Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America

Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America

by Ann Folino White


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During the Great Depression, with thousands on bread lines, farmers were instructed by the New Deal Agricultural Adjustment Act to produce less food in order to stabilize food prices and restore the market economy. Fruit was left to rot on trees, crops were plowed under, and millions of piglets and sows were slaughtered and discarded. Many Americans saw the government action as a senseless waste of food that left the hungry to starve, initiating public protests against food and farm policy. White approaches these events as performances where competing notions of morality and citizenship were acted out, often along lines marked by class, race, and gender. The actions range from the "Milk War" that pitted National Guardsmen against dairymen, who were dumping milk, to the meat boycott staged by Polish-American women in Michigan, and from the black sharecroppers’ protest to restore agricultural jobs in Missouri to the protest theater of the Federal Theater Project. White provides a riveting account of the theatrical strategies used by consumers, farmers, agricultural laborers, and the federal government to negotiate competing rights to food and the moral contradictions of capitalist society in times of economic crisis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253015372
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 12/09/2014
Pages: 322
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ann Folino White is Head of Theatre Studies in the Department of Theatre at Michigan State University.

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Plowed Under

Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America

By Ann Folino White

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Ann Folino White
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01540-2


The New Deal Vision for Agriculture

USDA Exhibits at the 1933–34 Chicago World's Fair

At the end of the first season of the 1933 century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, C. W. Warburton, director of extension work, sent a memorandum to Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace regarding the monetary costs and political benefits of the USDA's participation in a second fair season. Warburton stated that altering a number of exhibits to display the AAA's positive effects, for an estimated $15,000, was of "transcendent importance" because "the vast potential audience ... warrants utilization of the opportunity to put before those millions of visitors a visual explanation of the Administration's program of agricultural adjustment." Many federal employees agreed with Warburton. Believing in the power of performance, they embedded culturally significant foods in theatrical scenes to cast fairgoers in a story that praised New Deal-style capitalism as the connection between farmers and consumers.

Public opinion about the AAA was by no means settled when the World's Fair opened on May 27, 1933. President Roosevelt had signed the AAA only two weeks prior; the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool strike against the AAA had just occupied headlines; and, while other farmer organizations publicly endorsed the legislation, consumers had not yet felt its effects. The controversy about the emergency Corn-Hog program would emerge in the summer and be full blown by the end of the fair's first season in November. Given the AAA's emergent status, the USDA exhibits presented and modified throughout the course of the fair's two seasons (May 27–November 12, 1933; and May 26–October 31, 1934) appear variously as advertising, a preemptive strike, and a counternarrative, rather than an authoritative account of the AAA.

The USDA exhibits staged an experience of America restored to social and economic stability, and visitors responded: exhibits featuring food items were some of the most engaging to audiences. As a result of the public's interest, many installations used at the 1933–34 Century of Progress were converted into touring exhibits. Some served as the basis for display design at the 1939–40 New York World's Fair and 1940 San Francisco World's Fair and were even reused at these venues specifically to promote the AAA.

This chapter considers the Chicago World's Fair's relationship to the AAA: the fair's spectacular consumerist atmosphere, its focus on "progress," the racial and gender dynamics in its displays, and the promise of the New Deal that framed it. USDA exhibits at the fair, and those that the department cosponsored, used theatrical devices to persuade visitors of the AAA's morality. In particular, staging techniques elevated ordinary food to the status of cultural artifact to cue fairgoers to take an active role in exhibits and perform as "ideal" Americans enjoying their "right" to plenty.

