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Although the scientific origins of the calorie date back to the 1820s, calorie counting for weight loss only became popular in the late 1910s and 1920s. Placing this development in the broader context of the Progressive Era, this article considers how calorie counting and the reconstitution of food as calories reflected the period's fixation with science, rationalization, and quantification. This article also situates calorie counting within shifting bodily ideals among white women in the 1920s, and the ways in which class and race informed the promotion of the slender body as the feminine ideal. The second half of this article focuses on exchanges between Lulu Hunt Peters, a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of a best-selling calorie-counting guide, and advice-seeking readers of her column. While Peters presented calorie counting as empowering for dieters and a way for them to seize control over their weight, her calorie-restriction program facilitated a new form of bodily discipline and self-regulation during a period that saw enhanced forms of surveillance in other areas of life.

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The title of this article derives from historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg's 1997 book, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Random House, 1997).



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2 Peters, Lulu Hunt, Diet and Health with Key to the Calories (Chicago: The Reilly and Lee Company, 1918), reader entry in “Weekly Weight Chart,” unpaginated. This particular copy of Diet and Health was obtained from the Northwestern University library system in 2006. Adelaide Hoag bequeathed her copy of Diet and Health to the Archibald Church Library of Northwestern University in Nov. 1930. An inscription on the back cover of the book read, Merry Christmas, Adelaide, Junius. (Junius was Hoag's husband.)

3 Peters outlined her “rule to find ideal weight”: “Multiply number of inches over 5 ft. in height by 5 ½; add 110.” Hoag, however, calculated her ideal weight incorrectly. She yielded 20.5 rather than 22 when multiplying 4 x 5½. See Peters, Diet and Health, 11.

4 Ibid.

5 Peters, Diet and Health (Northwestern copy). Weight chart is unpaginated.

6 Schwartz, Hillel, Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies, and Fat (New York: Free Press, 1986), 175; Jou, Chin, “Counting Calories,” Chemical Heritage 29:1 (Spring 2011), (accessed Jan. 20, 2016); “Los Angeles Physician Writes ‘Best-Seller,’” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1922, II3; Carole Sugarman, “The History of Thinking Thin,” Washington Post, June 16, 1987, A1; Peters, Lulu Hunt, Diet and Health with Key to the Calories (Chicago: Reilly and Lee Co., 1929), inside cover. This book may have sold particularly well for the following reasons: (1) it contained a very comprehensive list of the caloric values of specified amounts of commonly consumed foods (127 foods from every food group); (2) it instructed readers how many calories they should consume based on gender and level of physical activity; (3) it provided tables for readers to keep track of their weight loss.

7 “Dietary Discoveries Better Human Health,” New York Times, Mar. 10, 1929, 158.

8 Roberts, Lydia J., Nutrition Work with Children (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927), 55; Jou, “Counting Calories.”

9 Peters, Lulu Hunt, Diet for Children (and Adults) and The Kalorie Kids (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1924), 177. “Dorothy” did not indicate her height, so it is not known whether her weight did indeed exceed Peters's weight-height strictures.

10 Ibid.

11 Peters, “Diet and Health,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1922, II7. Although “B.N.” did not report her height, she noted to Peters that “[b]y your way of figuring I should be 135,” which meant that she was approximately 5 feet 4 ½ inches.

12 Ibid. “B.N.” wrote that she “tr[ied] to keep to 1000 Cs. a day.”

13 Peters did, however, instruct readers to try to maintain a balanced diet replete with fruit and vegetables, carbohydrates, protein, and even fat, but only after they achieved their goal weight. Even so, those with a propensity to gain weight would have to count calories for the remainder of their lives. See Peters, Diet and Health, 38–39, 94; Peters, Diet for Children (and Adults) and the Kalorie Kids, chap. 8.

14 “Reducing” is in quotations because the term was a synonym for “dieting” during this period.

15 McCollum, E. V. (Elmer Verner), A History of Nutrition: The Sequence of Ideas in Nutrition Investigations (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), 127–28, 150; Atwater, W. O. (Wilbur Olin), “The Potential Energy of Food,” The Century 34:3 (July 1887): 401.

