FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000

A System for Abundance

Postwar America enjoyed an abundant and widely affordable food supply. New technologies and applications of science—many of which originated during World War II to support military efforts—helped make this possible. Agricultural researchers developed new ways to control pests and weeds, fertilize crops, manipulate genetic material, and stimulate growth of livestock. Food companies centralized and automated production in modern factories, transforming the raw materials of agriculture into higher volumes of canned, frozen, and processed foods in less time and with fewer workers.

A Seasonless Vegetable

By 1950 iceberg lettuce was consumed more than any other vegetable in the United States. Much of the nation’s supply grew year-round on large, centralized farms in California’s Salinas Valley. Iceberg had been shipped cross-country in ice-packed rail cars since the 1920s.  But in the early 1950s, a new vacuum technology, repurposed from World War II, cooled lettuce more effectively than ice, resulting in less spoilage.  Once packed in wooden crates that could withstand melting ice, lettuce could now be field-packed in lighter, cardboard boxes, eliminating the need for a separate warehouse and packing staff.

Crate label, about 1949

Crate label, about 1949

Growers used labels like this on wooden shipping crates, a practice that ended once they began field-packing lettuce in cardboard boxes.

Field to Fridge

Large-scale, centralized production detached most consumers from the growing, shipping, and packaging of their food. As distances expanded between where food was grown and where people lived, most Americans were freed from the labor-intensive steps of food production—and less aware of their importance.

Magazine advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s revealed a few of the steps that brought lettuce to supermarkets across the country, and a few of the interests invested in large-scale lettuce production.

Lettuce ad, 1960

Lettuce ad, 1960

The farmworkers who harvest lettuce are critical to the supply chain, but they are only shadows behind the grower in this ad for a supermarket chain.

Rail transportation ad, 1964

Rail transportation ad, 1964

The Southern Pacific Railroad called attention to its refrigerated train cars and their key role in transporting fresh produce.

Cellophane ad, 1957

Cellophane ad, 1957

In the mid-1950s cellophane manufacturers promised cleanliness, convenience, and happier customers to supermarkets that sold wrapped produce.