In the USDA exhibits, as well as those of the dairy, and meat and livestock industries that the USDA cosponsored, the fair's theme of "progress" presented an improved quality of life for American consumers. At one level, the emphasis on consumer interests in these agricultural exhibits relates to the nation's transition to a consumer economy and the growing political power of consumers. At another, it speaks to exhibitors' hopes that food's power to engage spectators viscerally would garner support for the New Deal's experimental agricultural programs. Thus, these exhibits blurred the distinction between performances that "make belief" or "create the very social realities they enact" (that is, performances of everyday life) and performances that are "make-believe" where "the distinction between what's real and what's pretended is kept clear" (that is, theatrical performance). The exhibits were performative in their presentation of "ideal" citizens as white farmers and consumers, and in their reinforcement of "appropriate" appetites, attitudes, and roles for these Americans. Their aim was to induce fairgoers to act in accordance with and, in some cases, act out the beliefs and the behaviors that the exhibits promoted. By staging a view of a positive future (an inherently imaginative and theatrical endeavor), the USDA also tried to generate belief in imminent plenty under the New Deal.

The World's Fair in the Context of Economic Depression and the New Deal

In People of Plenty, David M. Potter introduces the predominant concept of America as a bountiful nation, unparalleled in its richness of resources and opportunities, quipping that "quotations [exalting American abundance] could be multiplied almost to infinity." Potter credits widespread abundance with producing the expectation of a high standard of living for any American who avails himself of the "opportunity to make his own place in society." "Plenty," in its related senses of quantity, choice, and access for all, connoted both entitlement to a particular lifestyle and the reward reaped by productive citizens. Indeed, in his inaugural address, on March 4, 1933, Roosevelt evoked the biblical proportions of America's "plenty": "We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply."

The spectacle of the Chicago World's Fair, along with America's political and social situation during the year it opened, supported the New Deal as the government that would return America to its "natural" state of plenty. Burton Benedict's classic anthropological study of world's fairs documents the standard use of "gigantism" and "monumentality" by host nations to "impress rivals and the public." By design—displaying the best of a nation's culture, technology, and products on an epic scale —world's fairs breed nationalist sentiment in citizens and admiration in foreigners. Chicago's three miles of massive, multicolored structures fit the type, physically engulfing attendees in festivity. But spectacle impacts spectators on multiple levels, as museum studies scholar Eilean Hooper-Greenhill notes: "Embodied responses are influenced by the scale of things. Cognitive and emotional responses to objects are affected in subtle ways by their size in relation to our own body size." Newsweek described this fair's architecture as the "Triumph of the Modernists," whose "sweep of naked lines, of daring planes" contributed to "a new rhythm ... deriving from the rhythm of the machine," signaling American achievements and innovations. Parents could leave their children with "trained attendants" on the Enchanted Island, playing in the Magic Maze, enjoying pony rides, slides, or the miniature railroad, while they enjoyed entertainment on the Midway, visited various exhibits or took an aerial tour 210 feet above the exposition on the Sky Ride. The fair offered visitors both a visual and embodied experience of a world of plenty.

Typical of world's fairs, food was everywhere at the Century of Progress. Approximately eighty food and beverage booths, as well as restaurants and food samples in commercial, educational, national, and cultural exhibits, pervaded the exposition. Exhibits sponsored by individual states used food to emphasize the state's unique contributions to the nation. Among the many exhibits in the Food and Agricultural Building, a 1933 season-long "egg-laying derby" featured prize hens from twenty-eight states, Canada, and four foreign nations. The National Biscuit Company showed the making of shredded wheat; W. F. Straub Laboratories demonstrated how Lake Shore Brand honey turns ordinary cereal into desserts. From their on-site bottling plant, Coca Cola sold six million drinks in 1933. The smells, sights, and availability of food emphasized America as the land of plenty. Meanwhile, visitors exercised the American imperialist prerogative as they smelled, tasted, heard, and felt the "other" in the foreign villages and on the Midway. Belgium, England, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Switzerland, and Spain contributed villages. There was also an "Oriental village." Food enabled visitors to taste the exotic; foreign villages offered native cuisines in which the "gastronomic adventurer [found] himself in his glory." Thus, fairgoers actually experienced the American promise of opportunity and freedom of choice.

Not only did the fair's structure and opportunities promote optimism, the homogeneity of the audience—predominantly white Americans—may have also inspired a sense of collectivity. Because of the effects of the Great Depression on Europe, there were fewer than typical international exhibitors and negligible international attendance; indeed, of the 4 percent of registered foreign visitors, roughly 37 percent were from Canada. These factors resulted in an overtly American fair.

