Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet

Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet

by Amy Bentley


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Food consumption is a significant and complex social activity-and what a society chooses to feed its children reveals much about its tastes and ideas regarding health. In this groundbreaking historical work, Amy Bentley explores how the invention of commercial baby food shaped American notions of infancy and influenced the evolution of parental and pediatric care.

Until the late nineteenth century, infants were almost exclusively fed breast milk. But over the course of a few short decades, Americans began feeding their babies formula and solid foods, frequently as early as a few weeks after birth.

By the 1950s, commercial baby food had become emblematic of all things modern in postwar America. Little jars of baby food were thought to resolve a multitude of problems in the domestic sphere: they reduced parental anxieties about nutrition and health; they made caretakers feel empowered; and they offered women entering the workforce an irresistible convenience. But these baby food products laden with sugar, salt, and starch also became a gateway to the industrialized diet that blossomed during this period.

Today, baby food continues to be shaped by medical, commercial, and parenting trends. Baby food producers now contend with health and nutrition problems as well as the rise of alternative food movements. All of this matters because, as the author suggests, it's during infancy that American palates become acclimated to tastes and textures, including those of highly processed, minimally nutritious, and calorie-dense industrial food products.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283459
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/19/2014
Series: California Studies in Food and Culture Series , #51
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Amy Bentley is Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity and the editor of A Cultural History of Food in the Modern Era.

Read an Excerpt

Inventing Baby Food

Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet

By Amy Bentley


Copyright © 2014 Amy Bentley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95914-9


Industrial Food, Industrial Baby Food

THE 1890S TO THE 1930S

Dec. 5, 1929

U.S. Department of Labor Children's Bureau


Kindly send me your booklet on "Child Care." Also any other booklets you have on children from 2 ½ years old and up.

Several of us women were discussing whether canned food (mostly fruits and vegetables) were good for children and we can't come to an agreement on it.

What do your statistics show on this. Please answer me as I am very anxious to know.

Yours truly,

Mrs. M. Glass
2841 W. 31st St.
Coney Island
Brooklyn, N.Y.

* * *

November 10, 1936

Children's Bureau
Department of Labor
Washington, D.C.


We are looking for an unbiased answer to the following question and feel that your department could supply the information which would not be influenced by paid testimonials nor prejudiced by tradition but based on actual facts.

How do prepared baby foods such as Gerber's, Heinz's, Libby's, etc. compare with vegetables and fruits cooked at home under average conditions? Are they inferior, or on par, or superior? A definite opinion will be very much appreciated.

This information is in no way to be used for advertising but merely to settle a private argument ...

Thanking you in advance I am

Very truly yours,

Mrs. R. J. Simpson
807 West 66 St.
Los Angeles, Calif.

IN THE LATE 1920s and 1930s, dozens of women (and a few men) wrote letters to the federal government's Children's Bureau, asking for advice about the new canned foods for infants that were coming on the market. Parents wanted to know if commercially produced baby food was safe for their babies, if it was better than homemade, or if the bureau had instructions on how to can vegetables themselves for their infants. The documents reveal a transition occurring in infant feeding in the early twentieth-century United States: now that industrially produced canned baby foods were more affordable and more available on grocery store shelves, parents were feeding their babies more fruits and vegetables than parents had previously, and feeding their babies these solids at earlier ages.

The Children's Bureau staff responding to the earliest letters, mostly women trained in the new profession of dietetics and at least one with a medical degree, emphasized that home-cooked vegetables were suitable and perhaps even best, though some vitamins are lost in the cooking process. They also mentioned that the new canned baby foods appeared to be safe. Eventually, after a number of similar inquiries, a Children's Bureau employee wrote to the American Medical Association seeking an authoritative opinion. "Gentlemen," wrote Blanche M. Haines, MD, in 1931, "We frequently have requests for information about vegetables, such as Gerber's or Clapp's which are prepared especially for feeding to infants. If you have some laboratory findings in connection with these vegetables, will you please send us a copy of the statement?"

