I recently read the book, How the Other Half Ate: A History of Working Class Meals at the Turn of the Century, and attended a talk by the author, Katherine Leonard Turner. As someone who is interested in what we eat and why, as well as being a history geek, I found the topic enlightening, but not in the ways I might have first imagined. I approached the book with the romantic notion that at the turn of the 19th century most women cooked everything from scratch and that this knowledge of how to cook helped working class families survive with meager resources. What I discovered upon reading the book was that this notion was not the reality at all, especially in urban areas. The situation for working class families at the turn of the 19th century was not unlike that of those struggling to get by today. How the working class ate and society’s response to their eating habits was also remarkably similar to the eating patterns of the food insecure and attitudes of today toward those patterns.
At the turn of the 19th century most women of the working class were not homemakers, particularly in an urban setting. They were working. If they were not working in a factory, they were doing piecework in their home. The money they earned from their work was necessary to help maintain their families’ subsistence. Consequently, they lacked the time required to cook meals which required several hours of preparation. Additionally, many of these households lacked items needed to prepare meals from scratch. Some households lacked the necessary cooking implements, while others lacked the money for the food itself or the fuel with which to cook the food.
The lack of time and resources these women and their families experienced caused them to turn to alternative ways to feed themselves and their families. Working class families at the turn of the 19th century ate a surprisingly large amount of their meals outside of the home. Family members who worked in factories often purchased the equivalent of today’s fast food from a pushcart or went to a local pub, where for a nickel beer they could get a free lunch. Not only did families eat food prepared outside the home, but they rarely ate together, due to the varied work schedules of all the working family members.
Similarly, the social reformers of the late 19th/early 20th century held some of the same opinions voiced today with regard to the plight of these working class families. They believed that wives and mothers in these households were neglecting their families by not cooking and allowing their family members to rely on cheaper food prepared by someone else. They counseled these women to spend a few more hours a day cooking and cleaning, suggesting that this time and effort was the key element needed to improve their family’s situation.
These women were cast as the cause of their families’ dire situation by some, instead of examining closely their actual situations. Working was a necessity for these women just so that they could help keep their family clothed, fed and housed. They and their family members ate food prepared by others because it was either cheaper or these women lacked the luxury of time, cooking implements, fuel or the food to cook, not because these women were lazy or did not care about their families. I hear strains of this sentiment today, when members of society blame those who are food insecure for their situation. These people who are struggling to feed their families are often castigated for not cooking and relying on fast food or prepackaged, processed foods.
What is missing from society’s assessment of those who are food insecure, both today and in the past, is a careful examination of the actual circumstances of the lives of these groups of people. When one does that, what becomes evident it that most of them are and were working very hard, being paid very little and making difficult decisions about how to feed their families with the limited resources available to them. Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.