16 McCollum, A History of Nutrition, 204. For more on Pettenkofer and Voit's studies, see also Widdowson, Elise M., “The First Fifty Years,” Nutrition in the 20th Century, ed. Winick, Myron (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1984).

17 Jou, “Counting Calories.”

18 Ibid.; Cullather, Nick, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” The American Historical Review 112:2 (Apr. 2007): 346.

19 Atwater, W. O., Principles of Nutrition and Nutritive Value of Food, United States Department of Agriculture Farmer's Bulletin (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1902), 44.

20 W. O. Atwater, “The Inadequately Nourished,” undated paper, film 4, reel 8, Wilbur Olin Atwater Papers, 1872–1914 (“Additional Papers, 1869–1914”), Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (reproduced as microfilm from Wilbur Olin Atwater Papers, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT).

21 Cullather, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” 338.

22 Ibid., 348; Jou, “Counting Calories.”

23 “Food and Nutrition in the Depression Period,” Journal of the American Medical Association (Jan. 2, 1932): 50; A. Hendee (artist), “Eat Less, and Let Us Be Thankful That We Have Enough to Share with Those Who Fight for Freedom (Chicago: A. Hendee Edwards & Deutsch Litho. Co., 1918), photograph, retrieved from the Library of Congress, (accessed Sept. 4, 2017).”

24 Cullather, 348; Jou, “Counting Calories.”

25 Veit, Helen Zoe, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

26 For more on the history of home economists, see Goldstein, Carolyn, Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Rethinking Home Economics: Women and the History of a Profession, eds. Stage, Sarah and Vincenti, Virginia B. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); Shapiro, Laura, Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1986); Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food; Biltekoff, , Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

27 Jou, Chin, “Make America's (Foodways) Great Again: Nostalgia, Early Twentieth Century Dietary Critiques, and the Specter of Obesity in Contemporary Food Commentary,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 17:1 (2017): 23.

28 Lowe maintains that African American students at Spelman College, for example, were more focused on skin care and hair-grooming rituals rather than preoccupied with weight loss. Lowe also notes that “nineteenth-century connections between robust bodies, fat, health, and prosperity that had faded for middle-class white Americans by the 1920s remained potent symbols for African Americans still on the economic margin.” Lowe, Margaret A., Looking Good: College Women and Body Image, 1875–1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 150–51.

29 See Lowe, Looking Good; Brumberg, The Body Project; Seid, Robert, Never Too Thin: Why Women Are at War with Their Bodies (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1989); Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920's (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); Levenstein, Harvey A., Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 166. A creation of the prominent artist Charles Dana Gibson, the image of the Gibson Girl appeared in advertisements and books, and even on ashtrays, matchboxes, teacups, saucers, tiles, wallpapers, pillow covers, and numerous other household items. For more on the cultural significance of the Gibson Girl, see Clarke, Michael Tavel, These Days of Large Things: The Culture of Size in America, 1865–1930 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 184.

30 Annie Dewey, “Methods of Organization and Control in Institutional Departments. Menu and Meal Systems: A New Plan,” Journal of Home Economics (Nov. 1910): 521, American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences Collection, No. 6578, Box 508, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. One could argue, of course, that waiters did not enjoy serving women for other reasons, and that women patrons allegedly tipped less than men because they had lower incomes or depended on allowances from men in their households.

31 Pirtle, T. R., History of the Dairy Industry (Chicago: Mojonnier Bros. Company, 1926), 133. Pirtle reports that some Boston employers sought to prevent fatigue and fainting spells from starvation by encouraging their employees to drink milk during mid-day. Implementing this practice apparently “reduce[d] the time lost through employee sickness.”

32 For more on American workers feigning fatigue or illness in order to evade work, see Kelley, Robin D. G., Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: Free Press, 1996).

33 “‘Boyish Figure’ Aim Brings Health Test,” New York Times, Feb. 22, 1926, 3.

