Drinking, eating and smoking the socialist way: The CPUSA’s advice on diet in the 1930s

This is the third installment in a series of blog posts on the Communist Party of the USA’s inter-war health journal, Health and Hygiene. You can find the other posts here and here.

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Diet and vegetarianism

The journal was also very concerned about the diet of workers, with numerous articles on what was considered healthy eating in the 1930s. Coming out of the Great Depression, there was a major anxiety about working class people being under-nourished and underweight, with the editors of Health and Hygiene rallying against the ‘crushing semi-starvation relief and low-wage diets that have been forced upon the unemployed and a large part of the labouring population’. The focus of many of the articles featured in the journal thus was on how to moderately gain weight through diet, warning against many of the popular remedies offered at the time:

Left to the kind advice of their friends or the direction of their parents, our too-slim friends are told take this tonic or that tonic, a tonic with cod liver oil or another with malt or one with iron, seaweed, iodine or whatnot. Unseen ‘friends’ over the radio bellow yeast, tasty or ironized. Even whiskey before meals is suggested; in fact, many patented tonics are nothing but wine or flavoured alcohol.

Instead the journal recommended a recognisably healthy diet of vegetables, fruits, cereals, dairy products, soups, meat and fish, but also recommended ‘miscellaneous’ foods, such as ‘ice cream, cake, pie, mayonnaise, olive oil, gelatin [sic], custards, puddings, jam, marmalade, nuts, candy in moderation and so forth.’ Alongside these dietary suggestions, the same article recommended ‘a certain amount of exercise’ and a ‘sufficient amount of sleep’.

The journal was primarily concerned with workers and their families (including the large number of unemployed workers) who were under-nourished in the 1930s. It recognised that it was ‘obviously impossible to hope to attain anything resembling a well-balanced diet for people on present relief allowances’, but encouraged its readers to ‘spend as much for milk, cream and cheese as for meats, poultry and fish; and as much for fruits and vegetables as for meats, poultry and fish.’ Unlike contemporary health concerns for the working class, the journal believed there was more of a danger from under-eating than over-eating:

Life insurance statistics indicate that over-weight individuals die younger than those of correct weight. It is felt, however, that this constitutes no great danger to the mass of American workers and farmers.

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The journal focused on certain types of food and drink that they promoted as healthy and helpful in gaining weight for the ‘too-slim’ individual. Milk was endorsed as a ‘near-perfect food’ and was championed for its relative cheapness, its help in building muscles and developing bones and teeth, its importance for babies and children, and its vitamin count, as well as being ‘an excellent source of fat’. Milk was described as ‘the most digestible of all foods’, with the journal suggesting that a pint of milk could ‘make up, to a certain extent, for deficiencies due to lack of fresh meat and vegetables.’ As well as promoting the consumption of milk, the journal also warned against the rumours published in the widely-read magazine Coronet that milk and dairy products increased the risk of cancer. Calling these rumours ‘gibberish, bombast, claptrap, moonshine and self-delusion’, the journal countered by saying that there was ‘no reason why shouldn’t continue to urge those who can enjoy milk to drink it’. ‘Not enough people’, the journal continued, ‘are drinking milk, rather than that too much is being consumed’, and encouraged ‘Negroes and poor whites’ to consume more.

Meat was another food that was highly celebrated by the journal. It was seen as a valuable source of protein that could not be wholly substituted by milk and eggs, and particularly important for workers and the unemployed as they were susceptible to developing pellagra, a disease caused by malnutrition. The journal claimed that it was ‘the absence of meat and liver in the diets of Southern workers that is responsible for an incidence of about 250,000 cases of pellagra.’ The journal warned against a ‘fear of meat’, declaring:

Meat does not cause high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, diseases of the kidneys, or gout. We do not know the cause of these ailments.

It further stated that it was ‘astonishing how the fear of meat affects a considerable number of otherwise intelligent people’ and criticised those vegetarians who practised this particular diet ‘because of certain fears and scruples about meat.’ But it conceded that for the most part, vegetarianism was safe and suitable dietary choice, if it included eggs and dairy:

Such a vegetarian diet… has much to commend it. It will furnish every vitamin, mineral, and food necessary to good health. It will enable one to work and play as efficiently as the person who includes meat in his diet. Anyone who is fond of such a vegetarian diet can continue to enjoy it without fearing loss of efficiency.

Two years earlier, the journal had rallied against vegetarianism as a fad, but its definition of a vegetarian was closer to that of what would be considered nowadays to be a vegan:

The strict vegetarian diet does not eat milk, butter, cheese, eggs and sometimes honey, because these foods are of animal origin.

