The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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The 1924 School Lunch

October 12th, 2008 · 2 Comments


We offer here my talk on school lunches, from “Through the Blackboard.”  It’s stored on another page, so as not to clog the home page.  Happy reading!

(Posted by Doug Skinner)


We here at the Ullage Group have a continuing interest in the changing attitudes toward food.  Food — and all of the hoopla and cultural bunting around it — is one of the more telling barometers of a society.  Perhaps it’s because your regular eater doesn’t think that much while feeding, but just shovels it in, driven more by habit or convenience than by choice.  Or by association: mention a simple foodstuff like ham or tofu to a fellow citizen, and you will get back an avalanche of information about the culture wars.  My ex-wife, who came from the Lorraine, was perplexed by the American idea that “real men don’t eat quiche.”  Quiche also comes from the Lorraine, and for her it was just an egg dish everyone ate for lunch, and had nothing to do with masculine insecurity.

All of this cultural baggage changes from country to country, even from town to town.  And it has also changed over time.  One of the ideas we’ve kicked around is recreating a 1910 ladies’ lunch, with all its forgotten tea sandwiches, punches, croquettes, and hermits.  And so it was that my curiosity was quickened when I found a 1924 USDA pamphlet on school lunches.  What did they feed the kids back then?  How did they make it?  What did they think about it?  Kids’ lunches are, after all,  a crucial part of life.  We decided not to feed you a 1924 school lunch — for which you may later want to kiss us — But I will feed you some tidbits of data.

The pamphlet covers the nutritional needs of a child; and offers helpful governmental dogma on the home lunch, the basket lunch, and the lunch prepared at school.

The proper diet for a child under the age of twelve is laid out with reassuring precision.  To begin with, the major requirement is milk: a pint and a half a day.  To quote: “Such other protein-rich foods as eggs, meat, and cheese, are needed in very small quantities, if at all.”  A few vegetables or fruits provide minerals, and prevent constipation; they recommend lettuce, dandelions, beet and turnip tops, raisins, figs, tomatoes, and oranges.  Cereals are good for energy: bread shouldn’t have streaks in it, and mush shouldn’t be too salty or lumpy.  It’s also essential that a child consume two tablespoons of butter and two ounces of sugar every day.

Cleanliness is important.  Milk should come from healthy cows; and fruit should be picked from trees “far enough from the road to escape dust.”

There’s another intriguing note here: “Although vitamins have been only recently discovered and are not thoroughly understood, it is believed that three of them, known as vitamins A, B, and C, are necessary to health and growth.”  So, the jury is still out, but an occasional lemon wouldn’t hurt; they may prevent scurvy.

I have a few comments to insert at this point.  Beside the obvious changes in nutritional theory, these recommendations are obviously meant for rural and Anglo offspring.  Ethnic foods — including those now thoroughly mixed into the melting pot, like hamburgers, hot dogs, tacos, pizza, and pasta — were eaten by foreigners in big city ghettos.  Alos notable by their absence are the newer junk staples like chips, fries, and sodas.  It was all bland and simple; and, judging from the advice on milk and fruit, local, unprocessed, and unbranded.

There are sample menus, by the way.  Here’s one: vegetable and milk soup, zwieback, and rice with maple sugar and milk.  Here’s another: boiled potatoes, codfish gravy, bread and butter, lettuce, and custard.

If the little ones can’t skip home when the noon bell tolls, they can carry their lunch to school.  A metal box or pail is recommended, since they’re easier to hose down.  The food itself can be wrapped in paraffin or parchment paper; and the liquid fare can be dumped into glass jars.  You should select food that doesn’t spoil easily: a sample menu includes hard-boiled eggs, baking-powder biscuits, celery or radishes, and brown sugar or maple sugar sandwiches.

So many modern conveniences were yet to come: plastic wrap, aluminum foil, thermoses, and PVC lunchboxes embellished with muscular vigilantes in leotards.  Back then, you carried a bucket with jars in it.

We pass, then, to the lunch prepared and served at school.  It’s noted that the little urban students can buy their lunches from shops and pushcarts; but this is discouraged, since they’ll just stuff themselves on pickles and pies, and “other goodies of dubious quality.”  It’s better for them to sit down to a wholesome meal in the school.  Besides, their minds are receptive to education there, and they’ll enjoy learning about a proper diet.  You know how kids are.

The pamphlet doesn’t pay much attention to the city schools, but lingers lovingly over the special problems of the rural school.  For there, often all one had to work with was a one-room schoolhouse, with one teacher, and no kitchen.  Lunch had to be made on the same stove that heated the classroom.  There was no staff: it was prepared by the older girls and served to the others at their desks.  The windows, as the USDA helpfully explains, should be screened to keep out flies.  On nice days, if the vermin are sparse, maybe everyone could eat outside.  Plates, cups, and utensils could be brought from home.  Water was usually hauled up from surface wells, and so should be boiled thoroughly.

Given the limitations, there weren’t many options.  The menu was whatever fit into a pot on the stove.  The recipes given are mostly plain milk soups: pea, tomato, potato, corn, bean, spinach.  The oddest combo is peanut butter and tomato.  Rice cooked in milk was another staple: you added tomato sauce for an entree, and fruit or maple syrup for dessert.

The economic setup was also basic.  Lunch was paid for either by charging the students, or by having them put on “an entertainment.”  Or both.  Taxes, unions, and boards of health or education are never broached.  Perhaps if they were, the children would have had better lunches.  I only hope none of the little devils was seriously lactose intolerant.

But even as I mull over the details, I’m aware that a couple of bells go off, unbidden, in my brain.  They’re probably unavoidable in this kind of cultural archeology.  One is nostalgia: oh, it was all so much better before we screwed it up.  Another is superiority: let’s laugh at the stupid old folks who didn’t know anything.  Often we combine the two, looking back through rose-colored arrogance.

It’s smarter, perhaps, to simply note that we never change much; we continue to be a band of confused apes making do with what we have.  We can always learn from the past, since previous generations were just as smart as us, and came up with good ideas.  And it’s useful to remember that in another eighty years, all of our latest bells and whistle-pods will seem just as quaint as those buckets of gruel and turnip-tops.  And the details that will be the most intriguing will be the ones that are such a part of us that we don’t even notice them.

(Posted by Doug Skinner)


Tags: Ancient History · Dietary Mores · Education · Ephemera

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mamie // Oct 15, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    Wow! Where did you find this cool book?

  • 2 Gail // Dec 31, 2008 at 9:08 am

    It’s very interesting. It actually seems quite sound and sensible to me. (I like the idea of butter and sugar every day and especially like the idea of maple sugar sandwiches.) and kids weren’t obese like they are these days with processed foods and an overload of protein.

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