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University of California Press
How the Other Half Ate: A History of Working-Class Meals at the Turn of the Century / Edition 1

How the Other Half Ate: A History of Working-Class Meals at the Turn of the Century / Edition 1

by Katherine Leonard Turner
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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, working-class Americans had eating habits that were distinctly shaped by jobs, families, neighborhoods, and the tools, utilities, and size of their kitchens—along with their cultural heritage. How the Other Half Ate is a deep exploration by historian and lecturer Katherine Turner that delivers an unprecedented and thoroughly researched study of the changing food landscape in American working-class families from industrialization through the 1950s.

Relevant to readers across a range of disciplines—history, economics, sociology, urban studies, women’s studies, and food studies—this work fills an important gap in historical literature by illustrating how families experienced food and cooking during the so-called age of abundance. Turner delivers an engaging portrait that shows how America’s working class, in a multitude of ways, has shaped the foods we eat today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520277588
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/10/2014
Series: California Studies in Food and Culture , #48
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Katherine Leonard Turner received her doctorate in history from the University of Delaware in 2008. She lives and teaches in the Philadelphia area.

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How the Other Half Ate

A History of Working-Class Meals at the Turn of the Century

By Katherine Leonard Turner


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95761-9


The Problem of Food

IMAGINE SPENDING HALF OF YOUR income on food. If you were a member of the American working class in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, food would have been the largest item in your budget, more expensive than rent or the mortgage, than heating fuel, than clothes or schoolbooks or anything else your family needed. About fifty cents of each dollar went toward food. Imagine how carefully you would buy and cook your food if you spent so much on it: looking for bargains on wilted vegetables and stale bread, walking an extra mile to buy meat at a lower price, fastidiously saving leftovers to make soup. Would you try growing your own vegetables or raising chickens, or would you use that time to work longer hours and earn more money? Would you spend the time to bake your own bread from cheap flour, or would you look for a good price on day-old bread? If eggs were only affordable for a few weeks in the summer, would you buy several dozen and try to preserve them for the winter, or would you just go without eggs for much of the year? How would you cook and eat if you could barely afford enough food for your family? Millions of poor and working-class Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries faced this problem—the problem of food—every day.

Like us, they lived in a time of massive social and economic changes. Many were migrants or immigrants who had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles from their birthplace in search of work or to follow kin. The kind of work they did, their homes, their neighborhoods, and their household tools were all likely to be very different from those of their parents. The traditional ways of living, working, and supporting a family weren't always useful to them; they had to find new ways to live.

Amid all these transformations, they had to face the following important questions every day: What will I eat? What will my family eat? Working-class people often spent about 40 to 50 percent of their family's income on food. The poorer the family, the larger percentage of their income they had to spend on food. The tools for cooking—stoves, pots, and pans—were also sometimes expensive, and the utilities that made cooking and housework easier, like running hot water and gas for cooking, were not common in poor neighborhoods. Men, women, and often children worked long hours to make enough money to survive, leaving little time to cook. And, perhaps most importantly, economic survival was uncertain. Everyday tasks like cooking were more difficult when family members worked different hours, some couldn't work at all because of illness or injury, and families might lack any income for long stretches when there was no work to be had.

Studying the food of working-class people is a challenge because, although they probably made up the majority of Americans at the time, they left few records, especially about commonplace tasks such as cooking. Working-class people did not frequently read or write magazine articles about how to keep house and cook. They rarely used cookbooks, nor did their recipes find their way into the published books. With a few notable exceptions, including the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, their homes have not been preserved as museums, and their possessions weren't preserved because they were used and handed down until they became worn out. And working-class people who wrote memoirs and autobiographies were more often concerned with the struggle for social justice or personal advancement than with the mundane matter of what they ate.

The largest body of evidence about the lives of working-class people of the time was generated by people of other classes, including journalists, nutritionists, doctors and nurses, philanthropists, social workers, and government researchers. These observers had a variety of reasons for investigating working-class lives, and were more or less critical, sympathetic, judgmental, or helpful. But they all considered food and cooking an important part of life that could be improved with study, and so they recorded reams of information about how working-class people cooked and ate. Government agencies studying the labor question gathered statistics on the price of food in relation to wages. Social reformers interested in nutrition estimated the caloric intake of working-class men, women, and children. Settlement-house workers and home visitors inspected kitchens, poked their noses into stewpots, and weighed the children of their immigrant neighbors. The information they gathered was shaped by social bias and political intent, and so it must be used with care, but it is invaluable in piecing together the food choices available to America's working people. Their observations and advice shaped the public dialogue about food, and in fact their ideas continue to influence the way we think about food and poverty today. Ultimately, however, individuals solved the problem for themselves in a multitude of ways that shaped our country, and the foods we eat, forever.


