Regulations and Realities: Standardizing Diets in British Prisons

By Jess Clark

“The Penitentiary, Millbank” from The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862). Image courtesy of British Library, Shelfmark 6057.i.7, Public Domain
“The Penitentiary, Millbank” from The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862). Image courtesy of British Library, Shelfmark 6057.i.7, Public Domain

I was recently in the British Library, and among the sources that came across my desk was a small, thin text published in 1902: Manual of Cooking & Baking for the Use of Prison Officers. Compiled by Britain’s Prison Commission (est. 1877), it offered suggestions on selecting ingredients, preparing food, and serving different classes of inmates. As the preface noted, the text served to meet recommendations of the Departmental Committee on Prison Dietaries of 1899, stating that all prisons should receive the same guide “for everyday reference for the Cook and Baker.”

 

Four cooks in prison uniform standing in a line in front of buckets and baskets, at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, London. After P. Renouard, 1889. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collections.
Four cooks in prison uniform standing in a line in front of buckets and baskets, at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, London. After P. Renouard, 1889. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collections.

 

The text aligns with moves, from the early nineteenth century, to reform prison conditions in Britain in both local and convict institutions. As many historians have noted, institutional reform was a key focus of the period, with a broad range of writers and observers weighing in on optimal conditions of inmates. This led to increasing regulation and overseeing of Britain’s prison system, albeit in ways that didn’t necessarily guarantee prisoner comforts so much as set increasingly stringent policies. These attempts at uniformity extended to food, and directives in 1843, 1864, and 1878 recommended standardized prison diets comprised of “bread, gruel, potatoes, meat, soup and cocoa.” However, this was enforced in a piecemeal fashion, and not all local and convict prison officials abided by dietary suggestions.[i] By the late nineteenth century, reform initiatives like the Gladstone Committee of 1894-1895 continued to scrutinize British inmate diets. Members offered a number of suggestions, including revised recipes for dishes like “stirabout,” a gruel-like concoction of Indian meal (or maize), oatmeal, and salt that was reportedly refused by three-quarters of inmates.[ii] 

It was in this spirit, then, that Manual of Cooking & Baking appeared, in yet another effort to uniformly administer prison diets across Britain. The 1902 text outlines a relatively robust set of instructions on the selecting, cooking, and serving of food. First, cooks and bakers were responsible for attaining and inspecting ingredients. Beef, fish, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, bacon, fowl, vegetables, peas, beans, ice, sugar, tea, wheat, and oatmeal were to be examined and carefully measured for freshness, size or weight, and overall quality. Readers were then instructed on the official methods of cooking in H.M. Prisons, which consisted of “boiling, steaming, baking, roasting, stewing, broiling, and frying,” the latter three primarily confined to “Hospital or Sick-room Cookery” (45).

Female convicts at work in Brixton Women’s Prison. From Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862), page after 196. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.
Female convicts at work in Brixton Women’s Prison. From Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862), page after 196. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

Having procured desirable ingredients and employed various cooking methods, what did prison cooks serve for inmates’ daily meals? From 1899, local and convict prison diets were divided into five categories – Diets A, B, C, D, and E – with food diversity and allowance increasing with each letter. The meanest of diets, Diet A, consisted of bread and either gruel, porridge, potatoes, or suet pudding.[iii] Diet B added cooked meat to the mix, as well as beans and soup. Diet C received tea instead of gruel, with breakfast and cocoa for supper. Finally, Diets D and E received similar foodstuffs but in greater quantities, as they applied to male convicts assigned to labour details.

The designation of diets depended on the length of stay of inmates: the longer the stay, the richer and more diverse the diet.[iv] The lack of variety and quality of food for short-term inmates was to dissuade “temptation to the loafer or mendicant,” who reportedly got themselves thrown in prison for the steady meals.[v] Meanwhile, long-stay male labourers received a seemingly varied diet: bread and butter, potatoes, fat bacon, cooked mutton, pea soup with pork, cocoa, and cheese. If we are to believe the cooking instructions, these dishes were prepared in sanitary conditions with acceptable cuts and ingredients, under the careful watch of a state-appointed cook or baker.