Indeed, from the advent of mass-produced baby food in the late 1920s through the 1930s and even into the World War II years, the Children's Bureau, along with other government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, grappled with gauging the relative health, safety, and affordability of the budding commercial baby food industry. The bureau's popular pamphlet, Infant Care, which had been in print since 1914, was frequently revised to reflect current thinking and practice regarding infant feeding, and the 1936 edition of Infant Care was the first to mention canned vegetables and fruits. Assessing that both homemade and commercially canned foods were acceptable to use, it noted that the commercial products might be superior because the factory machinery presumably created a more finely sieved product. Yet Infant Care seemed reluctant to endorse wholeheartedly the commercial product at the expense of homemade. This edition, published at the height of the Great Depression, noted that frugal parents could feed infants the affordable fresh fruits and vegetables grown in their gardens.

Through a focus on the origins, development, and early marketing of commercially produced baby food, this chapter reveals how baby food emerged as the quintessential industrial product: a standardized creation with predictable tastes, textures, and qualities, and, like other canned products of the time, laden with sugar, salt, and preservatives to maintain shelf life. A convenience food created by manufacturers and advertisers, admired by doctors and health professionals, and welcomed by mothers, commercial baby food grew in popularity, its growth fueled by changing notions of infant feeding, the discovery of vitamins, and a nascent advertising industry. The success of commercial baby food situated the Gerber Baby in particular as an icon of modernity and convenience, paving the way for a significant shift in the way infants came to be fed, and signifying through its advertising the combined roles of mother and consumer. Popular from the get-go, by the end of the 1930s commercial baby food had acquired mainstream status in the United States, thus solidifying the notion of the special category of food for babies.

To provide a backdrop for the industrialization of infant food, this chapter explores the precursors to as well as the beginnings of mass-marketed baby food, specifically the development of its forerunner, artificial infant formula. In the preindustrial Western world 95 percent of children were breastfed, either by their mothers or by wet nurses. Infants who were breastfed, or "wet nursed," whether by their biological mother or by another woman, contrasted with the remaining small percentage of infants who were "dry nursed," or "brought up by hand"—that is, fed mixtures of boiled flour and water or animal milk, variously called pap or panada. The earliest known infant feeding devices, dating from about 2000 b.c.e., were small, shallow bowls made of clay with a spout at one end. Later vessels were fashioned out of wood, animal horns, ceramic, and eventually silver, pewter, and glass. Some resembled a large spoon with a straw on the end. Often rags were attached to the end through which infants would suck out the liquid. The first nipples were made out of cork or leather. India rubber nipples appeared in the mid-nineteenth century. Cross-cultural research as well as common sense indicates that the weaning process took place over a period of months or years. Infants at some point were introduced to semisolid mixtures as a supplement to breast milk, often in the form of food prechewed by the mother, which then would gradually become a more prominent part of their diet.

Until the early twentieth century, however, infants who were exclusively dry nursed or fed artificially usually failed to thrive, either because of inadequate nutrition or contaminated animal milk or water. Thus before industrialization the overwhelming majority of women breastfed their infants for a considerable length of time, and in Europe and the United States evidence suggests that through the seventeenth century women generally breastfed their infants beyond the second summer. Parents knew that children could develop diarrhea and easily die if they consumed food spoiled by the summer heat. By the eighteenth century the customary length of breastfeeding shortened to just over a year.

In the mid-nineteenth century, experts admonished mothers to feed infants a liquid diet of breast milk or modified cow's milk for most of their first year. A pediatrician writing in the twentieth century described the practice as "the grandmothers' aphorism, 'only milk until the eruption of molars' (12–16 months)." According to one researcher, "Milk alone was believed sufficient until the baby showed signs of failure, and often the young child's diet was confined to little more than milk until he was two years of age. Meat was considered damaging."

