Greer

A hundred-years-ago many people used a coal stove for cooking. Here are directions in a 1920 home economics textbook for building a fire in the stove:

Fire Building in a Coal Range

It is necessary to have the fire box, ash pan, and other parts of the stove clean before building a fire. After cleaning, place a generous layer of loosely crumpled paper over the bottom of the fire box, then about four layers of kindling wood, placed so that there are air passages between the pieces, and on top of the wood put two shovelfuls of coal. Regulate the dampers for a direct draft, replace the stove lids, and brush the surface of the stove. 

Before lighting the fuels, polish the range in the following manner: 

To the nickel of the stove apply whiting and ammonia or any satisfactory metal cleaner. 

To the iron of the stove apply oil. Light paraffin oil may be used for this purpose. Apply the oil with cotton waste, or a soft cloth. (Care should be taken not to apply an excess of oil.) Polish with soft cotton or woolen cloth. One should remember, however, that oils must be used with caution. It should never be applied to a stove containing burning fuels. If the stove cloth, saturated with oil, is not destroyed after using, it is well to keep it in a covered tin can or stone jar. 

After polishing the stove, light the fuels. When the wood is reduced to glowing embers and the coal is burning, add more coal. If this burns well, change the dampers to make an indirect draft. 

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

drawing of a coal range showing an indirect draft
Source: School and Home Cooking (1920) by Carlotta C. Greer

The direct draft makes it easier to get the fire started, but once it is burning well, the damper is changed to allow the hot air to circulate throughout the oven and cook the food.

I’ve never used a coal stove so I have little knowledge of this topic – yet the order of steps didn’t seem right to me. I understand that the only time that the fire is typically allowed to go out is when the stove is cleaned – but why are the paper, kindling wood, and coal arranged in the stove prior to polishing the stove’s surface? I would think that all cleaning and polishing should be completed before putting the paper, wood, and coal into the stove – but I’m probably missing something. Does anyone know whether the steps in old book are the typical order for preparing a stove for lighting?

Is this a Finger Bowl?

glass finger bowl

Is this a finger bowl? It is about 2 inches in diameter and 2 inches high. It was in my mother’s china cabinet for as long as I can remember, and then after my parents passed I brought it out to my house. My memory is that my mother called it a finger bowl.

The reason that I’m asking is because I decided to do a post on finger bowls, and I pulled out this old “finger bowl” illustrate the post. I then looked at Ebay to try to find similar bowls to determine its approximate age. I was shocked to discover that most finger bowls on Ebay were about 4 1/2 or 5 inches in diameter – and suddenly realized that the small glass bowl that I have may not be a finger bowl.

Let me step back a bit further, and share what I originally planned to post. I found information on finger bowls in two home economics textbooks that were a hundred years old. The first book contained a drawing of finger bowls and said:

line drawing of a finger bowl

If fruit needs to be pared or cut at the table a silver knife should be provided, and finger bowls should be used. It is well to use paper napkins instead of linen when fresh fruits are prepared at the table, for fruit juice stains are sometimes difficult to remove.

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

Hmm. . . I can’t tell for sure, but the finger bowl in the drawing looks larger than mine.

The second hundred-year-old home economics textbook said:

Use of Finger Bowls

Finger bowls are used after the fruit course of breakfast, and at the end of a luncheon or dinner. They should be placed on plates with a doily between the plate and the finger bowl. 

For breakfast, the finger bowls and plates may be brought in first. The finger bowl and doily should be removed to the left so that the same plates may be used for the fruit course. 

For formal luncheon or dinner, finger bowls on doilies and plates are brought in, one at a time, when removing the main dish of the dessert. The finger bowls and doilies are then set aside and the plate used for bonbons and nuts, which are passed on a tray. Or, if desired, the finger bowls may be brought after the bonbons. In this case the finger bowl and plate are exchanged for the plate of the dessert course. An informal way is to pass finger bowls on plates and doilies before the dessert course. Then the finger bowl and doily are set aside as at breakfast and the dessert served on the same plate. 

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

Some days I guess that I’m just destined to have more questions than answers. I still don’t know whether I own a finger bowl – and I’m now wondering whether people actually ended meals with two desserts a hundred years ago – a “main” dessert and a secondary dessert (bonbons, nuts).

Old-fashioned Blueberry or Huckleberry Muffins

Some fruits bring back warm memories of my younger days. Huckleberries are one of those fruits. I haven’t seen a huckleberry in decades, but they are a fruit of memories.

My father loved to pick huckleberries – or, as we often called them, wild blueberries. Dad worked hard all week farming, but found picking huckleberries relaxing and would often go to the mountains on sunny Sunday summer afternoons to pick them. He’d bring home buckets of the most lush berries. The huckleberries were smaller than store-bought blueberries and bursting with taste. We ate the fresh huckleberries by the handful, and made many wonderful baked goods. A favorite was huckleberry muffins.

So. when I recently came across a hundred-year-old recipe for Blueberry or Huckleberry Muffins, I had to give it a try for memory sake – even though I used blueberries instead of huckleberries.

The recipe was a winner. The muffins were easy to make and delightful.

Here is the original recipe:

Recipe for Blueberry or Huckleberry Muffins
Source: The New Royal Cook Book (1920), published by Royal Baking Powder Co.

One teaspoon salt seemed like a lot of salt for this recipe, so I reduced the salt to 1/2 teaspoon.  I also used butter instead of shortening.

And, here is the recipe update for modern cooks.

Blueberry or Huckleberry Muffins

  • Servings: approximately 15 muffins
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

2 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

3/4 cup milk

2 eggs

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1 cup blueberries or huckleberries

additional flour, if desired

If desired, first coat the blueberries/huckleberries with flour. (Some assert that berries are less likely to sink to the bottom of the batter if coated in flour). To coat: In a separate bowl, toss the berries in flour to coat. Set aside

Preheat oven to 400° F. Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Add milk, eggs, and shortening; stir until combined. Then gently stir the blueberries or huckleberries into the batter.

Grease muffin tins (or use paper liners), and then fill each muffin cup approximately 2/3 full with batter. Bake for approximately 30 minutes or until lightly browned.

1920 Advice: Wash Fruit Before Serving

Washing fruit under running water
Source: Household Arts for Home and School (1920) by Anna M. Cooley and Wilhelmina Spohr

Is it important to wash fruit before eating? Of course, the answer is “yes.” According to the National Health Service:

It is always advisable to wash all fruit and vegetables before you eat them to ensure they are clean and to help remove bacteria from the outside.

Similar advice has been around for a long time. According to a 1920 home economics textbook:

All fruits that are eaten raw should be thoroughly washed. One never knows what has come in contact with the fruit through the handling or from exposure to the dirt and dust of the streets. Woman shaking dust mop; dust landing on fruit

Even oranges, grapefruit, lemons, bananas, and melons, whose skins are to be discarded, should be washed and wiped to remove surface dirt. Small fruits such as grapes and berries should be thoroughly rinsed just before serving; they should never be allowed to stand in water. 

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

1920 Description of Vitamins

Text Description of Vitamins
Source: American Cookery (May, 1920)

Nutrition is important, so I try to prepare foods that contain lots of vitamins: spinach – yes; sugary pastries – no (at least most of the time).

A hundred years ago people were aware of vitamins (though they spelled the word differently), and, like now, they tried to prepare nutritious meals.