However, as we know, what’s written in guidebooks and prescriptive literature doesn’t always reflect the realities of life on the ground. Food functioned in the institutional setting as a mode of control and bodily regulation of incarcerated subjects, a trend that is clear in alternate accounts of prison life. For example, the anonymous author of 1877’s Five Years Penal Servitude by One who has Endured it described a common punishment for unruly behavior—“smashing the teapot”—in which an inmate’s tea was traded out for gruel until he regained his standing.[vi] During the Gladstone Committee, inmates complained of the nauseating quality of foods, which caused diarrhea and other digestive ailments. Meanwhile, following his release from Reading Gaol in 1897, Oscar Wilde described the systematic underfeeding of child prisoners. Such trends were supposed to diminish following the circulation of texts like Manual on Cooking & Baking, yet no doubt endured in some institutions.[vii] In this way, prison dietary guides speak to objectives rather than material conditions, laying bare potential disjunctures between recipes and realities.

 

[i] See, for example, Michelle Higgs, Prison Life in Victorian England (Stroud: The History Press, 2013), Chapter 7; and Sean McConville, A History of English Prison Administration (New York: Routledge, 2016) 303-305.

[ii] Higgs, Chapter 7; McConville, 313.

[iii] This diet replaced the “No. 1 Diet,” a category dating from the mid-century. It was a restrictive diet of gruel which, as historians note, could result in death if misapplied to short-term inmates doing labor. McConville, 306-307, 310-313.

[iv] Diet A applied to those serving seven days and under; Diet B came into effect after seven days; and Diet C came into effect after four months stay, for the remainder of an inmate’s term.

[v] Quoted in McConville, 690. Men, women, and minors received the same diets, albeit in different quantities with women receiving less food overall (save for Diets F and G, designed for female convicts and allowing two ounces of golden syrup with suet pudding for “those female convicts who desire it”).

[vi] Five Years’ Penal Servitude by One Who Has Endured it (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1878), 86.

[vii] Higgs, Chapter 7.

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.

The “Nutrition Song”: Imperial Japan’s Recipe for National Nutrition

Nathan Hopson

This is the first in a planned series of posts on nutrition science and government-sanctioned recipes in imperial Japan.

In May 1922, Japan’s preeminent nutritionist, Saiki Tadasu, released a recording of his “Nutrition Song,” performed by opera star Hanafusa Shizuko. Saiki, a medical doctor who had received a PhD from Yale in 1907 before returning to Japan to crusade for national nutritional improvement, was the founding director of the Government Institution for Nutrition (IGIN). In this position, Saiki was the most prominent of a generation of nutritional reformers who advocated a new national diet based on modern, rational nutrition science. The IGIN, the world’s first government-sponsored dedicated nutrition lab, was established in 1920 under the powerful home ministry to address a constellation of “food problems” increasingly unavoidable after the nationwide paroxysm of Rice Riots in 1918. It was a recognition at the highest levels that for Japan to fulfill its dream of being one of the Great Powers, from the ideological project of hygienic modernity to the realities of scarcity and waste, food would play a central role.

Under Saiki, the IGIN evangelized for a distinctly Japanese “national nutrition,” based on the objective and quantifiable universalities of state-of-the-art nutrition science—especially the American “New Nutrition” to which he had been exposed while in the US—but simultaneously sensitive to Japan’s particular circumstances. The Institute primarily targeted the new urban middle-class “professional housewife” class and children more broadly: the former with a media blitz that included articles in women’s magazines, a daily radio broadcast of approved recipes (a topic for a future post), and numerous workshops, both on-site and around Japan; and the latter through a school lunch program that gained traction in the 1920s. This combination, promising to help both women and children, promised the greatest long-term improvement in the national diet: children would learn to eat properly, and their mothers to cook properly. In all of its proselytizing, the Institute appealed to the upwardly mobile self-interest of its audiences, reminding them that with its scientific and rational “economical nutrition” plans, they could do more with less.