Women shared home recipes for breast milk substitutes in this era before recipes included standardized measurements, and those women with the means or access found published recipes in the household advice manuals common to the period. "That which nature has provided is the milk of its parent," wrote Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale in 1857, "but when this is lacking, a preparation formed of cow's milk and water, with a little loaf sugar, supplies the desideratum [essentials]." "If the [cow's] milk cannot be obtained," added Joseph B. Lyman and Laura E. Lyman, in their Philosophy of House-Keeping (1867), "water in which cracker or good wheat bread has been soaked with sugar added to it is very nutritive and digestible." Alexander V. Hamilton in his Household Cyclopaedia of Practical Receipts and Daily Wants (1875) provided a more detailed recipe for a breast milk substitute:

The [packets of farinaceous] food should always be made with water, the whole sweetened at once, and of such a consistency that, when poured out, and it has had time to cool, it will cut with the firmness of a pudding or custard. One or two spoonfuls are to be put into the pap saucepan, and stood on the hob till the heat has softened it, when enough milk is to be added, and carefully mixed with the food, till the whole has the consistence of ordinary cream; it is then to be poured into the nursing bottle, and the food having been drawn through to warm the nipple, it is to be placed in the child's mouth. For the first month or more half a bottleful will be quite enough to give the infant at one time.

Popular advice manuals recommended that cereals or meats, not necessarily in that order, be introduced when teeth began to appear, between six and nine months of age, but only as thin gruel mixtures, broths, or juices. Such "foods," as they were characterized, would a century later be considered "liquids." "The food for children should be light and simple," advised Mrs. Hale, "gruel alone, or mixed with cow's milk; mutton broth, or beef tea; stale bread, rusks, or biscuits, boiled in water to a proper consistence, and a little sugar added." Hale recommended that weaning could take place as early as seven months, but more commonly after twelve months.

While mothers fed infants "strength-producing" meats and cereals in the first year, advice manuals recommended that children not be given fruits and vegetables until two or three years of age. This was in part the result of Americans' wary attitude in general toward fruits and vegetables. Both medical opinion and folk practice in the United States were still influenced by the centuries-old Galenic theories of health and disease, which dictated that eating fruit made people, especially children, susceptible to fevers. Properties inherent in fruits and vegetables were thought to cause severe diarrhea and dysentery, especially in the summer. An 1884 newspaper illustration, for example, depicted a skeleton disguised as a fruit seller offering produce to little children, suggesting that raw, unboiled fruits and vegetables led to cholera. The actual culprit, especially in such turn-of-the-century urban metropolises as New York City, with its inadequate, overloaded water and sewer systems, was most likely bacteria residing on the outside of the produce, or contaminated water or milk that happened to be ingested, rather than anything in the produce itself. Given the laxative effect of fruits and vegetables if consumed in excess, however, it is understandable that people assumed fresh produce might contribute to diseases with symptoms that included diarrhea. Moreover, in this era before the discovery of vitamins, most people felt that fruits and vegetables provided excessive bulk and roughage and contributed little in the way of nourishment helpful to infants.

Advice manuals of the mid-nineteenth century reflected, while attempting to modify, this prevailing ideology that regarded meats and cereals positively and fruits and vegetables with caution. "The growing creature requires food that contains the elements of the body ... food that abounds in albumen, fibrine, gelatine, and the earthy salts," Joseph B. Lyman and Laura E. Lyman informed readers in their 1867 guide. "What substances do we find richest in the constituents of perfect food? Flesh, milk, eggs and wheat bread." But, they noted, "there is in the minds of thousands of anxious mothers a great dread of fruits of all kinds as being dangerous for the young." Attempting to dispel these commonly held notions, the Lymans advised that the problem was children's consumption of fruits to excess, not the produce itself.