As working people rose early, they ate breakfast in the warming kitchen at dawn or carried it to eat on the way to work. Coffee or tea and a roll were considered sufficient by Jewish immigrants in New York. Mill hands in Massachusetts might have some beans and bread left over from the day before with coffee. Textile workers in the Piedmont had fried pork and wheat biscuits or cornbread with molasses. Single men in Detroit or Chicago might stop by the neighborhood saloon for a strengthening glass of ale before work.

After a long morning's work, those who had to pack their lunches ate quickly and simply: sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, small cakes, pickles. Coal miners in southeastern Pennsylvania carried tin or aluminum lunch buckets down into the mines. The buckets of Slavic miners contained sandwiches of ham and homemade bread with pastries and fruit. Locally born "mountain folk" brought in their buckets fried or roasted rabbit or squirrel or simply bread and molasses. Meanwhile, Cornish and Finnish metal miners in Michigan and Minnesota carried pasties, turnovers of meat and vegetables wrapped in pastry. Working men in cities or industrial towns often turned into dark and noisy saloons, where the purchase of a nickel beer earned them access to the free lunch counter: bread, cheese, soup or stew, perhaps some cold ham or sliced corned beef, and vinegary vegetable salads and pickles. Schoolchildren bought cakes, candies, nuts, and fruit from peddlers outside their school gates. Those who could return home for lunch ate a home-cooked meal that was a preview of their evening meal.

At suppertime families who all worked the day shift converged back at home. In other homes, workers were constantly coming and going and there were no regular meal hours; a pot of beans or a pan of noodle kugel, some bread, and tea or coffee were left in the kitchen for people to help themselves. Many people still clung to the rural tradition of a big midday meal, so supper was simple: bread and milk, or leftovers from lunch. Some evening meals were cooked in a big hurry, as working women left work, stopped to buy the day's groceries, and cobbled together a quick meal. Other suppers were cooked by daughters while mother was away.

The substance of the meals was as varied as the workers' daily routines. Yeast bread was the staple of the northern working class. Whether homemade wheat or sourdough bread or puffy, white American bakery loaves, crusty Italian breads, rye, pumpernickel, or black bread from Eastern European bakeries, or bagels and bialys from Jewish shops, bread was the first food workers reached for. Spread with butter, jam, or sweetened condensed milk, bread was eaten with every meal and was sometimes a meal in itself served with milk or tea. In the South and parts of the West, corn was king in the form of cornbread or mush, often served with molasses. Also popular in the South and West, wheat-flour biscuits were considered a social notch up from cornbread. Other starchy foods filled up stomachs instead of or alongside bread. People of Eastern European ancestry made rich homemade egg noodles to eat alone or to enrich a soup; Jews baked their noodles into a kugel. Italians imported pasta from Italy or bought it from neighborhood pasta shops or regional pasta factories. The poorest families combined their bread with more starch: bread and potatoes, bread and cornmeal mush, bread and oatmeal. But for most, their daily bread was enriched and enlivened with meat, vegetables, dairy, and fats.

At the turn of the twentieth century, meat was a recently affordable luxury. European immigrants, accustomed to eating meat only a few times a year, were astounded that Americans of all classes ate it nearly every day. The most sought-after and highest-status meat was beefsteak, but working people also enjoyed pork chops, slow-cooked joints, bacon, and sausages. The steaks, chops, and bacon were fried quickly in a pan; other cuts of meat (especially large, inexpensive cuts like beef brisket) were simmered slowly and then stretched for several meals. Although fresh meat had become more widely available and cheaper than it had been in the past, preserved meat still had its place; Southerners ate salt pork or fatback nearly every day, using the grease for cooking and flavoring. Chicken was a treat for most, often reserved for Sundays and special meals. Jews particularly appreciated poultry, prizing the meat as well as innards such as chicken livers and using chicken or goose fat for cooking. Those who lived in coastal cities or along rivers ate fish, usually small ones like herring; people far from the water might get their protein from canned sardines. Men in rural industrial villages fished, hunted, or trapped to add trout, squirrel, or rabbit to the family table.

The workhorse vegetables were cabbage, onions, and potatoes. These appeared year-round on workers' tables, in soups and stews or cooked by themselves. From cities to small towns, workers with Eastern European roots shredded, salted, and preserved their own cabbage into sauerkraut every year. Other vegetables and fruits were eaten mostly in their seasons. Workers in cities could often buy fruit from pushcarts near their workplaces for a quick snack. Workers in more rural places bought bushels of fruit cheaply at the peak of the season and canned or preserve it themselves: after the 1870s, glass Mason jars made home canning affordable. Those who had gardens or lived in an area with a lot of vegetable farms could stretch their diets with a bounty of vegetable dishes. Italian immigrants, known for their passion for vegetables, established thousands of small commercial farms to supply their communities with the variety of greens, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli, and other vegetables they demanded. Some working-class people foraged for produce, picking wild greens, berries, and mushrooms in the woods and fields around industrial villages, and even in the green spaces of industrial cities. In Pittsburgh, women and children picked dandelion greens from local parks to eat and sell. After 1900, working-class people could afford some canned vegetables and fruits, most commonly tomatoes, peas, and peaches, to add relish to bland food and a few vitamins and nutrients to monotonous midwinter diets. The favorite use for fruit was in pie, especially for native-born American workers; the American mania for pie was well known. Any fresh, canned, or dried fruit could be baked in a crust and serve as a dessert, a snack, or part of a meal. The poorest members of the working class ate hardly any vegetables and no fruit, clinging instead to a dreary but filling diet of oatmeal, bread, potatoes, and cheap stew meat, with perhaps some milk or butter.