The “Nutrition Song” was a didactic nine-verse summary of Saiki’s master plan for proper (rational and economical) national nutrition, based on the substitution of nutritionally equivalent foods to reduce waste and cost while simultaneously increasing efficiency. The first two stanzas of the Nutrition Song deal, respectively, with personal and social nutrition. The third verse explains macronutrients. The fourth lists daily dietary requirements and promotes Saiki’s “each meal perfect” meal planning system, based on the New Nutrition’s Taylorist doctrine of nutritional quantifiability and the substitutability of equivalent foods. Verses five, six, and seven are, respectively, anti-gourmand, pro-substitution (“economical nutrition”), and white rice-skeptical (another topic for another day…). The final two verses remind listeners to eat rationally rather than emotionally. Saiki’s lyrics are, in short, imperial Japan’s recipe for national nutrition.<

Figure 1 The “Nutrition Song.” Lyrics by Saiki Tadasu, 1922. Author’s collection.
Figure 1 The “Nutrition Song.” Lyrics by Saiki Tadasu, 1922. Author’s collection.

Wake in the morning with the strength to crush an ogre
Refreshed by peaceful dreams
With a strong mind to overcome heat and cold
Impervious to disease
These are the gifts of nutrition


Even foreigners will be jealous of our children and grandchildren
Great and strong, humbly thank the gods
For pure water and endless food
Giving life and saving the world
These are the rewards of nutrition

Protein in milk, meat, eggs, shellfish, and beans builds the body
Potatoes, grains, and sugars are called carbohydrates
Like fats they burn easily, giving strength and heat
What’s left settles, enriching the body

An average working person requires
80g of protein and 2400 calories, the rest from fats and carbohydrates
Ensure that each meal
Is rich in nutrition

“Good” foods are not necessarily rare delicacies
Affordable wholesome foods abound
Meats are good, fish excellent
Dried or salted, cod, sardines, herring, and fresh bream

Tofu, natto, miso, and soy flour; beans can substitute for meat
Supplement taste and nutrition with meat scraps and dried whole sardines
Prepare food cleverly so as not to waste
And learn proper storage so as not to waste heaven’s bounty

Consider the immense virtues in each little grain
Use rice properly: mill appropriately and don’t wash
When rice is scarce, eat barley, buckwheat, millets, and potatoes
Eating them all together for red blood and strong bones

Eat a balanced diet, different for young and old
Eat bones, skin, and flesh for minerals and vitamins
Do not gratify your appetites; daily routine is most important
Chew well and don’t be picky
That’s the secret to a long, healthy life

In frozen winter the body loses heat
So eat plenty of fatty foods
In sweltering summer, eat fruits and vegetables and drink water
For unchanging health in changing seasons

In my next post, I’ll examine the IGIN’s official cookbook, a year’s worth of IGIN-endorsed recipes interspersed with helpful columns about food- and nutrition-related topics. It’s the practical application of the principles laid out in the “Nutrition Song.” This post is based on my forthcoming article, “Nutrition as National Defense: Japan’s Imperial Government Institute for Nutrition, 1920-1940.” Journal of Japanese Studies 45, no. 1 (2019).

Nathan Hopson is an associate professor of Japanese and East Asian history at Nagoya University, Japan. His first book, Ennobling Japan’s Savage Northeast: Tōhoku as Postwar Thought, 1945-2011 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2017) treated the place of Tōhoku (northeast Honshu) in modern Japanese national history. He is currently researching the history of school lunches in Japan and their relationship to the development and application of nutrition science as a technology of national strengthening, focusing on the history of governmental “nutritional activism” and the school lunch program, 1920-present.