34 Roberts, Nutrition Work with Children, 291.

35 Lowe, Looking Good, 144. Lowe points out that a decline in food costs could have also contributed to the reduced food expenditures, but that the Smith College campus warden suspected students’ dieting to be a significant factor. It should also be noted that while Smith students eschewed potatoes in favor of low-calorie vegetables, they did not always abide by their food restriction programs. Lowe is careful to point out that they (and their counterparts at Cornell University, another one of Lowe's case studies) occasionally “stuffed themselves at campus spreads and in downtown restaurants; they skipped meals and snacked between them; and they indulged in cakes, fudge, and other sweets.” See Lowe, Looking Good, 140. But when they did violate their diets, Smith students were racked with guilt, primarily because food indulgences could result in weight gain and make them appear weak willed.

36 Ibid., 143. The letter to the editor, titled, “To Diet or Not to Die Yet?” was published in the Oct. 29, 1924, issue of the Smith College Weekly. The authors did not sign their names, only their class graduation years.

37 For more on the history of scales, see Gilman, Sander L., Fat Boys: A Slim Book (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 89; Czerniawski, Amanda M., “From Average to Ideal: The Evolution of the Height and Weight Table in the United States, 1836–1943,” Social Science History 31:2 (Summer 2007): 273; Kercher, John, “Obesity,” Illinois Medical Journal 40 (July 1921): 19; Berge, Ann F. La, “How the Ideology of Low Fat Conquered America,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 63:2 (Apr. 2008): 141.

38 “Fat Women Busy Reducing; Thin Ones Adding Weight,” New York Times, July 16, 1925, X10.

39 Ibid.

40 See Lowe, Margaret A., “From Robust Appetites to Calorie Counting: The Emergence of Dieting Among Smith College Students in the 1920s,” Women and Health in America, ed. Leavitt, Judith Walzer (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), 175; Czerniawski, 280. For more on the history of height and weight tables, see Weigley, Emma Seifrit, “Average? Ideal? Desirable? A Brief Overview of Height-Weight Tables in the United States,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 84:4 (1984): 417–23.

41 Cummings, Richard Osborn, The American and His Food (New York: Arno Press, 1970), 161. It was not that middle-aged and older women refrained from dieting; they frequently did. A 1925 New York Times article quoted a dance instructor as saying, “I'm just swamped with middle-aged classes. They'll go through anything to reduce and call for more.” See Fat Women Busy Reducing; Thin Ones Adding Weight,” X10. But despite their weight-loss efforts, older women were generally heavier than their younger counterparts, according to surveys commissioned by life insurance companies.

42 See “Women Cut Weight to Suit Fashions,” New York Times, May 25, 1915, 6; Steele, Valerie, Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 241.

43 Brumberg, Joan Jacobs, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa (New York: Vintage, 2000), 182.

44 Jou, “Counting Calories.”

45 Søland, Birgitte, Becoming Modern: Young Women and the Reconstruction of Womanhood in the 1920s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 51.

46 Lucrezia Bori, “How You May Reduce Your Hips by a Few Simple Daily Exercises,” Washington Post, Aug. 26, 1921, 4.

47 Soland, 55.

48 Ibid., 51, 55.

49 “This Too Solid Flesh,” New York Times, Feb. 25, 1926, 22.

50 See Segrave, Kerry, Obesity in America, 1850–1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2008), 117; “Fat Women Hopeless, Says Poiret,” Ogden (UT) Standard Examiner, Jan. 13, 1923, 6.

51 See, for example, Ewen, Stuart and Ewen, Elizabeth, Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 117.

52 Jou, “Counting Calories.” For more on how “slendernesss symbolizes the freedom from want,” see Cassidy, Claire, “The Good Body: When Big Is Better,” Medical Anthropology 13:3 (1991), 203. For more on the transformation in food production during this period, see Jou, “Make America's (Foodways) Great Again: Nostalgia, Early Twentieth-Century Dietary Critiques, and the Specter of Obesity in Contemporary Food Commentary,” 22.

53 In his discussion of “civilized restraints,” Stearns cites the German sociologist Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process (1939). See Stearns, Peter N., Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 249.

54 Ibid.

55 Bynum, Caroline Walker, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); Griffith, R. Marie, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

56 Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food, 159, 4.

57 Faludi, Susan, Backlash The Undeclared War Against Women (New York: Crown, 1991).

58 Wolf, Naomi, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (New York: Chatto and Windus, 1990).

59 Frost, Liz, Young Women and the Body: A Feminist Sociology (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 176.