Americans came from across the country to take part in the spectacle. The Century of Progress Commission estimated that, while roughly 80 percent of the 1933 attendees came from outside Chicago, Chicagoans repeatedly visited the fair, constituting five million paid admissions during the first season. Admissions to both seasons of the fair totaled 48,441,927; of this number, only 20 percent (approximately 9.7 million people) were given free admissions. Still, not all Americans could partake of the bounty. The fifty-cent adult admission, about three times the price of a movie ticket, would have excluded most impoverished citizens. In addition, racism limited attendance by African Americans, thus removing these citizens in large measure from the narrative of food and citizenship. The New Deal vision of the nation operated in this context, performing its promise of plenty to the citizens it included and believed were necessary to restoring plenty.

Exhibits presented images of white men, women, and families as the inheritors of the last century of American progress, while other exhibits reinforced racial hierarchies among American citizens by deploying stereotypes. World's fair historian Robert Rydell describes the racialized and exploitative displays: "the expositions, and especially the midways, gave millions of Americans first-hand experience with treating nonwhites from around the world as commodities." Thus, the exhibits—presentations of national and white superiority—and the absence of African Americans and the poor as visitors to the fair constituted white Americans as the body politic.

Despite the reality, fairgoers shared a collective sense of having endured extreme hardship, and this allowed the federal government to promote the New Deal as a benefit to all Americans, regardless of race or class. Visitors entered the fair as citizens of a nation in transition with a newly elected president and the promise of a better tomorrow. By the time the fair opened in mid-1933, legislative bustle during Roosevelt's "first hundred days' fury" had been producing quick results: the National Recovery Administration (NRA) was credited with increasing wages for urban workers, the Home Owners' Loan Act slowed the tide of foreclosures, and the Federal Emergency Relief Act infused the states with much-needed federal monies. Early in the first season of the Century of Progress, federal intervention seemed to promise a positive resolution of the "paradox of want amid plenty."

Perhaps it was only serendipity, but the fair's theme of "the services of science to humanity" during the past century provided an ideal venue for showcasing the new administration's plan for America. Federal participation in the fair had been approved in February 1932, so Hoover administration officials had started exhibit design. However, the Roosevelt administration's dedication of "this triumph over the depression" during opening day events couched the Century of Progress's manifest grandeur, festivity, and modernity as belonging to the New Deal. On opening day, the Chicago Daily Tribune's front page featured a cartoon that typified the hope the Chicago World's Fair offered to U.S. citizens. Titled "A Perfect Setting for a Great National Jubilee," it shows towers of light illuminating the buildings that line Lake Michigan's shore. Hearing fairgoers' jubilations, Uncle Sam, afloat in a makeshift raft, waves his iconic top hat and exclaims, "They must be expectin' me!" The words "America's Comeback after Three Years of Depression," printed on the base of the raft, reiterated the new era of prosperity that the Century of Progress foretold. Ironically, the economic crisis offered an advantage by lowering expectations among fairgoers. Rufus Dawes, president of the Century of Progress, wrote that "there was a freedom from extravagant expectations on the part of the public due to the Depression.... A result of this was that the Exposition, when opened, so far exceeded the expectations of the public, even in Chicago." In its totality, the Century of Progress depicted the Great Depression as a blip in American history, which would be resolved shortly through the combined operations of mass consumption, technological innovation, corporate enterprise, and the New Deal.

Corporations too were a vital presence at the fair; they exhibited advances in production efficiencies and safety as well as a throng of products—edible and otherwise—designed to improve Americans' lives. Through mass production, Americans had become accustomed to and expected choice as their right. As anthropologist Sidney Mintz argues, choice is a central component of identity in U.S. consumer culture: "Exercise of choice heightens the illusion of individuality.... But this individuality is conditioned by the postulation of a 'group,' membership which is attainable among other things by certain consumptions." Throughout the fair, corporate exhibits replaced "hooverizing"—substituting a less desirable product for a better one—with consumer choice, reinforcing the New Deal's restoration of plenty.

