What’s in Your Lunch Box?

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Whether you pack or buy, lunch is a favorite time for school children and workers alike. It breaks up the day and provides a boost of energy to finish work. After eating a peanut butter sandwich, Wheat Thins and a Sweet ‘n’ Salty snack bar to refuel, I started to wonder what Americans ate for lunch in the past.

I turned to Lynne Olver, contributor to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, and her Food Timeline to help me answer this question. Olver, chief librarian at the Morris County Library in New Jersey, compiled her timeline from old menus, cookbooks and newspaper ads. After poring over her lunch and decade-themed menu sections, I selected a few lunch foods from each decade and checked with Olver to confirm that I had chosen wisely.

The result is this five-part series featuring sample lunches from each decade in recent American history, beginning with 1900.


The Times: At the turn of the century, the Progressive Movement still had steam, fashion was formal and ping-pong became a fad. Muckraking journalists like Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair exposed the practices of the railroad monopolies and the Chicago meat market, respectively. Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, would lead to federal food regulations.

Lunch: Club sandwich Barnum’s Animal Crackers Apple Milk

Why it was popular: Introduced in 1902, Barnum’s Animal Crackers were heavily marketed to kids and adults as a novelty item. With a package that was visually appealing and kept crackers fresh, the product was a hit.


The Times: In the 1910s, the labor movement continued to grow, women got the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th amendment, and World War I raged from 1914 to 1918. During this decade, the Titanic sank and Margaret Sanger began dispersing information about birth control.

Lunch: Split pea soup Corn pudding Milk

Why it was popular: This decade started with opulent dining and leftovers from the Victorian era. By the middle, the Great War had begun and Americans experienced rationing for the first time, leading to more emphasis on vegetable-based dishes like pea soup.

Watch for more lunch box blog posts by Smithsonian intern Ashley Luthern in the coming weeks!

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