60 Ibid.

61 Belasco, Warren, Food: The Key Concepts (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2008), 2.

62 Adelaide Hoag was married to Dr. Junius Clarkson Hoag. The couple's address can be found on page 126 of a directory of the Chicago Woman's Club, 1917–1918. See Chicago Woman's Club (no publication information), (accessed Sept. 4, 2017). Junius Hoag's tenure as president of the Chicago Medical Society can be found here: “Current and Past Presidents of the Chicago Medical Society, 1850–Present,” Chicago Medical Society, (accessed Sept. 4, 2017).

63 See, for example, Peters, Los Angeles Times, Apr. 7, 1923, II9; Aug. 19, 1922, II7.

64 For an example of how historians have explained the “crisis of masculinity,” see Messner, Michael A., Out of Play: Critical Essays on Gender and Sport (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 35.

65 Ibid.

66 Refer to Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food, and Biltkeoff, Eating Right in America, for more context on progressive food reformers.

67 Peters, Diet for Children (and Adults) and The Kalorie Kids, 57.

68 Jou, “Counting Calories.”

69 Peters, “Diet and Health,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 31, 1923, 11; Peters, Diet and Health, 88. Peters did not initially caution readers that weight loss would vary depending on dieters’ initial weight, or that their weight loss might eventually plateau. By the 1920s, however, she would note the latter phenomenon in her syndicated column.

70 Ibid., 28–29.

71 Lusk, Graham, Food in War Time (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, 1918), 39. Added emphasis.

72 Lowe, “From Robust Appetites to Calorie Counting: The Emergence of Dieting among Smith College Students in the 1920s,” 183.

73 Donnelly, Antoinette, How to Reduce, New Waistlines for Old (New York: D. Appelton, 1920), 28. Besides Donnelly, there were a number of other newspaper columnists who wrote on beauty. One of the better-known columnists was Lina Cavalieri, an Italian opera singer whose byline in the Washington Post read, “Mme. Lina Cavalieri, the most famous living beauty.” See Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850–1939, 53.

74 This idea derives from Michel Foucault's theoretical perspectives on power and disciplinary regimes, as well as other scholars’ interrogations on the making of the sex binary, gender, and sexual norms. See Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Sheridan, Alan (New York: Pantheon, 1978); Laqueur, Thomas, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990); Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, 3 vols., trans. Hurley, Robert (New York: Pantheon, 1978–86).

75 Peters, “Diet and Health,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 24, 1923, II8.

76 Peters, “Diet and Health,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 31, 1923, I11.

77 Ibid.

78 Peters, Diet for Children (and Adults) and The Kalorie Kids, 172.

79 For more on the history of diabetics weighing their food, see Schwartz, Never Satisfied, 172–73.

80 One could argue that in modern America, scientific discoveries that could not be seen by the naked eye (e.g., calories and bacteria) came to be accepted as real entities. For more on how the discovery of microbes changed American life, see Tomes, Nancy, Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

81 See Porter, Theodore M., Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995); Bouk, Dan, How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

82 Apple, Rima, Vitamins in American Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996).

83 Peters, Diet and Health, 24; Jou, “Counting Calories.” Added emphasis.

84 See Brumberg, The Body Project.

85 Peters, “Diet and Health,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 29, 1922, II8.

86 Peters, “Diet and Health,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 23, 1923, II8.

87 According to Peters's calorie-counting gospel, if one were to indulge in high calorie foods on a special occasion, one would have to atone for such a dietary lapse by severely restricting caloric intake on subsequent days. Peters informed readers of her column that she was not going to deny herself a Thanksgiving buffet consisting of “turkey with chestnut dressing, rich gravy with the giblets minced in it, candied sweet potatoes and mashed Irish, a bunch of celery, a big dish of boiled onions with cream gravy, some baked squash, a dish of corn, some cranberry sauce, hot biscuits, salad, pumpkin and mince pie, and finally some nuts, raisins, candy and fruit.” The day following her Thanksgiving profligacy, however, Peters intended to place herself on a virtual starvation diet: “Then tomorrow I shall go on a low calorie day, not over 600 calories of liquids or fruit—skimmed milk (1 glass, 80 C's)[,] consommé (fat free, 2 cups, 50 C's). And in this manner I shall free myself of the excess bird I put on today.” See Peters, “Diet and Health,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 30, 1922, II8.

