Weird History
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Here's What Nuclear Families Ate In The Postwar Era United States

Updated April 29, 2019 3.2k votes 547 voters 30.8k views12 items

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In the years after WWII, Americans became more affluent than they had been in previous generations. Veterans were going to college and buying homes in droves, the population boomed, and cities around the country grew rapidly. 

As Americans enjoyed greater prosperity, their day-to-day habits changed due to new innovations and technologies. They wanted to be able to come home after a long day of work, put on their favorite 1950s TV show, and enjoy a quickly cooked meal with their families. Refrigerators were more accessible to the average family than ever before and they soon came to change the American palate. Consumers didn't have to go to the butcher shop every day to pick up the night's entree, and leftovers could be stored overnight without spoiling. 

Families of the 1950s wanted everything to be convenient and filling, and some of the dishes that figured heavily in American diets reflected those purposes. Some of those foods have disappeared in subsequent decades, but others are still with us.

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  • Photo: Classic Film / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
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    Kids Lived On Peanut Butter and Jelly

    If you grew up in the '50s or '60s, chances are you ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches pretty regularly. While the combination has been around since the dawn of the 20th century, the sandwich became increasingly popular during WWII when it was featured on ration menus. When servicemen came home to their families, they brought the sandwich with them and passed it down to their kids. From there, its popularity only increased.

    In its heyday,  the sandwich was eaten in the home, the workplace, school cafeterias, and campgrounds. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were perfect for a post-WWII America in which women were breaking social expectations and entering the workforce: PB&Js were easy to prepare and connected generations.

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  • Photo: Classic Film / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
    2

    Meatloaf Was The Quintessential American Dish

    Although the dish dates back to 5th-century Europe, meatloaf was introduced to the US as a breakfast food in the 1870s. It took another two decades to gain a foothold in American cuisine as industrial-scale meatpacking became more commonplace. During the Depression and WWII, the meal allowed American families to make the most of whatever meat they had by mixing in breadcrumbs or cereal and eggs. 

    After WWII, meatloaf exploded as a family favorite across the country, so much so that there were 70 different recipes for the dish in Doyne Nickerson's book 365 Ways to Cook Hamburger. American moms everywhere made meatloaf to stretch the family food budget, and families enjoyed the hearty, ketchup-covered dish. Today, some restaurants feature meatloaf as a nostalgia trip for those who miss this long-established comfort food. 

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    Flaky Baked Goods Were Created With Crisco

    Crisco shortening was in every pantry in the 1950s. Proctor and Gamble introduced it in 1911 as a healthy alternative to lard. It was made from partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, which made pastries flakier and fried foods crispier. 

    During the middle of the 20th century, Crisco became increasingly popular as an alternative to other fats. By around 1950, health advocates began warning of the dangers of saturated fats; concerned for their health, many families switched to Crisco. This trend, however, reversed in the 1990s when studies showed that trans fats were actually worse for you. Crisco is still on store shelves today, but has a different formula than it did in the 1950s. 

     

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  • Photo: Classic Film / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
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    TV Dinners Became Prevalent When Televisions Were Introduced Into Every Home

    In 1949, brothers Albert and Meyer Bernstein created the company Frozen Dinners, Inc., and began serving full dinners on aluminum trays in the Pittsburgh area. These quick meals immediately took off. Within a year, the company had sold more than 400,000 frozen dinners. Within five years, the brothers had changed the name of their business to the Quaker State Food Corporation and had sold more than 2.5 million dinners. 

    It wasn't until 1953, when Swanson began selling and advertising its own prepackaged dinners, that the frozen meal became known as the "TV dinner" and became one of the most defining meals of the 1950s. Swanson sold 25 million TV dinners in 1954 alone.  The meals appealed to families because they were convenient, cheap, and delicious. Of course, it didn't hurt that television was becoming the next big thing at the same time, and TV dinners allowed families to eat while watching their favorite shows. 

     

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