Eating Right in 1950s Educational Films

By Jonathan MacDonald

There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything, or so argued the creators of Coronet Instructional Films. In their mission to educate American youth in the post-World War II decade, the Coronet film catalog made sure that children and teenagers knew the steps to right living. In their filmography, one can find ten-minute fictional prescriptive films produced on seemingly any topic of concern to the young student: family relationships, school, social life, dating, exercise and hygiene, and food and diet. Beyond their kitsch value, Coronet’s films (and those of their contemporaries) offer scholars a rich source on the ideological dimensions of public education in the immediate postwar decade.

After decades of social instability caused by rapid urbanization, economic depression, and war, proponents of “Life Adjustment Education” believed that the key to new social stability and economic prosperity was education. These Life Adjusters were ready with two intellectual tools to remake American education. In one hand was their reading of American pragmatic philosopher John Dewey’s (1859-1952) writings on progressive education; in the other was the latest psychological research into the developing minds of children and adolescents. Life adjusters sought to educate “the whole child,” including that child’s physical and social needs. This tradition began to fizzle after Brown v Board of Education (1954) and Sputnik (1957) brought national urgency to issues like racial justice and scientific literacy.

Art's mother brings breakfast to the table. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.
Art’s mother brings breakfast to the table. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.

Coronet produced the bulk of their filmography from 1947-1953. During this time, their staff researchers drew from life adjustment discourses while writing film scripts and corresponding with educational collaborators. Together, filmmakers and educators produced many dozens of films that offered direct advice to their young viewers.

Art's poor dietary habits separate him from his peers. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.
Art’s poor dietary habits separate him from his peers. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.

The Food that Builds Good Health is a 1951 film that excellently depicts the concerns of life adjustment educators. Intended for elementary school children, the film’s main subject is a young boy named Arthur (Art) Baker who “is pale and underweight [and] doesn’t have much energy.” As an off-screen narrator explains the importance of good diet, viewers watch a day in the life of Art. He begins his morning by barely touching his home-cooked breakfast. Next, he watches from the sidelines as his classmates play at recess, each “full of vigor and vitality, cheerful smiles bright eyes, [with] strong and husky bodies.” Art, on the other hand, simply cannot keep up. Thankfully, science class helps Art figure out why his health lags behind that of his peers. As an experiment, Art’s science teacher feeds two pet guinea pigs different diets. One is healthy and energetic due to his balanced diet; the other is lethargic, with greasy, matted fur.

Art considers the diets of the class guinea pigs. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.
Art considers the diets of the class guinea pigs. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.

After feeding time with the classroom pets is over, Art’s teacher leads the class in an explanation of food and diet. Viewers learn that proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water are all important in the body’s growth, repair, energy, and regulation. And to get these healthful nutrients, it is explained, one must eat foods from across the spectrum of food groups: “milk; vegetables; fruits; eggs; meat, cheese, or fish; cereal or bread; butter or margarine.” The narrator continues, “It’s up to you…if you do eat the right foods regularly, your body will get all the materials it needs for good health.” The latter half of the film shows Art take this message to heart, as he helps his mother with the grocery shopping and commits to “eating a good helping of everything from the table,” even the foods he does not like. The final scene shows Art, now healthy and energetic, preparing to play baseball with his classmates.

The building blocks of good health. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.
The building blocks of good health. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.

Life Adjustment Educators inherited the paternalism of their progressive-era forebears and were often deeply skeptical of the home-lives of America’s schoolchildren. Health and diet were not idle concerns for educators in the postwar decade. General Education in a Free Society, a 1945 Harvard report to the United States government on schooling, worried that for the nation’s youth, “the elementary facts about diet, rest, exercise…will have to be learned away from home if they are to be learned at all” (p. 174). Harl R. Douglass, a life adjustment educator and sometimes collaborator with Coronet went further, saying that if “children [could] be taught sound health and nutritional practices… they in turn become powerful persuaders in carrying the instruction into the home and thus changing family practices.”[1]

“Art is not so fond of tomatoes, but if they help make us healthy, he’s willing to eat them. And who knows, he’ll probably grow to like them.” Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.
“Art is not so fond of tomatoes, but if they help make us healthy, he’s willing to eat them. And who knows, he’ll probably grow to like them.” Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.

