How Did Baby Food Become a Household Staple?

save article
profile picture of Anisa Arsenault
By Anisa Arsenault, Associate Editor
Updated March 2, 2017
Hero Image
Image: Getty

Whether it’s Gerber brand or your own homemade recipe, baby food is a staple in your household. But did you ever wonder what parents did before Beaba cookers and those little jars of smashed sweet potatoes were at the ready?

Baby food as we know it didn’t come on the scene until the 1920s. A big deal — and definitely another reason the roaring twenties were so roaring, at least if you were a parent. Up until the 1880s, the types of soft foods babies were eating were also administered to invalids and sick people. We’re talking what was considered fortifying foods like beef broth and wheat gruel — really Oliver Twist-esque. And fruits and vegetables typically weren’t introduced until age two because of their perceived laxative qualities, which is the reason many modern-day parents give their babies fruits and veggies — to keep them regular.

The baby food shift came in 1920, when Rochester, N. Y., native Harold Clapp made vegetable soup for his sick child, who fully recovered. People began asking for his recipe, and he began mass producing it in a nearby canning facility. That’s how Clapp’s Baby Food was born. Meanwhile, in the midwest, Michigan-based fruit and vegetable canning company Gerber switched to canning pureed fruits and vegetables in the 1920s, marketing it as baby food.

Mothers quickly became interested in baby food; it was one less thing they had to do. And as it became more readily available, the age at which babies were introduced to this “solid” food dropped dramatically.

“As it’s mass-produced more and more and becomes affordable for most Americans, it becomes a viable option,” says food historian Amy Bentley, author of Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet. “Advertisers are presenting images of babies who look very young, and talking about tiny babies enjoying their peas or their mashed bananas. They’re giving visual and textual cues about the ages at which it’s okay to feed a baby.”

Related Video

After World War II, breastfeeding rates actually dropped during what Bentley describes as the “golden age of commercial baby food.” Why? “There’s this sense in the culture that we are a superpower, and commercial baby food is emblematic of that society that we are,” Bentley says. “It’s modern, it’s abundant, it’s scientific, it’s sterile.”

With today’s more modern flavor combinations and the introduction of pouches, the baby food industry continues to boom. “When the infant’s old enough to grasp, you can just hand the pouch to an infant and the infant can suck on it,” says Bentley.“Pouches are very attractive to parents of toddlers, so 12 months to 2 years. So it’s more than doubling the opportunity to sell a product.”

Baby food company Plum Organics even started making snack pouches just for mom. (And our unscientific palates say they’re pretty good.)

save article

Next on Your Reading List

Article removed.
Name added. View Your List