Hundred-year-old Advice for Avoiding Diabetes

Source of drawing under the “no” symbol: Lowny’s Cook Book (1912)

It’s fascinating to see what people knew a hundred years ago about the relationship between diabetes and the foods they ate. Here’s a Q&A on this topic in a 1917 magazine:

Avoiding Diabetes

Question: Can diabetes be avoided by a proper diet? If so, what food should one avoid to escape the disease?  I was told by a physician that diabetes was often inherited, but I want to try to escape it if it depends upon me. –E.L., New York

Answer:  No one can answer definitively your question in regard to avoiding diabetes. There is a general impression among physicians that diabetes is, to a certain extent, a diet disease; that is, it has been brought on through faults of diet.

This introduces the personal element. Why does one man eating a certain diet have diabetes and another man eating the same diet not have it? The answer is that one man is resistant and the other non-resistant; but this does not solve the problem.

I believe that if we would eat less carbohydrates, especially sugars, we would be less liable to diabetes. I would advise a simple, wholesome diet such as I would give any person who wishes to lead a correct life from the dietary point of view. I would emphasize the importance of avoiding the use of tea, coffee, chocolate, and tobacco. Sugar cakes, ice cream, pudding, and things of that kind would not enter into my diet scheme. Diabetes is not inherited, but the tendencies which make it possible may be. 

Good Housekeeping (September, 1917)

What Shall We Have for Breakfast?

There have been arguments over what constitutes a proper breakfast for at least a hundred years. Here are some excerpts from a 1917 article:

What Shall We Have for Breakfast?

Between the old-fashioned hearty breakfast and the coffee and roll of the slender modern meal, there is a golden mean. Those of us whose days are busy ones need to start them with plenty of nourishing food. This does not mean that we should overload the stomach, but it does mean that we should take sufficient food to keep from feeling faint in the middle of the morning.  The body needs to be “coaled up” just as a furnace does for a day’s work.

But steaks and chops every morning are out of the question. Some families, however, still regard the egg as the breakfast dish. Almost everyone wants fruit for breakfast. Stewed rhubarb is a healthful breakfast fruit. Apples, uncooked, baked, fried or in applesauce, cannot be improved upon.

Advertisements on packaged cereals usually quote alluring figures to prove how surprisingly low is the cost of cereals. And, yet, these do not seem so cheap when the housewife begins to cast up accounts! Many grains and cereals — oatmeal, hominy, and others —  can be purchased by the pound. This is particularly delicious with stewed canned berries.

Griddle cakes are always popular, and if well made, and quickly and thoroughly cooked, are light and digestible. If the family does not object to fried things, rice fritters will be enjoyed.

Good Housekeeping (October, 1917)



Old-fashioned Onion Toast

Sometimes simple foods are the best. Toast toppers are a favorite of mine for lunch or a light dinner, so when I saw a recipe for Onion Toast in a hundred-year-old magazine, I had to give it a try.

Mild, sweet onion slices embedded in a rich, creamy sauce are served over a classic French toast.  The bread was soaked in beaten eggs, and then grilled to create a delightful French toast that added an unexpected, but delightful, dimension to this dish.

In days gone by, this simple dish was probably seen as a way to stretch budgets when money was tight – but I would put this dish in the category of gourmet comfort food. This recipe is a keeper, and will become part of my repertoire of recipes that I regularly make.

Here’s the original recipe:

Source: Good Housekeeping (August, 1917)

When I made this recipe I wasn’t exactly sure what a Bermuda onion was, so I googled it and determined that it was a large, mild onion. But I was surprised to discover that in the late 1800s and early 1900s that large quantities of onions actually were imported into the U.S. from Bermuda. According to the Bermuda 4U website, after Mark Twain visited Bermuda, he wrote about its wonderful onions in Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion:

The onion is the pride and joy of Bermuda. It is her jewel, her gem of gems. In her conversation, her pulpit, her literature, it is her most frequent and eloquent figure. In Bermuda metaphor it stands for perfection — perfection absolute.

