A Hundred Years of Processed Foods

Campbell's Soup - advertising
Advertising from 1932: retro-ads.net
It's crazy to think that the same chicken noodle soup I ate as a kid also fed children who grew up in the era of the Titanic and World War I. The 1910's saw the invention of zippers, refrigerators, telephones, and traffic lights - ordinary items that we take for granted, or, the case of telephones, find almost passé (if you're anything like me, you haven't had a home - or business, for that matter - landline for years). As someone said to me recently, we call it "technology" if it doesn't always work. And I can't think of anything from that decade that we would still label with the term. To put the era in even more perspective, Arizona became a state in 1912, the same year that x-rays were discovered.

So stumbling across a survey of advertised retail prices from the Daily Record in Morris County, New Jersey from October 1-15, 1910 was quite interesting. I've put the inflation-adjusted dollars in parentheses. Note the price of eggs in particular.

Bacon: $0.20 ($4.62) per pound
Beef, pot roast: $0.125 ($2.89) per pound
Bread: $0.10 ($2.31) for three loaves
Butter: $0.30 ($6.93) per pound
Cereal, Kellogg's Corn Flakes: $0.09 ($2.08) per box
Eggs: $0.27 ($6.24) per dozen
Juice, Welch's Grape: $0.35 ($8.09) per quart
Lamb chops: $0.18 ($4.16) per pound
Soup, Campbell's: $0.25 ($5.78) for three cans

And to put the food prices in perspective, here's how much a five-room apartment (I'm guessing this would be two bedrooms) would cost: $25.00 ($578.00) per month. The average salary was $750 ($17,326.98) per year - and the average woman lived to 52. Men only lived to 48. (Granted, I don't have statistics on hand for how much infant mortality skewed these numbers). Social security and income tax didn't exist, and people worked six days a week, 12 hours a day.

Here's a comparison to current prices in the same county:

Bacon: $6.99 per pound **
Beef, roast eye of round: $5.49 per pound **
Bread: $5.00 for two loaves *
Butter: $4.59 per pound **
Cereal, Cheerios: $3.79 per box *
Eggs,: $2.29 per dozen *
Juice, Welch's Grape: $1.60 per quart **
Lamb chops: $6.49 per pound **
Soup, Campbell's: $2.00 for three cans *

Two-bedroom apartment: $2200.00 per month *
Average salary: $34,410 a year

Conclusions? Welch's Grape Juice is cheap in our modern times, as is Campbell's soup. (Can you believe that both brands have lasted over 100 years?) But while the price of processed food has gone down quite significantly, the price of housing has quadrupled and salaries have only doubled. No wonder we've become a nation of processed, fast food.

* A survey of retail prices advertised in the Daily Record, Morris County, New Jersey, October 1-15, 2010.
** Prices according to Peapod for Morris County, June 2011 - since we're comparing today's standard prices with advertised prices from 1910, I usually chose a modern price on the cheaper end, which I hope will approximate sale pricing.


  1. Adding to the processed food situation is CORN. Ugh. Most of the snacks/cereals that provide the least nutritional value are heavily corn-based. My understanding is that corn is heavily government subsidized, making it a cheap foodstuff that ends up in everything.


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