“Lunch Shaming” and Lessons from History

By Nadja Durbach

Early last year the news media reported on a surge in what has been called “lunch shaming”: practices that deliberately and publicly humiliate children whose parents have not settled their school lunch accounts. When this story broke I was in the midst of writing about school meals in Britain during the 1920s and 30s for a book that I am working on about government food programs in the United Kingdom from the 1830s through the 1960s. The practices of lunch shaming in the United States in the past few years have included: dumping students’ lunches in the trash and refusing to feed them, substituting less nutritious cheese sandwiches for hot meals, stamping the children’s arms with phrases such as “I Need Lunch Money,” compelling children to wear wrist bands marking them as debtors, and having these children clean the cafeteria tables in front of their peers. None of these strategies were deployed in Britain in the interwar period, but the idea that school meals could be a source of humiliation was alive and well. In fact it is hard to ignore that understanding the history of school meals, which were provided in many countries starting in the twentieth century, is essential to formulating a workable and non-stigmatizing program in today’s schools.

In 1906, the United Kingdom introduced a school meals program to address the fact that children from poor families often came to school hungry and thus could not take full advantage of the public education system. Participating school districts used local tax dollars and grants from the Board of Education to feed children gratis at school if their family’s income fell below a locally-determined poverty line. Lunchroom facilities were rarely available within schools before the second half of the twentieth century. This meant that the children receiving free school meals were often marched into the middle of town to a “Feeding Centre.” They were thus conspicuous recipients of the state’s largesse. These Feeding Centres were sometimes established in buildings associated with charity, such as a Salvation Army hall, or with the shame of poverty, such as an old workhouse. Throughout the Depression years then, school meals were inherently stigmatizing. Even families that were eligible sometimes rejected them, mothers often starving themselves in order to feed their children without relying on government food.

Those who accepted the meals were rarely treated to anything that could have materially effected the chronic malnourishment that intensified during the Depression. School meals were primarily intended to fill bellies and were not particularly nourishing. This was despite the explosion of nutritional knowledge newly available in the interwar period. A school meal generally consisted of mounds of mashed potatoes, minced meats or stews, reconstituted dried or overcooked fresh vegetables, and stodgy desserts. Fresh fruits and raw vegetables were rare except in communities that in the late 1930s experimented with cold meals: nutritional sandwiches accompanied by milk, salad, and fruit. These were healthy, cheaper, well-liked by the children, and could be eaten with their hands. The hot dinners, however, required utensils but students were rarely provided with more than a single spoon. Forks were scarce and knives unheard of as the supervisors feared that the children of the poor were unruly “wild animals.” These “low grade children,” it was argued, could not be trusted and “these implements might be dangerous in [their] hands.”

Supervisors feared that a child might “stick a fork into his next door neighbour out of mischief or in a quarrel.”

Up through the 1930s then, the children of the chronically unemployed desperately needed these school meals. But accepting them came at a price, as they were humiliating for the children and their parents. It was not until the outbreak of the Second World War that the nature of school meals changed significantly. In 1943, the British government announced that its objective was to make school meals available to at least 75% of schoolchildren. To achieve this, the 1944 Education Act turned the voluntary provision of meals into a compulsory service and began to take their nutritional components more seriously. While minimal fees would be charged to parents who could afford to pay, all children were to be fed together and no distinction made between those receiving free meals and those who were self-funded. These changes reflected a wartime ideology that constructed children as citizens and positioned the state as responsible for their wellbeing.

The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017 that forbids the practices used to humiliate children with outstanding school lunch debts was introduced in Congress last May. One can only hope that Congress learns from the past because the history of the school lunch program in Britain provides important insight into how we treat students in lunchrooms across the United States today. Why would we choose to shame children when providing them with a nutritious lunch in ways that do not stigmatize or humiliate them could in fact teach all of our young people that they too are citizens whom we respect and cherish?


Nadja Durbach was born in the United Kingdom. She grew up in Canada and attended the University of British Columbia, earning a BA (Hons.) in 1993. In 2000 she completed her PhD at the Johns Hopkins University and joined the faculty of the University of Utah’s History Department where she is currently a Professor. She is the author of Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 and Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. She is currently working on a book entitled, Many Mouths: State Feeding in Britain from the Workhouse to the Welfare State.