Here’s the recipe updated for modern cooks:

Onion Toast

  • Servings: 2 - 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Onion Sauce

2 onions, sliced (about 1 1/4 cups sliced onions)

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 cup milk

French Toast

2 eggs

4 slices bread

1/4 teaspoon salt



Onion Sauce: Melt butter in a skillet using medium-low heat, then add the onion slices and saute until the onions become soft and translucent.  Stir in the flour, salt, and pepper. Slowly add the milk while stirring constantly. Continue stirring until hot and bubbly. Remove from heat and serve over the French Toast.

French Toast: Beat eggs with a fork, then stir in salt and a dash of pepper.  Dip the bread slices in the egg mixture then place on a hot griddle that has been generously greased with butter. Using medium heat, grill until the bottom side of the bread is browned, then flip and cook the other side.

Cook’s notes: The original recipe called for 6 slices of bread, but I used 4 slices. I only had enough of the beaten eggs to coat 4 slices – and the amount of onion sauce seemed about right for 4 slices. I also did not scald the milk prior to stirring it into the onion mixture.

Selling Yourself Canned Goods

The Discoveries  column in a 1917 issue of Good Housekeeping invited readers to send in their “discoveries” for possible publication. Readers whose submissions were accepted received $1 from the magazine. I always need to buy lots of supplies when canning season rolls around, so I was thrilled to see a reader’s suggestion for minimizing the impact on my pocketbook.

Selling Yourself Canned Goods

I keep a bank on a shelf in my preserve closet. For each glass of jelly I pay the bank five cents, for each jar of fruit or vegetables, ten cents. When the canning season comes round again I usually have enough money saved up to buy all the needed materials for the next winter’s supply.  This is an easy way to spread the comparatively large expenditures of canning over the whole year instead of having to make them in a few weeks. — Mrs. A.H.G., Pa. 

Good Housekeeping (September, 1917)

Are Salted Nuts More Digestible Than Unsalted Ones?

Sometimes information provided in hundred-year-old magazines just leaves me scratching my head. For example, here’s a question I never would have thought of asking – and I have no clue whether the answer is correct.

Are Salted Nuts More Digestible Than Unsalted Ones?

YES! Nuts should never be eaten in any quantity without the addition of salt. The bulk of the protein of the nut is a substance called globulin, which is soluble in salt solution. Therefore, the addition of salt to the nut aids in its solution and digestion. This factor should not be so important in the case of roasted nuts, but even here salt, by making the nuts more palatable, aids in starting off their digestion, which is at best somewhat slow.

Ladies Home Journal (October, 1917)

Hundred-Year-Old Breakfast in Bed Place Settings

Source: American Cookery (April, 1917)
Source: American Cookery (April, 1917)

Breakfast in bed . . . those three words convey the ultimate in pampering to me. A century-old article in a popular women’s magazine, suggested that breakfast in bed may have been more popular than it is now.  American Cookery showed several examples of beautiful place-settings that could be used to serve breakfast in bed. The article indicated that breakfast is bed was not just a luxury for wealthy people, but a nice change of pace for anyone:

But to all, even hum-drum women, there dawn days when a bit “under the weather” we merit the pleasure of a secluded breakfast. When a rarity, it is a joy. Many women who could not stand it daily – who like to be “up and at it” – confess to a veritable delight in a dainty bedside breakfast when overtired or indisposed.

Source: American Cookery (April, 1917)
Source: American Cookery (April, 1917)

When “Time is Money” Serve Ready-to-Eat Cereals

Source: Ladies Home Journal (April, 1916)

There are lots of things to think about when deciding whether to serve hot cereal or cold “ready-to-eat” cereal. Here’s what a hundred-year-old home economics textbook says:

The ready-to-eat cereals commend themselves to those whose time is money. For the house-mother whose chief business is housekeeping the uncooked cereals will make the greatest return for the money spent. A cent’s worth of oatmeal when cooked is as much as the very heartiest laboring man can eat. A cent’s worth of cornmeal makes a breakfast for him, and there will be some left to fry for supper.

A cent’s worth of a ready-to-eat cereal is less – one shredded wheat biscuit or a dainty dish of corn flakes. The saving all depends upon the value of the cook’s time. For uncooked cereals she expends time in preparation, for the ready-to-eat cereals she expends money.

True economy for one family may be extravagance for another family. The intelligent housewife considers all these facts in order to make a wise decision.

How to Cook and Why by Elizabeth Condit and Jessie A. Long (1914)