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.

What to Feed the Servants in Sixteenth-Century Russia

By Carolyn Pouncy

Russian Cabbage/Sour Cabbage Soup (Shchi)
Russian Cabbage/Sour Cabbage Soup (Shchi)
(Wiki Images)

There is a Russian proverb, well known among historians of the prerevolutionary years and especially of the peasantry—“Cabbage soup and kasha are our food.” It sounds better in Russian, where it rhymes: Shchi da kasha, pishcha nasha. But in either language, it conveys a basic truth about Russian life—probably even today, but certainly in the past, when the range of foods was so much narrower and abject poverty more widespread than they are now. The great dishes of Russian cuisine, the Chicken Kiev and Beef Stroganoff, are not only relatively recent inventions but creations developed for the 19th-century elite. Such foods never formed part of most people’s diet.

So it is both amusing and a bit sad to turn to Domostroi, the 16th-century book on domestic management (the name means, literally, House Structure or House Order), and read its prescribed meals for servants:

“As everyday food servants receive rye bread, cabbage soup, and thin kasha with ham. Sometimes they may have thick kasha with lard. This is what most people give their servants for dinner, although they vary the menu according to which meat is available. On Sundays and holy days servants sometimes get turnovers [pirozhki—small pies stuffed with a mixture of meat or vegetables, cooked grains, and eggs], jellies, pancakes, or other, similar food. At supper they eat cabbage soup and milk or kasha.”

Meat/Vegetable Turnover (Pirozhki)
Meat/Vegetable Turnover (Pirozhki)
(Wiki Images)

These prescriptions were for meat days. On the many fast days that dotted the Orthodox calendar, the cabbage soup and kasha continued to appear, with fish or vegetables rather than meat, “sometimes with broth, peas, or turnip soup.” Fish soup, pease porridge, pickles, and oatmeal were also considered suitable. On ordinary days, feast or fast, servants drank “second-grade beer,” upgraded on Sundays and holidays to ale. Those who served at table, together with children and poor relations of the family, did better, since they were permitted to share in the leftovers of the much more elaborate dishes served to the master and mistress of the house. Seamstresses and embroiderers, as well as visiting tradesmen, might be permitted to eat with the master and mistress. This expressed high appreciation indeed, treating these skilled craftspeople and merchants as subordinate members of the family. It also guaranteed them a good meal.

From a modern perspective, it all sounds rather grim and regimented. It’s easy to imagine staring at yet another bowl of cabbage soup, made from sauerkraut in winter, and silently grumbling—as my heroine Nasan does in The Golden Lynx—that if someone cut her open, they would find her green and curly inside. (Nasan is a Tatar, and a khan’s daughter at that, accustomed to somewhat different fare.)

But the real question historians must ask about the instructions in Domostroi is whether anyone followed them. Domestic servants in 16th-century Russia were, almost without exception, full, hereditary slaves; the mere acceptance of a position in household service equated, in the eyes of the law, with selling oneself. Slavery functioned as a kind of social welfare, and those who purchased domestic servants implicitly took responsibility for their maintenance.

Even so, most slaves did not live in the compounds where they worked but supported themselves in whatever miserable lodging they could afford on the basis of a meager allowance, out of which they were also supposed to supply their own food, drink, and clothing. Some resorted to robbery and murder to make ends meet. Most of them would have rejoiced at the thought of two full meals a day, with beer or ale and meat several times a week. Through the early 20th century, many peasants and members of the urban poor would have agreed that such a situation constituted pure, unadulterated bliss.

Sometimes cabbage soup and kasha, delivered regularly and on time, doesn’t look so bad after all.

Text quoted from Carolyn Johnston Pouncy, ed. and trans., The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 161–62 (chapter 51, “Instruction from a Master to His Steward on How to Feed the Family in Feast and Fast”).