How the Depression Changed Our Diet: Echoes

Our classic images of Great Depression-era foodways are, well, depressing: long lines of men entering soup kitchens for a free meal, and the mass destruction of wheat, corn or pigs to reduce supply and push prices up.

Yet the 1930s were also years of innovation in food services -- some short-lived, others that continue to this day.

One step up from charity soup-and-bread kitchens was the Penny Cafeteria, a restaurant "where every dish sells for one cent and a modest but sufficient five-course meal may be purchased for a nickel." Created by the publisher and health enthusiast Bernarr Macfadden, Manhattan's first 1-cent restaurant opened at the end of 1931. Consistent with Macfadden’s public campaigns for simple vegetarian food, the restaurant's bill of fare "included cracked wheat, Scotch oatmeal, lima bean soup, green pea soup, soaked prunes, seeded raisins, whole wheat bread, butter, raisin coffee and cereal coffee."

Following the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, "the doors were thrown open to a large crowd that had been waiting for more than an hour, and the hungry men entered with a rush," the New York Times reported. Macfadden's kitchens could feed more than 2,500 people per day, but he recognized this was "only a drop in the bucket."

Two years later, three penny restaurants were serving 11,000 New Yorkers daily. The other kitchens adhered to Macfadden's original "no chairs" policy: Customers had to stand to eat, but their average bill was only 6 cents.

The approach was soon copied elsewhere -- in Chicago, Los Angeles and at the First Methodist Church in Sarasota, Florida. There, in 1934, "the prevailing price of one cent a helping will continue," the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported, and it would buy a variety of lunch and dinner dishes. Ignoring Macfadden, the church kitchen served boiled ham, mashed potatoes, pumpkin, apple and lemon pies, and hot coffee.

For those with deeper pockets, new "All You Can Eat" restaurants also starting popping up during the Depression, with less concern for proper nutrition. In 1930, such venues opened almost simultaneously in San Francisco; Memphis, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; and elsewhere. They typically invited customers to consume "all you want" pasta dishes for 50 cents, with prices rising for more indulgent fare. The most common price for a meal was between 60 cents and $1.00.

The new strategy got customers in the door, and was picked up rapidly by regional and national fast-food companies. A leading restaurant chain told the New York Times on Feb. 28, 1932, "that it has sold 1,000,000 more meals in a single month because of it." Another "increased its patronage at the rate of 750,000 a month and is more than tripling its business on holidays."

Whether served at tables or gathered from buffets, the range of food was stunning. Multiple desserts proved a major attraction. One New Yorker, for example, "calmly ordered seven pieces of pie a la mode" following his six-course dinner.

A prominent dietician told the Times that eating should be understood "by contraries": "People diet in times of plenty and gorge themselves in lean years, when no one feels absolutely certain of his next meal."

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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