Healthy diets, the 1910 way.

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As you have probably read on other pages of this blog, my starting point for investigations into housekeeping practices and their effect on family wellbeing started with a series of home management books produced for schools in 1910, written by Wilena Hitching (previously a headmistress and school inspector). These books were designed to give a thorough, almost scientific introduction to the study of housekeeping to girls between the ages of about 11-14, with a view to preparing them for lives as wives and mothers. While some of the advice she gave sounds dated today, most of it has surprisingly significant relevance for men and women a hundred years later, particularly in times of financial constraint. My focus today will be what Miss Hitching considered to be a healthy diet for families, viewed through a 21st century lens.

Breakfast options (served at 8am)

Porridge

Bread crusts soaked in warm milk

Brown bread and butter and an egg

Bacon

Smoked Finnan haddock

Hot milk for children

Cocoa for adults

Most of these are high in fibre and protein, with very little sugar evident and comparatively little fat (with the exception of the bacon). This is clearly an idealised diet – Miss Hitching does permit the drinking of tea and coffee, but regards it as somewhat stimulating and less preferable than cocoa.

Luncheon (which took place mid-morning, around 10.30 am, and was really for children)

Hot milk and a biscuit

Brown bread and butter and a banana

Dinner options (which took place in the middle of the day, around 1pm). A good housekeeper would prepare a two or three course meal, depending on the weather and the type of work family members were engaging in.

Pea soup

Lentil soup

Haricot soup

Roast meats, leftovers minced or served in shepherd’s pie (for example)

Chops or steaks

Offal

Poached fish

Vegetables

Potatoes

Savoury Yorkshire pudding (served alongside roast meats or before the meal with gravy as a kind of appetiser)

Savoury or sweet suet puddings, such as steak and kidney pudding or jam roly poly (but not both in the same meal!)

Macaroni or rice pudding

Stewed fruit and custard

These are high protein meals, comparatively high in saturated fat, but the amount of sugar used in the desserts is comparatively low – a teaspoon of sugar here, a little bit of jam there. There is ample use of fruit, vegetables and pulses, simply prepared, meaning the meals are comparatively high in fibre as well.

Tea (served mid-afternoon, around 4pm; again, mainly aimed at children)

Bread and butter

Watercress, lettuce or radishes

Stewed fruit (apples, rhubarb, prunes, etc)

Once again, this is a high fibre meal with more fruit and vegetables, designed to maximise satiety (feeling of fullness). Watercress is packed full of vitamins, iron and other minerals, representing a kind of Edwardian superfood.

Supper (served before bed, around 7pm) – one or more of the following might be served.

Bread and butter or bread and dripping

Hot milk

Porridge

Boiled onions

Cream crackers, butter and cheese

Simple fare, and perhaps less extensive that in modern times for the time of day. This is presumably because the bulk of the calories needed was taken in during breakfast and lunch, and the family had had the opportunity to gather together for a hot meal during the middle of the day as well. The need to give the stomach a rest from meat overnight is emphasised in Miss Hitching’s book.

I look at all this food, and wonder whether personally I could plough my way through all of this every day, even taking out the ‘luncheon’ and ‘tea’ on the basis of not being a growing child. It is also intriguing to wonder what might happen to the body, were we to start eating like this regularly. Given that the calorific intake is probably higher than we are used to today, would we end up fatter? Or would the simple nature of the food allow our bodies to process the fats and sugars more effectively than we tend to now, leading to fewer metabolic problems such as diabetes and obesity. I think I have an inkling as to the answer, when I think about rationing that was to come thirty years later during World War II, which involved a diet not too far removed from what we are seeing in this 1910 list, albeit with less meat. This led to an improvement in the nation’s health, so perhaps the answers to the obesity epidemic lie in what our grandmothers already knew about choosing food for the family?

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2 thoughts on “Healthy diets, the 1910 way.

    Garlic said:
    5 October, 2011 at 9:30 am

    People in 1910 did a huge amount of manual labour, having cycled to work if they needed to travel. They needed stacks of carbs for a working day – even children would have walked to school, often several miles, and would work in the home afterwards. As you say, fats and starches provide a steadier flow of energy than sugar.

    I suspect it would be healthier, even with our sedentary lifestyle, to eat the bigger meals during the day and have only supper at night.

    Interesting stuff!

      Sandra Bradley responded:
      14 November, 2011 at 9:58 am

      I think this is meant to be the point of offering hot school dinners, but this is undermined by the fact most people do not work in factories with subsidised canteens any more, so many adults are fat but malnourished as they try to fill up with easy snacks to achieve a feeling of satiety. Even in my day job I struggle to pay for a hot lunch in our staff dining room – at about £7 a day for what I really need to be eating, it more than doubles my food budget for the week and is out of proportion to what it ought to be costing, Compare this to the menu for workers at Cadbury’s in about 1910 – an extensive menu of nutritionally based foodstuffs heavily subsidised by the employer and aimed at keeping the workforce in peak physical condition (they also provided sporting facilities and basic health care, before National Insurance came in in 1911). Plus they provided housing with space for allotments, so workers could enjoy the benefits of growing their own fresh fruit and vegetables. Even though we know this Quaker-influenced provision works as a business model, we have chosen to ignore this kind of benign paternalism in favour of a much more streamlined, depersonalised approach. We see the outcome of that in the national obesity crisis, amongst other things.

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