Milk became a more common drink during this time. Before the late nineteenth century, milk produced in cities was commonly "swill milk" from urban cows fed inexpensively on food scraps or on the mash left over from brewing, which gave their milk a sour taste. In the 1880s and 1890s, newly established "milk trains" with refrigerated cars brought fresh country milk quickly into cities, making it less expensive than it once had been. (The milk was increasingly pasteurized after the 1890s, which reduced milk-borne disease but added to the cost.) Cheese and butter were also increasingly manufactured in factories rather than farmhouses; the new cheeses may have had less character, but they were also probably less expensive. Refrigeration also made cheese and butter available throughout more of the year. Butter was still relatively expensive; working-class people bought butter substitutes like margarine (made from animal and vegetable fats) when they were available, or they spread condensed milk or lard on their bread instead. Those from northern and Eastern Europe were most likely to drink milk and to eat other dairy products like sour cream, yogurt, fresh cheese, and buttermilk. The Irish had traditionally counted themselves lucky when they could have buttermilk with their potatoes; Russians scooped sour cream atop their beets and cucumbers. Italians bought small quantities of the expensive imported cheese they prized to season their dishes.

Alongside the traditional dishes, people often ate food that their parents, or their grandparents, had never eaten. Immigrants to the United States adopted new food habits to varying degrees. Italians clung resolutely to their traditional diet, provisioning their new American homes with produce from local Italian-owned farms, pasta factories, and olive oil importers. Others, especially those whose diets in the Old World had been particularly drab, adapted more freely, eating whatever was plentiful and cheap. One Polish woman, "asked if she had changed her diet in this country, replied, 'Naturally, at home everyone had soup for breakfast, and here everyone has coffee and bread." The "American diet" seemed to incorporate more cakes and other sweets, much more meat, and more coffee—in short, more of the food considered luxuries in the Old World. Those who migrated from country to city in this period changed their diet too. Southerners who migrated north learned to eat canned ham instead of country ham, sliced yeast bread instead of biscuits. And the forces of industrialization meant that everyone's diet changed over the generations, as canned food became cheaper, margarine substituted for butter or lard, and all-new foods like breakfast cereal and soft drinks were heavily advertised even to the working class.

Just as we do today, working-class Americans around the turn of the twentieth century combined desire with practicality in their daily menus. When we decide what to eat, we first think about the foods we like to eat, the favorite foods of people in our country or region or age group, or the foods our mothers made: our culture and our cuisine. Most of us also enjoy tasting foods from other cuisines and have incorporated some new dishes into our everyday menus. But our choice of food is not simply cultural. We are also constrained by material circumstances. We must also ask: What food can I afford? What food is sold in nearby stores? Can I grow any food myself? Must I buy raw materials and cook them, or is food sold ready-cooked? Is there someone else who will cook for me, and will I have to pay him or her to do so? What foods do I know how to cook? Do I have an oven, a refrigerator, a microwave, a plate, a fork? The answers to these questions often trump cultural considerations. No matter whether you crave a hamburger, a plate of gnocchi, or a green salad, you can't get any of these unless you have money and access to food and a kitchen, or access to restaurants. Material conditions are especially important for those in limited circumstances, who must choose carefully how to spend their money. Part of what defines poverty in any era is the inability to make free choices about necessities such as food. Poor people must eat what they have, or somehow manage to buy food with the money they can earn, and they must fit the time required to cook and eat into the grueling task of earning enough money to live.

Although I'm certainly interested in cuisine—that is, specific recipes and dishes—I'm more interested in how people got food when money was tight and life was uncertain. Food has so many cultural and social functions that we can forget its more basic importance. Food can mark celebrations of all kinds, religious holidays, and deaths and births in the family. Cooking can be fun and relaxing for people who enjoy it. It can be a competition between people showing off their skills, or it can be a tool of courtship. But in this book I've tried to uncover the repetitive and rather dull task of getting breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the table, day after day. This seemingly mundane task tells us about how people organized their lives, and how the massive changes of industrialization affected ordinary people


Excerpted from How the Other Half Ate by Katherine Leonard Turner. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. The Problem of Food

2. Factories, Railroads, and Rotary Eggbeaters: From Farm to Table

3. Food and Cooking in the City

4. Between Country and City: Food in Rural Mill Towns and Company Towns

5. “A Woman’s Work Is Never Done”: Cooking, Class, and Women’s Work

6. What’s for Dinner Tonight?




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