Many of the technological exhibits theatricalized women's work in an attempt to get white America to buy labor-saving products. While Quaker Oats featured "Aunt Jemima" making pancakes and singing "traditional" plantation songs, other exhibits in the Food and Agriculture Building demonstrated "accomplishments in commercial cookery that have changed woman's old sunrise-to-sun-up lot to a far happier and richer one." Kraft presented its new mayonnaise as a liberation from home cooking, and Heinz showed how its canning methods alleviated tedious work. These exhibits stressed that mass production eased white women's household labor. Black women, however, were still in the kitchen. Through the mammy stereotype of "Aunt Jemima," who performed in a rustic cabin scene, Quaker Oats implied that white women could provide the comfort of "home-cooking" for husbands and children by simply buying a ready-made product. On the other hand, the corporation represented African American women as domestic cooks, content to labor for white people in white kitchens from "sunrise-to-sun-up," completing the objectification and dehumanization of the black female subject in a curvaceous bottle of syrup. Representations that minimized the physical labor involved in domesticity were appeals to both rural and urban white women, who spent between one-third and one-half of each day fulfilling meal-related tasks. Rural women who had the means purchased processed food from mail-order catalogues; these foods were marketed to farm women as not only easing labor but as fashionable products used by urbanites. In her editorial on the Agriculture and Foods building, Mrs. Lois Johnson Hurley attested to the appeal of the food exhibits: they are "the high spot of woman's interest at the Fair." After all, "What [is] more interesting to a woman than food, its production and preparation?"

As a marketing tactic, the promise of a more leisurely life was aimed at other consumers besides white women; exhibits at world's fairs throughout the 1930s, and in the decade's advertising in general, also showed the benefits for the men of the house. A housewife's emotional support of and attractiveness to her husband apparently mattered more than how hard she worked to create a nurturing home. The comeliness of women performers in corporate food exhibits tied the ease of labor to feminine beauty and charm. A press release for the Wilson & Co.'s "bacon pit" typifies how food corporations glamorized mass food production:

Stunning blondes and brunettes, to the number 42—equally divided—all busily engaged in wrapping and packing bacon for the consumer.... Federal inspectors supervise the work of the girls, which consists of preparing 5,000 pounds of certified sliced bacon daily, the task being directed by a superintendent and four skilled male aides. Striking uniforms adorn the girls in this department. They are resplendent in white linen frocks with French red plaid lapels and cuffs and berets are white, tipped with red.


Excerpted from Plowed Under by Ann Folino White. Copyright © 2015 Ann Folino White. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University 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

1. The New Deal Vision for Agriculture: USDA Exhibits at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair
2. Milk Dumping Across America’s Dairyland: The May 1933 Wisconsin Dairymen’s Strike
3. Playing "Housewife" in an Urban Polonia: The Hamtramck (Mich.) Women’s 1935 Meat Boycott
4. Hunger on the Highway in the Cotton South: The 1939 Missouri Sharecroppers’ Demonstration
5. Staging the Agricultural Adjustment Act: The Federal Theatre Project’s Triple-A Plowed Under (1936)

What People are Saying About This

author of Building a Housewife's Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twen - Tracey Deutsch

This fascinating book speaks to the centrality of food in the New Deal and reframes food politics as a venue for cultural activism.

author of Simming: Participatory Performance and the Making of Meaning - Scott Magelssen

An engaging book that tells a fascinating and compelling story.

author of The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study - Barry B. Witham

In this fascinating and rigorous study, Ann Folino White focuses on the agricultural crisis of the 1930s—particularly the New Deal AAA legislation—illustrating how American citizens performed their opposition in demonstrations, strikes, and living newspapers. Her cultural read of these performances illuminates how commodities like milk and beef became the political battleground for the expression of citizenship in the face of policy which sanctioned waste while people went hungry. White's thesis is principally moral: is the right to food implicit in the concept of citizenship, especially for farmers, consumers and landless laborers? Her answers are imaginative and compelling.

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