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What's in your lunch box?

Discussion in 'The Home Front Woman' started by St. Louis, Jan 29, 2015.

  1. St. Louis

    St. Louis Practically Family

    Technically I would not have carried a lunch box to work, not as a gainfully employed woman. I presume I would have eaten lunch in the employee cafeteria or brought my tunafish popovers to eat in a nearby park. (This is from a scene in one of my all-time favorite movies, The Devil And Miss Jones.) I believe people never ate at their desks, which is what I do most days. But let's imagine I work in a factory or a store and I can't afford to eat in the cafeteria.

    I've been looking for a fairly clean 1930s or 1940s lunch box, ideally something with a useable thermos. No luck yet, mostly because I'm still learning how to date those things and I really don't want to end up with something from the 1950s by mistake.

    I'm trying to figure out whether the classic dome-top metal boxes were actually around during the golden era. It seems to me that the picnic-basket style lunch boxes (oval or square) were mostly used by children.

    So now, what should go inside such a lunch box? How would you wrap the food to transport it to work?Would I bring a sandwich wrapped in wax paper? A slice of cake? Fruit? I've never seen anything in period magazines on preparing lunch for one's husband, and I'm a bit stumped. Did they have soup thermos containers? Maybe a hard-boiled egg or a potato?
  2. Dome top lunch boxes were common in the thirties -- they were most often carried by factory workers, because most factories didn't have a lunch area. The dinner whistle blew at noon, and you'd sit down on a bench right there on the factory floor and eat your food.

    Sandwiches were the king of the dinnerpail -- tuna fish was popular, as was deviled ham and sliced cold meat loaf. Pre-packaged deli meats were not yet sold, but if you lived near a deli you could get boloney or salami or other cold cuts. For the those of us in New England, the fluffernutter was invented in the thirties, and was popular with all ages. Peeled hard-boiled eggs wrapped in a twist of wax paper were a popular accompaniment, and sometimes an apple. In the South, cold fried chicken was always a favorite.

    Coffee was most often carried in a thermos, since employee coffee stations were largely a thing of the future. Some factories did have Coca-Cola vending machines, and the idea of drinking Coke with meals was just catching on in the mid-thirties. In such cases, a worker might bring along some soup in the thermos.

    Most white collar workers didn't bring lunch, nor did most offices offer lunch facilities. Lunch for such workers was usually taken at a drugstore or a downtown lunchroom. The latter were small, hole-in-the-wall restaurants with a long counter along one side and a row of one-arm school-type chairs along the other. They were utilitarian establishments to the extreme -- you got in, ate your food, and got out, with no lingering over coffee while you read the paper. The lunch rush was just that, and somebody else wanted your seat as soon as you were done with it.

    There were many chains of lunchrooms -- Waldorf System, Baltimore Dairy Lunch, Bickfords, Thompson's, and so forth. They were the fast-food joints of their day.
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2015
  3. Several years ago I got what I believe is a 40s black, dome topped lunch box. I'm on the run during the day, and realized I needed to take snacks with me to keep the ol' blood sugar stable. I balked at using a vintage thermos though. Since I was a kid, I've been uncomfortable at not being able to really see what's down those things. Using an older one I was never confidant was actually cleaned gave me the willies. I think that's the only case where I don't prefer GA items over new ones.

    I also make use of wax paper and paper bags. I had to ask a Krogers fellow to help me find a new batch of paper bags last time, as they seem to be slowly moving them out of the store.

    I was lucky enough that when I worked at a downtown Lazarus department store, in its waning heyday in the 80s, I experienced their authentic chrome and lino diner counter for lunch breaks, a holdover from decades prior, and pretty much intact. Popular with staff and customers. I still smile at the memory of those fantastic chrome hat stands standing by the entry.
  4. I used to carry drinking water to work in a WW1 surplus canteen. Of course, I did clean it out with bleach before I used it.

    If you do use a vintage thermos, keep in mind that before the fifties they were sealed by a cork, not a screw-on plug. Don't use the original cork -- get a replacement of the proper size. It'll seal better and will be less germy.

    We used to have a Newberry's five-and-dime where I would eat lunch in my radio days. The grease in the fryer hadn't been changed since the Truman administration, which gave everything a very distinctive flavor.
  5. My grandmother, who admittedly got married in 1940 and not the 1930's, packed my grandfather's lunch everyday, pretty much the same until the 80s when he retired. He carried a tin lunch box to work at the factory, the domed top kind, and a large thermos of coffee in addition to small thermos that fit inside of water.

    For wrapping, she used wax paper on anything likely to run or drip. She reused the wax paper by wiping it down and drying it, several times. She also used what looked to me as a child as napkins to wrap foods in that weren't runny or drippy. They were big squares of fabric, about napkin sized that she folded around things such as non-runny sandwiches and bread. She had a lot of these and washed a whole bunch weekly, and they served second shift as a napkin. Knowing my grandmother, she likely had made these out of old clothes or dish drying clothes that were still too good for the rag bucket. I think buying plastic baggies was not her style- the idea of buying something just to throw it away irritated her. Even in her old age she rewashed bread bags many times to reuse them.

