Continuing the journey through the history and evolution of baby food in America, we'll now get into the roaring '20s and take it through the '30s. This was a transformative era, when baby food began its migration from kitchen counters to grocery store shelves. This period not only revolutionized baby food but also mirrored broader societal changes.
Enter the Age of Convenience
Imagine the 1920s and '30s, two decades marked by rapid industrial growth, societal changes, and, yes, the advent of commercial baby food.
The father of the commercial baby food industry may well be Harold Clapp. A Rochester NY native, Harold Clapp’s story was told back in 2019 on the Democrat & Chronicle website, Rochester’s local news organization. About Mr. & Mrs. Clapp, they wrote, “The Clapps were to baby food as George Eastman was to film. Starting small in Rochester, they launched an entire industry. Indeed, their company was Gerber’s before there was Gerber’s.”
But Clapp’s canned baby food, shortly followed by Gerber’s iconic jars, was so much more than just a product launch and new category; it was the beginning of a convenience revolution in baby food that would set the tone for the rest of the century. Parents were now presented with a new, convenient way of feeding their babies, one that would significantly influence parenting – and nutrition – in the decades to follow.
This shift to store-bought baby food wasn't just about convenience. It reflected a broader societal change. Women were increasingly joining the workforce, and families were looking for time-saving options. Plus, with advancements in food science and preservation, these new baby foods were marketed as not just convenient, but also nutritionally optimal. They were seen as modern, scientific, and progressive. It’s not too dissimilar from today, where we’ve seen numerous brands highlighting the science behind their products, these early companies were keen to promote the nutritional research that inspired their baby foods.
During this 20-year span, as with any major shift, this new era of convenience in baby food had its downsides. The early versions of these products were not without controversy. Historical data and research from this period indicate a mixed bag: some nutritional needs were being met more conveniently, yes, but as more research emerged, the industry faced criticism over nutritional deficiencies and an over-reliance on processed options. Parents and health experts started to question whether these convenient options were really the best that could be offered to their children. This period was a kind of learning curve for the industry, where baby food producers were dealing with attempts to balance convenience, taste, and nutritional value.
The introduction of commercial baby food also had a profound impact on parenting. The ritual of preparing baby food from scratch gave way to the simplicity of opening a jar. This period marked a point in time where the role parents played in their children's early eating experiences began to change. While it offered a degree of simplicity, and saved time, it also reduced the opportunity for parents to control and customize the ingredients and flavors their babies were exposed to.
In the years between 1920 and 1939, the advances in the mass production, and commercialization, of baby food set the stage for ongoing debates regarding the balance between convenience, nutrition, and the role of parents in infant feeding.
Stay tuned for our next blog post, where we'll leap into the post-World War II era – an exciting time of growth and innovation in the world of baby food!