Food Advertising in the 1930s


Jennifer Wallach

At first glance, advertisements from the Great Depression are stylish, colorful, and appealing – just as their producers intended. But beneath the surface glamour, 1930s advertisements are rich historical sources that yield insights into a range of topics about the era. They not only provide a unique window into the era’s financial anxieties, but they also reveal valuable information about other topics including ideas about race and gender, the state of scientific knowledge about nutrition, and changing food preferences. 
Even during the lean years of the 1930s, advertisers presented goods as emblems of aspirational lifestyles. Even when choosing something as simple as a brand of baking powder or type of breakfast cereal, consumers were asked to identify imaginatively with both the settings and the characters portrayed in printed promotions or, increasingly, on popular radio programs, which were often sponsored by food companies such as Crisco. Symbols of financial well-being were all over 1930s food advertisements, ranging from descriptions of elegant dining spaces to images of cherubic and obviously well-fed children. However, some marketers sought to avoid alienating consumers by acknowledging, at least subtly, that the easy prosperity featured in their ads was out of reach for many. Increasingly, advertisers emphasized elegance while also celebrating the virtue of economizing. For example, Purina marketed the "Flavor-Fed Domestic Rabbit," shown served on stylish dinnerware, as a "budget saver," easy on the wallet yet high in precious calories.  
When it came to marketing, food producers had an advantage over manufacturers of other consumer goods. While items such as radios or automobiles could be deemed optional during an era of scarcity, food was essential, as even the most cynical critic of the advertising industry had to acknowledge. Yet food marketers still had to contend with the fact that consumers with shrinking budgets had the opportunity to choose between different brand names and specific menu items. In their scramble for market share, food producers were faced with the task of making their products seem simultaneously desirable and practical. The makers of King Midas flour responded to this challenge by proudly labeling their product as a luxury item: the "highest priced flour in America." However, consumers were told that they could both splurge on this high-priced item and yet still practice "true economy" because the baked goods they produced with this superior flour would stay fresher longer. 
White, middle-class characters populated most period advertisements. When people of color were featured, they typically appeared in a caricatured form and were used as a source of amusement or as an object lesson for white consumers. For example, Nabisco differentiated the character of Mandy, a dialect-speaking African American woman who cooked by instinct, from their purportedly more intellectual white customers. White cooks, who lacked Mandy’s innate cooking abilities, would  allegedly benefit the most from printed recipes and modern, ready-made ingredients.
Advertising copywriters generally imagined that their customers were white, middle-class people who were members of families where traditional gender norms reigned. Attractive and neatly attired mother figures adorned ads in newspapers and magazines and graced the pages of carefully crafted product cookbooks. These imaginary figures provided reassurance to a public eager to have their worries soothed by capable maternal hands. Indeed, advertisers knew that many people experienced the decade’s economic insecurities most sharply through shrinking food budgets, and they responded with tips and reassurance. Ads for Nabisco, for instance, tutored women on using ground crackers as fillers to stretch more expensive food products, allowing them to create dishes that "look expensive" yet  "cost little." The baking company also assured insecure consumers that thriftiness was not only a necessity for some but a proud choice for others, claiming "some of the richest people in the world pride themselves upon their care in spending." Choosing Nabisco crackers was framed as a budget-friendly way for average customers to identify with allegedly like-minded wealthy Americans.
The mothers depicted in Depression era advertising were simultaneously traditional and truly modern figures. Some advertisers appealed to a growing instability in conventional ideas about gender roles wrought by forces such as growing male unemployment. For instance, the Heinz company appealed to shifting sensibilities by marketing its products to housewives "whose interests…are more varied" and might well "lie outside the home."  Although some marketers promised that ready-made foods would give women more time away from domestic responsibilities, the advertising of the era overwhelmingly urged modern women not to venture too far from their kitchens – which would ideally be well stocked and full of modern appliances. Women were urged to find contentment by aspiring to the latest kitchen technology built around new appliances such as the "Roper Modern Gas Range" and by using the domestic space to cater to the men in their lives. An advertisement for A-1 Sauce advised: "Don't you dress, make-up and hair-do to please a man? Cook with the same idea in mind."
