Book Report: American Advertising Cookbooks

Tagline: How Corporations taught us to love Spam, Bananas, and Jell-O. Who could resist a title like that?

Absolutely breathtaking, especially with a molded veggie and I think fruit salad gracing the cover.

Don’t be fooled, though, by the cover illustration. This is an academic look, complete with bibliography, at where these advertising pamphlets came from, starting with the Protestant Reformation and the migration of Puritans and Pilgrims to North America. It seems that literacy was important to the Puritans, including women being educated to be able to read, so that they could partake of the Good Book and teach their children to read the Bible. This lead to manuals being written so that women could maintain a Godly household, including food and housekeeping. Recipes tended to be bland, with few spices and fat filled-sauces because they thought that spicy food would inflame the passions.

The first American cookbook was published 1796 in Connecticut by Amelia Simmons with the succinct title: American Cookery or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, pudding, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country and all grades of life.


One of the most influential things to happen in 19th century America, besides the War of 1812 and the Civil War, was The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. It showed the world the promise and ingenuity of the U.S. There were all sorts of modern innovations. Edison, Remington, Otis, and Bell were there showing off their inventions. In the Women’s Pavilion there was a prototype dishwasher, sewing and darning machines, and The Reliance Cookstove which was the first free-standing oven/stove that burned wood or coal and used valves to control heat. I imagine that cooker was an aspirational goal for many women!

Heinz Ketchup, Hires Root Beer, and Fleischmann’s yeast were introduced there, as were bananas, which sold for a whopping 10 cents each! A considerable sum back then. The future seemed limitless, and if you were the right kind of person, you could achieve anything! It was the birth of the consumer culture.

Lots of changes were occurring in the U.S. just prior to the Exhibition and afterward. There was a wave of morality/religion sweeping the country with a new emphasis on religious education and outreach to native peoples, the poor, and the immigrants that were pouring into the country looking for their opportunities at a new life. The established population were concerned about new beliefs being brought into the country. The westward expansion was happening and opening new vistas and opportunities. Scientific inquiries were explaining how the world worked, and especially important to this book, nutrition.

People also became concerned with the field of hygiene in many incarnations. The Clean Food and Drug Act of 1906 was brought about by outrage over the slaughterhouses, especially in Chicago. Besides the horrendous conditions that animals were processed in, authors and newspapers reported that other foods were freely adulterated by manufacturers. Along with investigations and the laws to clean this up, the idea that women were responsible to keep things hygienic in the home gained traction. Ladies magazines gave tons of advice on how to manage your home, properly. Home Economics started being a field of study for women, to advise other women. These experts also started publishing cooking pamphlets and books advising on nutrition, recipes, and food preservation.

In the 1890s Dr. Sigmund Freud started the field of psychoanalysis:

Around the beginning of WWI, Edward Bernays, the nephew and student of Sigmund Freud, started using his knowledge to influence consumers in the U.S, and articulated the idea of Public Relations. His first professional success was to get women to smoke! He started a campaign showing actresses, singers, and other famous women smoking. He found a doctor to say that cigarettes were a healthy way for weight control, a real concern in the 1920s with the flapper fashions requiring a boyish figure. With this success, advertising was changed forever!

Companies started producing cooking pamphlets to show women why they NEEDED their products.

An early example was this Jell-O booklet. Even though molded salads are associated with the 1960s and ’70s, molded foods started much earlier:

Women were convinced in the 1930s that they needed thrifty Jell-O to tempt the appetites of their families and to make cooking on a budget easier.

This veggie mold is actually from 1982 and was featured in Bon Appetit:

I’m not sure how you sell this disgusting mess to anyone at your table and I’m pretty sure that this picture may have lead to the death of molded food in the U.S.

Another major producer of cooking pamphlets were food councils. “Food councils were the brainchild of advertising executives. In setting up nonprofit advocacy groups that hired home economists to develop recipes and scientists to conduct beneficial research, the councils were able to establish themselves as ‘subject experts’.”

Or this food council group called P.I.G. or Pork Industry Group. At least they had a sense of humor about it:

And here I thought Tom Brady invented avocado ice cream:

Avocado Bravo/1976/ California Avocado Advisory Board/Avocado Ice Cream

I adore avocados, but the idea of avocado ice cream isn’t appealing.

The front of this brochure made me laugh:

I can remember practicing this very font during classes in the 1970s. And I have to say that I’ve had cakes made with sauerkraut and they were really pretty good. The acid makes the cake light and fluffy.

Prepared food manufacturers published pamphlets and ads in magazines to encourage the use of their products:

The idea of a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich was the brainchild of a company that just happened to make both products. Who would have guessed!!

There were tons of meat recipe cookbooks. Lots and lots for canned meats such as Spam, and others using common fresh meats in new ways:

I don’t know about you, but when I think of hamburger, I always want something green inside of it. Shame on Martha Logan, Home Economist for Swift and Company. The only thing that looks edible on that plate are the carrots.

Want to give Baby a treat?

Put some Seven-Up in your baby’s bottle! Some of the advice wasn’t the best, obviously! But, hey, millions of kids survived the 1950s, so no harm, no foul.

By the way, it wasn’t uncommon to have a fictional “food expert” and some of them have been pretty famous, Betty Crocker, anyone? Martha Lee Anderson was a fictional expert for Arm & Hammer, while Jane Ashley fictionally worked for Karo, Mazola, and Argo, and in the 1940s Sue Swanson produced recipes for Swanson Company while being a totally fabricated expert.

Lastly, in the same way that advertising worked to make women insecure about their abilities as a housewife, so did pamphlets:

The WWII version of the super mom—she’s in the armed services and still manages to take care of her family. What’s your excuse?

Of course you’re a good wife and mom, IF you use Crisco:

Ah, shucks family, I was just doing my job, made oh so much easier with food substitutes!

I only showed a fraction of cooking booklets that were featured. It was quite amazing to see the collection that the author featured; it makes Kathy and me look like pikers. Plus, there were whole chapters on racism in advertising that I haven’t covered. Ms. Ward also devotes pages detailing the shenanigans of the Dole family in Hawaii, and United Fruit’s misdeeds in Central America. It was pretty eye-opening, but not really what we deal with in this blog. I really enjoyed the booklet, thanks Kathy, and am happy to recommend it to you if you happen to be a pamphlet aficionado like us.

I’ll leave you with my favorite cookbook:

150 mouth-watering recipes celebrating garlic, onions, cheese, fish, and other foods that tend to chase your friends away.

I need to find this Bianca mouth freshener cookbook for my collection. I have never seen one before, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Kathy had one! ( Kathy: I don’t, but I need one! )

This entry was posted in Book Review, True Confessions and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Report: American Advertising Cookbooks

  1. Stephanie Gazell says:

    This was awesome! Mayo and peanut butter together? Wow…that’s a new one on me! Have to tell hubby about that, as he loves both. LOL!

    • kathy & deb says:

      It was an amazing book and pulled lots of diverse topics together to present an interesting historical perspective. The graphics in those pamphlets are pretty cool!

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