Food Fights for Freedom: A Critical Reading of Food Advertisements from Ladies’ Home Journal during the Second World War
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Food Fights for Freedom:
A Critical Reading of Food Advertisements from Ladies’ Home Journal during the Second World War

Food plays a major role in American culture. Its purpose goes far beyond providing the human body with the nutrients that it needs. It is part of each individual’s personal experiences: the birthday cake on your fifth birthday, the food fights at school, your first successful solo cooking experience, the cake recipe that your mom taught you, the romantic dinner with that special someone, the broccoli that dad made you eat before you could leave the table, the food at grandma’s funeral. It is also part of the collective American experience: soup kitchens, bread lines, war rations, TV dinners, backyard barbecues, fast-food, Tang. This article examines the role of food in American culture during one poignant era in American history, the Second World War. The title of this article does not refer to the food fights you might have had in elementary school, but to a government badge found on a number of the advertisements—telling consumers that food was a war materiel.

This article examines food advertisements in the most popular middle-class women’s magazine of the time, Ladies’ Home Journal. This magazine is replete with advertisements, and advertisements for food and kitchen appliances are more numerous than any other kind. Examining three of 12 issues for each year from 1941 to 1945, the authors found more than 600 food advertisements to study. The authors carefully examined 101 of the advertisements they believe to best represent major cultural themes of the time and herein provide both full images and discussions of 36 of these ads. Each of the ads shown here (Figures 1 through 36) illustrates a different theme about the relationship between food and American culture during this wartime period. Many express multiple themes, but they are used here as an iconic example of a single theme.

Advertisements are, of course, a tool of persuasion. The company that places the ad has a goal in mind: introduce a product, sell a product, exclaim the quality of the company’s product offerings, explain away some problem (e.g., a shortage of their product on the grocer’s shelves), encourage you to be a loyal customer, or show that the company is a good corporate citizen. In order to engage readers, an ad must resonate with the interests or concerns of a large portion of the magazine’s readership. This means that ads are particularly useful in identifying the perceived concerns and mindsets of a particular readership—in this case middle-class women—at a particular point in time of world war when many family members were away in unknown and often dangerous circumstances, and when life at home was radically changed by food rationing, labor shortages, and tumult in the gendered division of labor. To capture the reader’s attention, headlines, banner lines, and images had to distill the message that would attract readers, and to use humor, fear, or other emotions to draw the reader into the text of the ad (especially in those days, when ads were text heavy). The headlines and images thus often distilled the cultural message of the times, if read with a critical eye by today’s scholar.

This essay is organized around nine themes that emerged from a critical reading of these advertisements: prewar sentiments, shortages and economies, changing gender and family roles, nutrition, patriotism and the American way of life, militarization of the kitchen, industrialization and the food industry, lessons Americans learned from the war, and deferred gratification. In almost all of these sections, there are several subsections—each one represented by one featured advertisement, while other ads that express the same or similar themes are identified in an endnote. For example, the section on patriotism and the American way of life includes subsections on coping in adverse times, reassurance, the virtue of sacrifice, sense of community, food and the American way, and racial stereotypes.

PREWAR SENTIMENTS

The U.S. entered the Second World War in December 1941, after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Thus, all of...