Advertisers for A-1 Sauce were hardly the only ones writing copy based on the presumption that innate gender differences existed. For example, Knox Gelatine knowingly told its female customers not to forget these distinctions, proclaiming: "Men abominate a lot of sugar in salads." Nonetheless, promoters frequently framed homemaking as an occupation that had to be learned rather than as the outgrowth of an inborn set of aptitudes. Housewives were charged with the responsibility of not only feeding their families tasty meals but also with mastering contemporary scientific information about nutrition. Advertisers repeatedly sought to appeal to both the intellect and the vanity of homemakers. For instance, according to the makers of Ball Mason jars, the typical 1930s housewife "faced a bigger responsibility than her predecessor of a generation or two ago. Upon her shoulders rests the burden of keeping her family in good health through the right choice and preparation of food." 
References to the latest research in nutritional science abound in 1930s food marketing, which urged savvy consumers to choose items that were not only low in price but also high in food values, particularly in recently discovered vitamins. The California Fruit Growers Association promoted the sale of lemons and oranges, foods high in vitamin C, by exploiting fears of failure made more pressing by rising rates of unemployment: they warned darkly that the malnourished "seriously handicap [themselves] in the struggle for success." Thus consumers could increase their life chances by purchasing citrus fruits. Advertisers also frequently preyed upon the anxieties of parents who hoped to help their children succeed in a troubled economy. The manufacturers of Cream of Wheat cereal, for example, promised that their product "fortifies your children for the day before them. It guards them from the dangers of the underweight... Gives them the energy they need." 
Advertisers could appeal not only to the dictates of current scientific information about healthful eating, but they could also create marketing campaigns that tapped into both biological and cultural predispositions toward specific foods. Purveyors of sugar, baking powder, and wheat flour confidently created product cookbooks designed to appeal to the American sweet tooth. Certain that their product was inherently appealing, advertisers for Jack Frost sugar tried to tap into widespread anxieties about health by convincing customers that sugar was not only delicious but also nutritious, describing it as a "wholesome food... [that] conserves protein for body repair… and helps protect the liver from toxic materials." Meanwhile, marketers also used arguments about nutrition to shore up demand for meat at a time when consumers were buying less of it due to rising prices. For instance, Armour and Company capitalized on the predilections of a carnivorous nation by reinforcing the idea that "every well-balanced meal is built around that indispensible protein food, meat." New nutritional information about vitamins gave the marketers of meat an additional selling point when trying to reach those Americans who were reluctant to eat their vegetables. The National Livestock and Meat Board promised that their products would make "savory and interesting the bland vegetables" that accompanied meat in the iconic American meal. Manufacturers of the Presto Cooker exploited anxieties about vitamin deficiencies among children by promising that pressure cooking vegetables would "make vital foods tempting to youngsters."
In an attempt to attract customers, industrial food producers not only created marketing campaigns that promoted the nutritional value of their products, they also promised that their companies were just as reliable as the fictional mothers who populated their advertising campaigns. Knox Gelatine proclaimed that it was produced in accordance with standards "more strict than ever before" and promised certainty in a time of turmoil by claiming: "You can always depend on Knox." Marketers frequently referenced a long scope of history when promoting their products, conflating company longevity with reliability while also invoking nostalgia and positive associations with a more carefree economic climate. Durkee Famous Foods celebrated the fact that its dressing, supposedly characterized by a "delightfully distinctive, spicy flavor that defies description," had been pleasing palates for three generations, while Heinz poetically claimed that its products could invoke the "placid late-summer and fall mornings in the old days" of happier, simpler times. Throughout the Great Depression, advertisers claimed that the food items they sold could meet not only the daily physical needs for sustenance but could also fulfill the psychic need for security in an era of hardship and uncertainty. 

Jennifer Jensen Wallach is associate professor of history at the University of North Texas and the author of How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

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