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The journal stated that it would be ‘difficult’ for a person to ‘maintain good health on a strict vegetarian diet’ and warned against it for infants and children. It further claimed, ‘Some healthy adults can keep healthy on a strict vegetarian diet, but they have a hard job before them.’ It suggested that vegetarians have attempted to ‘place a pseudo-scientific mask over their cult’, but ‘for all that masking, vegetarianism remains mystic and ideal in the worst sense.’ Workers, the journal argued, needed strength to overthrow the capitalist system and from this point of view:

Engaging in a cult like vegetarianism does not only rob the bodies of these workers of whatever strength they might get immediately from the healthier foods that they fight for. It also takes their minds off the more important problems of the day.

Addictive substances

While addictive substances, such as alcohol and smoking, are now considered public health issues, the journal dedicated little space to these topics. This is even though the journal’s editors clearly viewed alcohol abuse as a significant problem, with an article from August 1936 declaring:

Morphine, cocaine, marihuana are all gross offenders, but alcohol is probably more destructive, from a medical and social standpoint, than all other drugs together…

Written three years after the end of Prohibition in the United States, the journal acknowledged the ‘universal popularity’ of alcohol, but reminded its readers that drinking beyond moderation, both in the short term and the long term, had a number of detrimental effects upon one’s health. It noted that ‘drinking in moderation will not injure the general health’, but cautioned that there were times when alcohol was to be ‘entirely avoided’, such as when conducting work needing precision or physical efficiency. In the end, the journal advised, ‘A wise rule is never to take a drink during working hours.’

Although it saw alcoholism as a public health problem, the journal warned against returning to Prohibition and state-enforced temperance. In 1932, towards the end of Prohibition, William Z. Foster criticised the illegality of alcohol in a pamphlet Towards Soviet America:

Prohibition, based upon a criminal alliance between capitalists, crooked politicians and gangsters, has bred a growth of criminals such as the world has never seen before. And the “best minds” of the country stand powerless before the problem. The American Soviet government will deal with this question by eliminating prohibition, by establishing government control of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic liquors; these measures to be supported by an energetic campaign among the masses against excessive drinking.

Foster pointed to the anti-alcohol campaigns undertaken in the Soviet Union as evidence that the Stalin regime were winning the war against ‘the evils of alcoholism’ (even though drinking increased under Stalin’s first Five Year Plan).

This attitude towards Prohibition remained in late 1936, declaring it was ‘tried and proved itself a failure’. On the other hand, it stated that temperance campaigns were ‘equally futile’. The journal argued that essentially alcoholism was a psychological issue, often triggered by people’s socio-economic position. The journal concluded:

As the difficulties in the outer world increase, causing greater inner stress, more and more people turn to drink… Any effective attack on alcoholism must have its basis in the creation of a reasonable society, where people can have the opportunity for work and self-expression. In such a society even potentially weak persons would be able to get along without cracking under the strain. More important still, such a society would develop far fewer potentially weak persons.

This reinforced Foster’s argument from 1932, where he claimed that socialism in the USSR was ‘rapidly wiping out alcoholism and the mass of misery and degradation that accompanies it.’

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 On the other hand, the journal, like many other medical practitioners at the time, refused to condemn smoking as harmful to one’s health. Those who warned people with ‘highly colored and lurid versions of the evil effects of smoking in health and in illness’ were, in the eyes of the journal, ‘[p]seudo-scientific writers, physical culture faddists, fake medical advisors and columnists’. The claim that the journal emphasised was that ‘it is not possible to say with scientific accuracy whether or not smoking in moderation is harmful to the healthy individual’. While not giving an exact meaning of what could be considered ‘in moderation’, this was the point that the journal sought to reiterate, stating, Smoking to excess is harmful, of course, just as is over-eating, over-exercising, [or] over-working.’ This point was followed soon after by this claim, ‘So far as we know, also, smoking does not shorten life’, adding that ‘[m]any smokers live to a ripe old age.’

The journal suggested that certain people shouldn’t smoke, such as those with problems with their veins, heart or stomach, and also noted that some individuals could not smoke ‘without developing symptoms of poisoning’. But did not advocate for people to quit smoking. It concluded:

if you wish to smoke, and you have no disease which makes smoking undesirable for you, there is no good reason known at present why you should not go ahead and enjoy the habit, provided you are moderate.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment on syphilis!

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