The Low-Calorie American Dream

Dieting. Dieting might seem like a relatively new trend that is pushed by propaganda from companies that benefit from such. However, dieting has been around for a long time; in fact, the Hotel New Yorker implemented a low-calorie section within its December 6, 1938 menu. Throughout history, people have developed social constructs that indicate how we feel about many things including our bodies. Even if that changes, for the better or the worst, it always pushes people to take actions to fit in.

Dieting has existed since way before the 1930s. As innovations such as vacuum cleaners and cars became common goods people exercised less as moving wasn’t a necessity for accomplishing mundane tasks. Extreme measures were practiced, especially by women who wanted to feel like they fit into society’s expectations. In 1922, Nina Putman, a high middle-class housewife published a book titled Tomorrow We Diet. In this book, she emphasized the importance of will power. She talked about “the open deprecation of the overweight, the difficulties of dieting and the preeminent importance of willpower in doing so successfully, the joy in being thin, and the centrality of thinness to sex appeal and marital happiness, particularly for women.”1  She had tried every remedy in the market, but it was her willpower to not indulge that made it possible for her to slim down. She still approached dieting in an unhealthy way, as many people did at the time; health wasn’t a priority, beauty standards were.

Newspaper Ad for Ry-Krisp introduced as a weight-loss remedy. October 02,1938 and January 08,1939, respectively.
Image provided by: Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

During and after World War II, the eagerness to diet only got worse. Somehow pushed by the scarcity of food, the ideal body type was thin and only thin. Now, men and women were exposed to a superficial social standard that implied success and sexual desire. Interestingly enough what was once a positive physical attribute that meant wealth and success, was now viewed as the opposite. This phenomenon also affected how calories were viewed by the public. “When calories were applied to food, many people thought about food’s energy in a completely positive light. For example, today a nutritionist might conceptualize calories by saying that someone would have to walk an extra mile to burn off the energy in three teaspoons of sugar. But in the early twentieth century, Americans more often thought of three sugar lumps as helpfully providing enough energy that they could walk an extra mile.”2

Slimness was also propagated by fashion. Diet crazes such as the “flapper diet” were encouraged as it would help you reach the body type “needed” for such apparel. Regardless of prohibition, people were gathering, they were smoking, and they were drinking. Jazz became the preferred style of music; women started to follow the flapper trend, which enticed a boyish slim body type.3 Slimming methods became such a craze that companies started to market their products for such. For example, by the mid-1920s cigarettes were sold as beneficial for digestion, which in turn helped you stay slim. Doctors would recommend cigarettes to their patients as a health remedy. One of the most famous cigarette ad campaigns was by Lucky Strike. The ad depicted slim beautiful flappers that were having the time of their lives while smoking, and the ad’s slogan read: Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet.4

Lucky Strike Ad: Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet.
May 21, 1929.
Image provided by: Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

The Hotel New Yorker was built in 1929, and it was supposed to be the next big thing. This building brought a new design, hence an atmosphere for people to gather even though the depression was still present. This hotel was very technologically advanced. It hosted live broadcasting for NBC, the terrace hosted music acts such as Benny Goodman, and people could ice skate on their retractable ice-skating rink.5 Naturally, this hotel hosted rich people, celebrities, and politicians.

The New Yorker Hotel
Image provided by: Hotel New Yorker Website (https://www.newyorkerhotel.com/history/)

The low-calorie section of the Hotel New Yorkers’ 1938 menu included various meals such as a crabmeat cocktail, tomato broth roast leg of lamb, and a medium sliced banana. This section was located in the middle of the menu and depicted the calories and portion sizes of each of these meals. For example, the crab meat cocktail is considered a full meal. Usually, a crabmeat cocktail has the following ingredients: Crabmeat, Celery, Green Onion, Pickle Relish, Mayonnaise, Mustard, Salt, and Hot Sauce. As for this dish’s preparation. One only has to incorporate all of the ingredients into a bowl or cocktail glass, and you are done.6 All of these ingredients together have an approximate calorie intake of 120 calories per serving, which does not even make ¼ of what an average person should intake in one day. However, the crab meal cocktail was indeed the perfect meal, or rather the perfect calorie intake, for a socialite looking to fit in the 1930s social standards.

Hotel New Yorker’s December 6, 1938 menu.
Image provided by: What’s on the Menu? (http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/62334)
Crab Meat Cocktail mage provided by: Noshing With The Nolands

Notes

  1.  “THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL The Progressive Body and the Thin Ideal.” Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century, by Helen Zoe Veit, University of North Carolina Press, 2013, pp. 157–158.
  2. “THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL The Progressive Body and the Thin Ideal.” Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century, by Helen Zoe Veit, University of North Carolina Press, 2013, pp. 161
  3. Ewbank, Anne. “Looking Like a Flapper Meant a Diet of Celery and Cigarettes.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 29 June 2018, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/1920s-food-flapper-diet.
  4. “The History of Dieting (Part 2).” Skyterra Wellness, skyterrawellness.com/history-of-dieting-part-2/.
  5. “The New Yorker, A Wyndham Hotel.” The New Yorker, A Wyndham Hotel | Midtown Manhattan Hotel, http://www.newyorkerhotel.com/history/.
  6. Kitchen, Food Network. “Crab Cocktail Americana.” Food Network, Food Network, 16 June 2014, http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/food-network-kitchen/crab-cocktail-americana-recipe-2042493.

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