    My grandfather loved bologna, so she'd often make him a sandwich on white bread with a dab of mustard in the middle and wrap it up in a cloth. When they were first married, things were tight so it was often a slice of bread or two and some fat if they had it. My grandfather hated leftovers, so my grandmother was quite creative in hiding last night's dinner in a sandwich. Sometimes he got a treat; but mainly it was a sandwich, vegetables if they were in season and could be transported, a muffin of some sort (such as a corn muffin or bran muffin), a hardboiled egg, his coffee, and water.

    One of my best and most clear memories of my grandparents when I was a kid was one time when we went to McDonalds. My grandparents brought much of their own food, and we ate on the grass in front of their light green little car. My grandmother and grandfather bought a burger and a small fry to split and I got a children's cheese burger; we went in to order of course, I never used a drive through until I was 25 or so. My grandmother had packed about six hardboiled eggs in a thermos, coffee for my grandfather in another, some pepsi when it was still in glass for herself, and well water for me in a third thermos. (I loved my grandparent's well water). Everything else was in their little cooler. There was celery, carrots, and cut up cucumbers to enjoy. It was a little feast and we ate it spread out on a blanket, using my grandmother's little napkins draped across our laps. Our drinks we had in the thermos tops, like dainty little cups. We ate like kings on the median of the McDonald's parking lot. I can't imagine what people thought of us; sitting under this shade tree two feet from the car; but I honestly felt like a queen. I don't think I've had another meal as memorable as that in my life.
    vedearduff likes this.
  6. St. Louis

    St. Louis Practically Family

    I just found a 1942 edition of the Good Housekeeping cookbook, which contains recipes for lunches for "Business Girls" Now that's exactly what I was looking for! Here's one I would definitely try--picture it presented in typical centered format:

    Cream Cheese and Nut Sandwiches
    Salad of Celery, Grapes and Apple
    mixed with Mayonnaise (in paper container)
    Chocolate Layer cake
    Hot Flavored Milk Beverage (vacuum bottle)

    Imagine eating all that! I'm not sure what they mean by paper container -- any ideas? I suppose the hot flavored milk beverate could be Ovaltine or the like.

    Here's another one:

    Corn Chowder (vacuum bottle)
    Cream Cheese and Olive Sandwiches
    Fruit Salad (again in a paper container)

    One more -- I like this one too, but I can't stand the thought of eating tongue. Blech. I'd substitute something.

    Minced Tongue Sandwiches on White Bread
    Tomato Stuffed with Vegetable Salad (in paper container)
    Milk (vacuum bottle)
    Fruit Packaged Cookies.

    Your thoughts?
  7. swanson_eyes

    swanson_eyes Practically Family

    Sounds good, but I can't do cake or cookies and would have to choose between the bread and the milk. I really like the idea of cream cheese and olive sandwhiches. That's a new one. In winter I use one of those food jars for soup. In summer I'm likely to throw a can of sparkling water in my bag. That's a nice little luxury I'm sure wasn't available then.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2015
  8. swanson_eyes

    swanson_eyes Practically Family

    Maybe by paper container they meant those boxes that chinese takeout comes in?
  9. St. Louis

    St. Louis Practically Family

    Yes, surely there must have been something like that available?

    Today I tried the grape-apple-celery salad. I made it with 1 cup each of black grapes, chopped celery, and diced. apple. I used Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise, mostly because Miracle Whip has been around since 1933 and has that slightly zesty, sweet flavor that people seemed to like so much during the late 1930s and early forties. I have to say, the salad was absolutely delicious and quite filling. It'll make a frequent appearance in my lunch box.

    I've been studying and trying various recipes in this cookbook, as well as in other Era women's magazines. Many of them work really well. I made a mac and cheese casserole the other night with diced peppers and tomatoes and grated mild cheddar. I think it would be a good carry-along meal if I could put it into a spill proof container.

    Some preliminary observations -- (and don't take this as gospel) -- the recipes mostly strike me as sweeter and somewhat less spiced than modern ones. And everything has to be made with butter, margarine, or bacon fat. My cookbook, which was first printed in 1942 and reissued in 1944 with a wartime rationing supplement, still recommends a fairly high level of fat content in most of the recipe ingredient lists.

    Most of the recipes call for a "speck" of pepper and the tiniest dash of paprika. When I made the mac and cheese casserole, I multiplied all the spices by a factor of 10. Seriously -- Worcestershire sauce, pepper, paprika, and dried mustard -- all tenfold, at least. I decided that was okay because most cooks spice things according to taste.
  10. "Sealright" containers were widely available as early as the twenties. These were round waxed cardboard cylinders with tight-fitting paper lids. They wouldn't insulate liquids like a thermos, but they were very popular for short-term storage and transportation of moist foods.