The Food that Builds Good Health works in the grey area between familial authority and school authority. The film is careful not to contradict the parental prerogative: Art gets all of the food that he needs at home, he simply refuses to eat it. His picky eating and subsequent “malnourishment” is a habit that his hapless parents have allowed to develop. Thankfully, the school is able to step in and correct Art’s behavior through rational persuasion: stating the facts. Armed with these facts, Art takes his health (and his life) into his own hands, much to his mother’s delight — and all in the space of ten minutes.


[1] Harl R. Douglass, ed., The High School Curriculum (The Ronald Book Company, New York, 1947), p. 173.

Jonathan MacDonald is the Project Coordinator for Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library. He holds a M.A. in History from Virginia Tech, where he completed a thesis on the social-scientific roots of mid-twentieth century American educational films.

Around the Table: Introductions

Editor’s Note: In this post, we’re delighted to welcome one of our new editors, Sarah Peters Kernan. Sarah completed her Ph.D. in History at the Ohio State University, with a dissertation entitled, “For all them that delight in Cookery”: The Production and Use of Cookery Books in England, 1300–1600, and she’s now working as an independent scholar. Here, Sarah describes some of the new ideas and activities she’ll be bringing to the RP. –AH

A doctor taking the pulse of a woman patient, seated at a table. Watercolour by Zhou Pei Qun, ca. 1890, courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
A doctor taking the pulse of a woman patient, seated at a table. Watercolour by Zhou Pei Qun, ca. 1890, courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

By Sarah Peters Kernan

As the Recipes Project begins a new year, we also begin a new series focused on our blog community. I recently joined the Recipes Project’s editorial team, and during my initial conversations with the other editors, I mentioned the many ways in which this blog has been important in my scholarly development. Throughout the final years of my graduate training and now, in my early career as an independent scholar, the Recipes Project has not only provided an outlet for writing and developing ideas, but a venue for connecting with other researchers and authors. I began meeting other contributors and readers at many conferences and seminars I have attended. While organizing conference sessions, I contacted potential presenters after perusing their posts on related topics. I have learned about new resources and methods from the diverse group of contributors. And, most importantly, the personal connections that I have made through the site have led to exciting conversations, ideas, projects, and even friendships. I value these ideas and relations all the more, because I have worked away from an academic home for a few years. I completed my dissertation hundreds of miles away from my university and am now working as an independent scholar. So despite being a virtual and international community, the Recipes Project has become a place to which I return often, frequently reading and occasionally contributing. My experiences appealed to the editors, and we decided to try strengthening this sense of community among our readership. Many of you have had similar connections because of the blog; it is now my job to facilitate even more of this.

Each month, I will highlight a different part of the Recipes Project community in the new series, Around the Table. The idea of any community joining together around a table is a powerful one; when we work together sorting through the issues surrounding historic recipes research, we can unearth so much more, as well as enjoy time with our colleagues. No matter what kind of table we encounter in our work and research—be it kitchen, craft, lab, or surgical—we can all learn from others around us. The editors know that our readers have many interests, careers, and uses for the blog. Hopefully this series serves as a catalyst for meeting other readers and contributors in person, collaborating on future projects, and confidently contacting others when you have questions about research, teaching, publishing, recipe re-creation, and more. Occasionally, I will revive the type of content found in past series, like First Monday Library Chats. In other posts, I will share conversations with curators, publishers, podcasters, and other scholars. You will find out what is going on in our fields at conferences and sharing in congratulations of our contributors with new jobs and completed degrees. As we all begin to know each other a bit more, it is my hope that you, too, will turn to the Recipes Project when you need to find a person, project, or idea.

