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College of Liberal and Fine Arts

“Film Drama Educated the Public about Food, 1911-1931.” by Jan Scholl

Film Drama Educated the Public about Food, 1911-1931


Jan Scholl

Penn State University


When you think of early film making what images come to mind---train wrecks, swashbuckling heroes and movie tone news reels? Unless it’s a pie in the face of a vaudevillian actor, food rarely conjures up a leading role. 

According to Gregory Waller, a leading film historian at Indiana University, a long overlooked part of U.S. film history before the 1930s were the films of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  In 1917, the USDA received their first federal appropriation for film making and was the primary government agency until the late 1930s for the production, distribution and exhibition of educational films throughout the United States.  During the Depression these films reached an annual audience of 10 million people through rentals alone.  Films were available for purchase, too. Four hundred USDA films are still available in the collections of the Library of Congress and the National Archives II, located in College Park, MD. 

As may be expected, many of the USDA films were tightly focused films about agriculture with such titles as Hows and Whys of Spuds (1920) and Why do Strawberries Have Whiskers? (1925). These films showed not only how foods were eaten, but also grown, graded, and distributed.  In some cases, the films had a historical vein: food experts going to European countries to teach food preservation after World War I, for example, or to address community concerns about the safety of milk.

But, there were also dramatic films--films that rivaled Hollywood silent film production so much that USDA film director Raymond Evans was warned not to create any more films that would compete with the Hollywood audience.  This is surprising as most of the USDA films were shown in community settings outside of movie theatres: community halls, schools and other public buildings. In these agriculturally-oriented dramatic films, food takes a major role. 

For this paper, the author used historical, qualitative media research methods to categorize and study the films. The following is an outline of some of the prominent films and film techniques used to convey instructional messages to the viewer: 

Poor Mrs. Jones! (1926) provides a comparison of farm and city life as seen through the eyes of a disgruntled farm wife who visits her sister in the city.  Though she has the use of an ice box and has plenty of eggs, ham and leftovers, she believes incorrectly that her city relatives with more money have a higher standard of living. She finds out that they have to make do with canned milk and have only an occasional egg. The ham they eat is barely edible.  At the end of the film is shown in a cellar an early food preparation invention, the iceless refrigerator, and at least a minute of the film portrays the delectable cream skimmed from the milk, fresh butter, and the larder of fruit and potatoes. The close-ups, cameos and pacing in the film allow the viewer to see what the main character sees and almost taste the foods shown.  The film also incorporates screening devices (similar to those used by later educators in operating an overhead projector), Eastern European montages of feet walking back and forth, a scuffle of women shoppers, and a scene similar to the later Alfred Hitchcock 1958 film, Vertigo, using overexposure to show a street swirling around the shopper’s head!                      

Milk for You and Me (1925) has film sequences of people drinking milk in all kinds of settings:  school, home, factories, offices. In one part, famous baseball players, including Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, are shown at a stadium drinking milk from a straw. This segment is likely one of the first films that endorsed a food product.  At the end of the film, an animation is shown of nutrients (protein, minerals and vitamins) happily hopping into the milk container at the tap of a fairy’s wand. Chubby fat and sugar, get stuck in the neck of the bottle, but eventually wriggle inside.  At the conclusion, an illustrated cow tilts his head and winks at the audience.

Why Eat Cottage Cheese? (1920) shows a day in the life of a homemaker who uses  techniques learned in an Extension Service food demonstration to make recipes for the family.  Though many would think that a loaf made from cottage cheese would be something sweet, it is actually a protein substitute for meatloaf created during World War I.  A family happily eats the loaf she makes and the film ends with tomato sauce on the cheeks of a toddler.

American Home Canning in France (1919) shows USDA specialists traveling to Grignon, France with huge canners and supplies.  Evidently a number of these trips were made to Europe during the reconstruction after World War II.  In a special collection at Harvard University, cataloged under the USDA program leader Grace Frysinger, there are photographs of Queen Elizabeth at Reading University inspecting one of the 300 canning equipment units provided by U.S. farm women. The queen herself seals a can of plums, which was later sent to the United States and presented to Mrs. Roosevelt (Frysinger, 1885-1973).

In the story, The Happier Way (1920), a farm wife loses her health through the stress of household work and carrying two pails of water into the home eleven times a day.  The doctor visits and, raising his fists, threatens the farmer husband to give her a rest. The film shares several points: that several men in the family are needed to take over one woman’s chores, that the farmer had many more conveniences in the 1920s than his wife and how the wife remains working even when the farmers come in to rest and read the paper. 