    Fat was considered very important in the Era. Malnutrition was a very common problem during the Depression era, even among "nice" families, and fat was seen as an important source of energy reserves. This wasn't as big a problem as it is today, because constant between-meal snacking and sucking on rich, sweet drinks like people do now didn't happen.
  11. swanson_eyes

    swanson_eyes Practically Family

    I'm a firm believer in watching carbohydrate levels, not being afraid of fat, and avoiding added sugars like the plague. I know newer studies need to be done, but I think it will all come out in the wash. I'm with you on the snacking. I was eating constantly last year, but I realize now it was in response to really wonky blood sugar that didn't allow me real hunger, but only hypoglycemia. My diet was causing the highs and lows, and what I was eating in response was perpetuating the nasty cycle. I had to fix it and now I can get even uncomfortably hungry without feeling like I will literally pass out. I'm sure back then they had real hunger, not this faint-i-ness from reactive hypoglycemia because they were not, in fact, sucking down sugary drinks and such. They ate real food.
  12. St. Louis

    St. Louis Practically Family

    I think that's undoubtedly true, swanson eyes. I don't know how many calories the average 30s /40s woman burned off each day, but I once read a food history of the U.S. that claimed that nineteenth-century Americans who did farm labor burned up to 4,000 calories a day. Astonishing. I imagine that the mid-twentieth century housewife or working woman was on her feet much more than modern women, and probably was also more active all day long.

    I do find it interesting that films from that era, at least those that portray the lives of upper-middle-class women, frequently show them trying to reduce or doing calisthenics. I guess their shopping and lunching activities didn't keep them slim enough.

    As I've been retro-fitting my daily life, I do notice that every gadget -- from the rotary telephone to the hand-cranked can opener -- makes me work harder. Took a bit of getting used to, but now I like it.
  13. Reducing was a big fad among the kind of women who hired other women to do their housework in the early to mid thirties, to the point where various poisonous drugs were being sold over the counter as weight-loss aids. The makers of a thyroid extract product called "Marmola" bribed a number of doctors to provide testimonials for the product, but after many women became extremely sick from it, it ended up being banned by the FDA.
  14. swanson_eyes

    swanson_eyes Practically Family

    I don't think it's necessarily totally about burning calories. The body deals with each macronutrient differently and it has a lot to do with hormones like insulin. We've learned a lot by studying diabetes. But yeah, you can't eat just thousands of calories a day and stay slim either. There's a limit somewhere. I'm very active at work and was walking a lot outside of work when I hit 219 lbs. During my reducing time I dropped the extra walks (change in schedule--no time) but still lost 30 lbs on my change in eating habits alone. I've been vegetarian for years but I don't eat nearly as much starch as some of them do. I've got a genetic predisposition toward diabetes and my metabolism has already sustained some damage, according to my labs.
  15. swanson_eyes

    swanson_eyes Practically Family

    I hate jobs where I sit all day. I'm on my feet all day. I just can't lift anything more than 10 lbs, though, due to an unstable spine. I hate that. I really like walking outside for miles. I tried jogging and it literally caused me pain in my neck. I could blow out a disc, so I have to be careful. Fortunately my appetite adjusts to my activity level. I wish people would listen to their bodies and also eat out less. It's cheaper, more creative, and probably healthier to take a lunch. I heart thermoses!
  16. Even office work kept you trimmer then- old typewriters needed to be beaten into submission and a good typist had lightening speed. Most typed messages/ memos in a building needed to be hand delivered and simple discussions were carried out in person. Public transport was the norm, so you walked to and from the nearest stops to work and home. You also had to carry home groceries and other items the same way. Many offices lacked elevators (and some were extremely slow if you needed to get a message somewhere quickly), so going anywhere meant the stairs.

    In a time before call waiting and having multiple lines became a standard practice, you often didn't tie up the phone line to call someone a few offices over from yours, you walked over to their room and talked it out. Today we'd send an email for the same thing.
  17. swanson_eyes

    swanson_eyes Practically Family

    You're making me hungry.
  18. swanson_eyes

    swanson_eyes Practically Family

    I'm watching I Love Lucy and wishing that drugstores still had lunch counters. Or, even better yet, that I could eat lunch at Woolworth's. I don't even know if it exists anymore!
  19. There are still Woolworth stores in the UK, or there were the last I knew, but the last American Woolworths closed in the '90s. The F. W. Woolworth Company still exists, though, under its new name -- FootLocker Corporation.

    We lost our last dimestore lunch counter here in 1998, when J. J. Newberrys went out of business. I used to eat there all the time -- the hamburgers were like meat-flavored hockey pucks, but they were cheap and fast, and that was what I was looking for.

    We had a downtown drugstore with a fountain/lunch counter until about seven years ago, when it was evicted from the storefront it had occupied for more than a hundred and twenty years by a bank intent on expanding its downtown branch. Many of us have not forgiven, and will not forgive, said bank.
  20. St. Louis

    St. Louis Practically Family

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