88 Peters, “Diet and Health,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 23, 1923, II8.

89 Peters, Diet and Health with Key to the Calories, 1918 ed., 84.

90 Ibid.

91 Ibid., 89.

92 Ibid., 94.

93 Ibid.

94 Ibid., 92.

95 While Fletcherizing is characterized here as the chewing of food far beyond what would be adequate for digestion, Fletcher himself maintained that slow and prolific mastication was essential to “healthy” digestion. See Fletcher, Horace, The A. B.-Z. of Our Own Nutrition (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1903), 1920.

96 Peters, Diet and Health with Key to the Calories, 1918 ed., 81.

97 Ibid.

98 Peters, “Diet and Health,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 12, 1923, II8.

99 Ibid.

100 Ibid., Mar. 8, 1923, II8.

101 For more on the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century, see MacLean, Nancy, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

102 See Seid, Never Too Thin, 91. Margaret A. Lowe similarly relates that, “when postwar depictions of working class, immigrant, or African American women surfaced in student literary magazines or the college newspaper, they were indeed described as having ‘sturdy’ or ‘hearty’ constitutions.” See Lowe, Looking Good, 147. It should be pointed out, however, that this notion that labor marred the looks of working-class women from the “Old World,” existed before the 1920s. In 1881, George Beard, the physician best known for his delineation of the “disease of civilization,” neurasthenia, asserted: “Among the middle and lower orders of the old world, beauty is kept down by labor. A woman who works all day in the field is not likely to be very handsome, nor to be the mother of handsome daughters; for, while mental and intellectual activity in the middle age heightens beauty[,] muscular toil, out-doors or in-doors, destroys it.” See Beard, George M., American Nervousness, Its Causes and Consequences; A Supplement to Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1881), 67. For more on advertisements featuring representations of aristocratic femininity, see Marchand, Roland, Advertising the American Dream: Making the Way for Modernity, 1920–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 181–84.

103 For more on Progressive Era conflations of food consumption habits with morality, see Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food, and Biltkoff, Eating Right in America.

104 See Jou, “Make America's (Foodways) Great Again.”

105 Peters, “Diet and Health,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 13, 1923, II7.

106 Ibid.

107 See Levine, Deborah I., “The Curious History of the Calorie in U.S. Foreign Policy: A Tradition of Unfulfilled Promises,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 52:1 (2017): 125–29; Biltekoff, Eating Right in America; Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food.

108 Several years earlier, the U.S. Food Administration, of course, had discouraged Americans from eating candy because its primary ingredient—sugar—need to be conserved to feed soldiers.

109 See Morrison, W. F., “The Harmfulness of Over Eating,” Providence Medical Journal 5 (1904): 174; Litchfield, Lawrence, “The Importance of Weight Control in the Maintenance of Health and in the Management of Disease,” The Pennsylvania Medical Journal 25:10 (July 1922): 676; Russell Chittenden, “Physiological Economy in Nutrition” in Fletcher, The A. B.-Z. of Our Own Nutrition, 80; Butler, George F., “Overeating and Its Influence on Longevity,” Medical Exam and Practice 16 (1906): 202.

110 Chittenden, “Physiological Economy in Nutrition,” 80.

111 Morrison,178; Litchfield, 676; Owen, , “Food—What It Is, and What It Should Be,” International Clinics 2 (1912): 61.

112 Webster, Ralph W., Metabolic Aspects of Overfeeding and of Underfeeding,” American Medicine (New Series) 2:6 (June 1907): 354; see also Chittenden, Russell H., The Nutrition of Man (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1907), 158, for the articulation of a similar viewpoint.

113 See Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food, 4, for a characterization of Progressive Era nutrition authorities’ predilection for “downplaying the pleasure of eating—and even renouncing pleasure altogether in some cases …”

114 Again, see Foucault, Discipline and Punish, for the theoretical basis of this claim. For more on how technology and scientific innovation failed to emancipate women from household tasks, see Cowan, Ruth Schwartz, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

The title of this article derives from historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg's 1997 book, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Random House, 1997).

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The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
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