From the film’s point of view the only rest the homemaker’s receives is in the cemetery.  Gravestone inscriptions, including “Too tired to twang a harp,” are prominent. Though there is no actual food in this film, one gets an eyeful of various conveniences that were available to women in the 1920s kitchen: carts, a pull out counter to allow cooks to sit down, and the fireless cooker, an early insulated invention that allows foods to reach a certain temperature and continue cooking off the burner. 

Overall, the USDA films incorporated many cinematic devices:  cross-cutting, hit men, chase scenes, fist fights, dream sequences, animation, dramatic pauses, enlarging household and crop pests to gigantic size, archeological digs, suspense, teasers (characters with the backs to the audience show up regularly in the film but are not revealed until the end), and quick and slow pacing.

Some of the films represent historical references. Molly of Pine Grove Vat (1922) takes over for her husband in the same way as Molly Pitcher of the Revolutionary War.

The film food titles were often interesting: Garden Gold (1921), The Tomb of Too-Too  Common (1926), Sir Loin of T-Bone Ranch (1923), Pop Goes the Weevil (1932), Big Steaks (c1950s) and When the Cows Come Home (1948). In one film, the script rhymes.

   Many of the early films incorporated comparisons, demonstrating without preaching, the various options that the viewer might try. Two films in the later part of the 20th century were similar in their efforts to make comparisons:  Take it Easy (Wayne State University, c1940) extols the virtues of a kitchen cart to reduce food preparation stress of a woman who recently experienced a heart attack.  The film shows a side-by side comparison.  On the left, the woman makes dozens of trips from the sink, the refrigerator and the stove, while on the right: the same woman is shown in real time, making one quick trip with a cart and spending what seems to be an enormous amount of time (but maybe a minute or two) reading a fashion magazine with time she saves.  The sequence begs the question:  What would you rather be doing?           

The second production, Total Request Food with Carson Dairy (Cason, Scholl and O’Toole, 2004, rev. 2006) shows a wedding scene where the bride and groom toast each other but experience some dire circumstances after leaving food out too long on a counter. The cast of characters respond to the dramatic consequences.

Despite warnings by Hollywood, the USDA continued to incorporate education, drama, and food into motion pictures.  Much of the food preparation, safety and nutrition information is still relevant today,

Food is still a relevant topic of interest in a nation that eats out a great deal, but wants food preparation skills in order to control what is in their food.  Motion pictures are often better educational media than photographs showing the “how-tos,” hazards, and social aspects of food preparation, nutrition and food use.   If pictures say a thousand words, motion pictures tell a million more! Educational motion pictures created by USDA have been addressing food facts in a dramatic way for nearly a century.





Cason, K. Scholl, J. & O’Toole, K. Total Request Food with Carson Dairy.

            (2004, revised 2006). University Park, PA: WPSU (originally WPSX)


Frysinger, Grace E. (1855-1973): A Finding Aid. Arthur and Elizabeth

            Schlesinger Library  in the History of Women in America. Radcliffe

            Institute for the Advanced  Study. Harvard University,


Hitchcock, A. (director). (1958). Vertigo, Hollywood, CA:  Paramount Pictures. 

USDA (1919).  American Home Canning in France. College Park, MD: Archives


USDA (1920).  Hows and Whys of Spuds. College Park, MD: Archives II.

USDA (1920).  The Happier Way. College Park, MD: Archives II.

USDA (1920).  Why Eat Cottage Cheese? College Park, MD: Archives II.

USDA (1921).  Garden Gold. College Park, MD: Archives II.

USDA (1922).  Molly of Pine Grove Vat. College Park, MD: Archives II.

USDA (1923).  Sir Loin of T-bone Ranch. College Park, MD: Archives II.

USDA (1925).  Milk for You and Me. College Park, MD: Archives II.

USDA (1925).  Poor Mrs. Jones! College Park, MD: Archives II.

USDA (1925).  Why do Strawberries have Whiskers? College Park, MD:

            Archives II.

USDA (1926).  Tomb of Too-Too Common. College Park, MD: Archives II.

USDA (1932).   Pop Goes the Weevil. College Park, MD: Archives II.

USDA (1948). When the Cows Come Home. College Park, MD: Archives II.

USDA (c1950s). Big Steaks. College Park, MD: Archives II.

Waller, Gregory, film historian commenting on the film, Poor Mrs. Jones!

            Remastered by the National Film Board in New Women, a disk within a

            series, Treasures III.

Wayne State University (c. 1940). Take it Easy. (Original documentation

            unknown).  Available within the New York State College of Home

            Economics Records, 1875-1979, Box 96