Katherine Leonard Turner’s How the Other Half Ate: A
History of Working-Class Meals at the Turn of the Century is a concise and well-researched corrective to a burgeoning field of study—the social and cultural history of food—that emphasizes the culinary lives of those who left behind ample evidence of what they swallowed.
We already know a great deal about what entered the gullets of the elite, and even the middle classes, at the turn of the twentieth century. But when it comes to “ordinary urban working-class people” (p. 8), those for whom “there were no regular meal hours” (p. 3), those for whom eating was not the pursuit of pleasure in the land of plenty but a “problem” (p. 18), we know much less. Turner’s book, which essentially explores “how people got food when money was tight and life was uncertain” (p. 7), may not make a sweeping argument about American food and the working class, but it does an admirable job of illuminating the darker and more remote corners of the American diet during the Progressive Era.
One reason why writing about food has become so popular is that it permits the historian to explore a variety of larger themes through the concrete act of eating. Turner takes full advantage of food’s flexible physicality to explore the culinary lives of the downtrodden through the shifting lenses of gender, class, and ethnicity. Her authoritative voice generally succeeds because she effectively blends context—technological change, evolving work patterns, gendered work space, the rise of distribution networks and grocery stores, the emergence of home economics—with texts including diaries, autobiographical accounts, federal reports, novels, and—most notably—photos taken by researchers interested in poverty, immigration, and urban living conditions. Especially central to her research agenda is the work of Lewis Wickes Hine, a sociologist whose camera graphically documented the working poor for the National Child Labor Commission, and a figure whose photos Turner “reads” with rare aplomb. Even if Turner’s balance occasionally tilts toward too much context and not enough text, the overall impact is one in which her subjects are actively making food choices in a well-defined matrix of options.
For anyone who follows contemporary food discourse, one of the unexpected pleasures of reading
Turner’s book is the way her careful research repeatedly sullies the romanticism that mars so much of today’s rhetoric of food reform. Advocates of sustainability and locally sourced ingredients currently urge consumers to eat in season in order to evoke a preindustrial golden age when food was supposedly more honest and wholesome. Turner, however, notes that for struggling immigrants and the rural poor working in mill towns “seasonality seemed like a curse” (p. 29), one that the eager adoption of canned goods, processed food, and takeout meals helped exorcise. Likewise, whereas today’s contemporary critiques of industrial food lament the lost art of home cooking, Turner reveals many families abandoned the tribulations of the kitchen the very minute pushcart and grocery store offerings became affordable. “[T]here were twice as many bakeries per capita in 1910 as there had been 1880,” she writes (p. 61). Such well-chosen statistics stress an obvious point that has been obscured by today’s glorification of the kitchen: cooking was often pure drudgery.
Turner’s most conceptually sophisticated chapter— “‘A Woman’s Work Is Never Done’: Cooking, Class, and Women’s Work”—traces the impact of industrialization on women’s domestic work to show how such drudgery was “a private matter with public consequences” (p. 142). Progressive-era efforts to mold immigrant cookery to white middle-class expectations—a kitchen separate from the rest of the house, cooking as an expression of traditional family and gendered values, and a belief that there was (as one economist believed) “a right and a wrong way to cook” (p. 134)—invested women’s domestic work with unprecedented moral weight in the looming sphere of public opinion. Given their limited resources, though, working-class women could rarely fulfill the costly demands of domestic and culinary virtue. “When femininity was defined in middle-class terms,” writes Turner, “working-class women could not but fail to be truly feminine.” Although chastised for “performing their cooking tasks half-heartedly or without love” (p. 139), these women were, as Turner concludes, “the wave of the future” (p. 136) insofar as they “continued doing what they needed to do for their own and their family’s survival whether it met the met the middle-class criteria of ‘womanly virtue’ or not” (p. 139).
Turner often makes big claims such as this one without belaboring it with excessive evidence, a method that some specialists might find too breezy, not to mention the omission of several other works related to her topic (Helen Zoe Veit’s Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century  comes to mind). But these concerns are small potatoes compared to Turner’s signal accomplishment of bringing to light the dietary habits of a long neglected group of Americans and, perhaps most notably, doing so in a way that reminds us of an axiom that is as central to the past as it is today: “food choices are never simple” (p. 141).
Texas State University
EDWARD J. ROACH. The Wright Company: From Invention to Industry. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 218. Cloth $69.95, paper $22.95.
TheWright Brothers are world famous for their success as the first to operate a heavier-than-air flying vehicle, achieving this milestone on December 17, 1903, in the windswept sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This invention offered the brothers an opportunity to cash in, and they did so once they had further developed their airplane, validated it with flights for the