In order to do all of this, I need your help! I encourage you to reach out to the Recipes Project through social media. We are active on Twitter and Facebook; let us all know when you have completed a degree, secured a new job, or won a major fellowship or award. Tell us about new job posts related to recipes, calls for papers, exhibition announcements, historical meal re-creations, and more. Please also share the conferences you are planning to attend. Just remember to use #historecipes so we can easily track your announcements; if you have shared your news or conferences, I may even contact you when working on certain posts in this series focused on topics like conference roundups and contributor accomplishments. You may, of course, also email the Recipes Project if you would prefer not to use social media. From time to time, the Recipes Project will use social media to organize informal cocktail hours and meetups at conferences, when we know many contributors and readers will be there. These informal gatherings may be infrequent for now, but it is our hope that these meetings will be a source of community and conviviality for those who can join us.

I look forward to hearing from you all and I am excited to share more about our wonderful Recipes Project community next month Around the Table!

Introducing the UG series

By Laurence Totelin

For the last five years, the Recipes Project has been running an annual September Teaching series. That series has proven extremely successful, and the blog is now a mine of resources for any teacher in search of inspiration. Repeatedly, posts published as part of the series have demonstrated the extraordinary pedagogical power of historical recipes, as texts or as interface between the written and the material.

Parallel to this, fostering the career of younger scholars has always been part of the Recipes Project’s mission. It has published — and continues to publish — the work of MA and PhD students, some of whom have now settled into their careers, academic or otherwise.

Inspired by my own experience as a contributor and editor of the Recipes Project, in the academic year 2015/16, I decided to incorporate blogging into the assessment of my Cardiff University UG module on Greek and Roman Medicine. I was overwhelmed by the quality of the work of my students. Most of them had neither studied ancient medicine nor blogged before, but they took on both challenges! They inspired me to push myself further as a teacher. 


Advert for poducts of the Pharmacie Centrale de France representing a professor teaching pharmacy to students in mid-16th century Paris. Colour lithograph, after 1889. Source: Wellcome Images

They also sowed a seed in my mind: what about starting an undergraduate series for the Recipes Project? So, this month, for the first time, we are showcasing the fabulous work of  four undergraduate students: Joanna Cunningham, Allison Shichen Du, Eboni John, and Hazel Lunn.

We hope that our readers will enjoy their work. We also hope that those readers with teaching responsibilities will consider encouraging their UG students to blog and share their fresh insights into historical recipes.


Teaching Resource Round-Up!

Jess Clark

In 2017, the academic journal Global Food History published a roundtable on “Teaching Food History.” Participants, including one of this month’s contributors Jeffrey Pilcher, described the exciting outcomes and periodic challenges of developing food history courses. This includes the use of recipes in the classrooms as a means to consider silences in the archives; grapple with questions of material history; and to think about (and experience) issues around labor, production, and supply.[1]

"Food Administration - Education - Teaching food conservation in canning in Western Nebraska," 1917-1918, National Archives at College Park, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“Food Administration – Education – Teaching food conservation in canning in Western Nebraska,” 1917-1918, National Archives at College Park, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All through the month, we’ve had the pleasure of extending these conversations, featuring different approaches to teaching with recipes. As our contributors have shown, recipes represent an exciting and accessible form that encourages students to think in new ways about reading practices, but also histories of class, gender, and global exchange.

This month’s Series means that we now have some 24 posts on teaching available on the site. In this final post of September 2018, we’ve listed these resources for our readers, categorized by approach and topic. Some of them date to 2014, when Amanda Herbert first launched the Series. We hope this makes our teaching resources even more accessible for educators and will encourage the use of recipes in the classroom. And, as always, we want to hear from you about how you use recipes in the classroom! Please join us in the Comments section to continue the conversation.

Foods and Cookery laboratory, School of Household Art, Teachers' College, Columbia University, 1910-20. From Collection #23-2-749, item M-OS-08. Cornell University Library. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.
Foods and Cookery laboratory, School of Household Art, Teachers’ College, Columbia University, 1910-20. From Collection #23-2-749, item M-OS-08. Cornell University Library. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

 

Recreating Recipes

Understanding Recipes

 National Approaches

Online Approaches

Recipes in the Public: Exhibits, Objects, and Living History

Transcribing

 

[1] Beth Forrest et al, “Teaching Food History: a Discussion Among Practitioners,” Global Food History 3.2 (2017): 194-208.