By the late nineteenth century, the industrialization of the food supply, along with increased advertising, had laid important groundwork for changing recommendations concerning infant care and feeding. Before 1900, most Americans' diets were fairly monotonous regimes of soups, stews, bread, dairy products, meat (fresh when available, salted, dried, or smoked when not), and fruits and vegetables (fresh in season or preserved through pickling, jams, or preserves, or through drying and some home canning). Improvements in stoves and kitchen devices made food preparation easier; iceboxes kept foods fresher. All, in many ways, made cooking a less arduous task for women.

Canned goods, especially canned produce, though commonly available in the late 1800s, were too expensive for most. By the 1920s, however, manufacturers produced canned goods in sufficient quantity to allow Americans to consume fruits and vegetables year-round. Americans' diets became more varied and their nutrition subsequently improved. As literacy rates increased and print media proliferated, private food companies looked to advertising firms to help sell their mass-produced food products.

Moreover, fin-de-siècle Americans turned increasingly to science as the most credible authority, particularly in matters of health and the human life cycle. An effect of this was the increased stature in society, whether self-generated or not, of the medical community. By the early twentieth century doctors supplanted midwives in delivering babies, who now entered the world more often in hospitals than in homes. Employing wet nurses, which had been a common practice among wealthier women, became less common as wet nursing, most often performed by poor women, immigrants, and women of color, became more stigmatized, and as safer breast milk alternatives, such as sterilized condensed milk, became available. Instead, during this "chemical period" in infant feeding, medical authorities took charge, partially by devising complicated "percentage" formulas only they could administer as breast milk replacements. As Rima Apple and others have amply shown, the result was the "medicalization of motherhood," or "scientific motherhood." Profoundly influenced by prevailing behaviorist theories of psychology, by the early twentieth century authorities advised that parenting instincts and common sense should take a backseat to science. Infants were to be fed on strict schedules, for example, and were not to be picked up when crying, which would only reward their negative behavior, experts told women.

Doctors and childcare experts still considered breastfeeding best, no doubt in part because of the high infant mortality rates occurring in the burgeoning cities that had limited access to fresh, clean cow's milk. Marion Mills Miller in 1910 advocated that "no other milk, however skillfully modulated, no 'infant's food,' however scientifically prepared," could fully replace mother's milk. But these experts often qualified their breastfeeding endorsements by explaining that they only applied if a woman's breast milk supply was adequate. In their 1920 manual, Martha Van Rensselaer, Flora Rose, and Helen Cannon, Cornell University home economists, gave recipes for artificial formula but called it "the next best thing" if a "baby cannot be fed by its own mother."

Yet as the medicalization of motherhood developed, child specialists offered more and more reasons why breastfeeding was inadequate. Improved technology helped artificial formulas and cow's milk to become regarded as a safer and more healthful alternative for infants. Optimistic faith in science required little reasoning about why formula feeding was equal to—if not better than—breast milk. Formula feeding was easier for doctors to measure and regulate, allowing them to tinker with the makeup of artificial formulas when necessary. Anxious mothers, losing confidence in their parenting abilities and common sense, wanted what was best for their babies and voluntarily relinquished their authority. Hospital deliveries that whisked babies away to the nursery fostered a sterile and awkward climate for mother-infant bonding and discouraged breastfeeding. Taking their cues from the medical community, home economics experts recommended not only that an infant's mouth be swabbed and rinsed with fresh water after every feeding but that a woman's breast be cleaned with a boric acid solution before and after nursing as well.


Excerpted from Inventing Baby Food by Amy Bentley. Copyright © 2014 Amy Bentley. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


Industrial Food,
Industrial Baby Food: The 1890s to the 1930s
2. Shifting Child-Rearing Philosophies and Early Solids: The Golden Age of Baby Food at Midcentury
Industrialization, Taste, and Their Discontents: The 1960s to the 1970s
4. Natural Food, Natural Motherhood, and the Turn toward Homemade: The 1970s to the 1990s
5. Reinventing Baby Food in the Twenty-First Century



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