Bridgeport’s Better Breakfast Program

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by Brittney Murphy

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, the nation embraced for total mobilization. In addition to marshaling military resources, the federal government enlisted the cooperation of civilians, businesses, the media, and local governments to assist in the war effort. In an impressive display of home front patriotism, Bridgeport industries, including Bridgeport Brass Company and Sikorsky Aircraft, manufactured vital war materials from bullet shells and helicopters parts to rocket launchers. City residents also served in the military, planted victory gardens, and organized community canning drives. As the war drew hundreds of thousands of men into military service, women in Bridgeport and across the country emerged as leaders of the civilian support movement.[1]

Popular and academic representations of female contributions during WWII often focus on the unique opportunities it offered for women to challenge traditional gender roles. Arguably the most well-known contribution of women was in the defense industry. Female industrial workers, represented by the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter, left the domestic sphere to satisfy labor demands in male-dominated manufacturing jobs. Less attention, however, is given to women who acted in accordance with conventional sex roles. Homemakers were at the forefront of various war-related campaigns, particularly regarding food production and consumption.

During the war, providing food to American military personnel and its European allies assumed utmost importance. The War Food Administration launched a nationwide propaganda campaign emphasizing the necessity of food production, rationing, and nutrition to the war. Since women were the primary grocery shoppers and overseers of the family diet they were principal targets such campaigns. Informational materials concerning rationing, for example, were often geared towards housewives. Women’s magazines such as Good Housekeeping contained ration conscious shopping tips and recipes.[2] Improving national nutrition standards through public education also took precedence.

Public messaging asserted the need the for healthy Americans as soldiers and workers to achieve military success. Regarding the civilian population, contemporary medical professionals feared that insufficient diets increased employee absenteeism, accident rates, and unrest while decreasing working capacity. To maintain efficiency workers needed well-balanced meals. Eating a “better breakfast” was essential to raising the public health. One study, conducted by the War Food Administration, showed that over eighty percent of industrial workers did not eat a decent breakfast.[3] An insufficient breakfast caused low-blood sugar and mid-morning fatigue threatening efficiency.[4] States and municipal war councils and nutrition committees across the country, including Bridgeport, launched “Better Breakfast” campaigns to encourage their citizenry to enhance their morning meals.[5]

In the summer of 1944, the Community Nutrition Committee of the Bridgeport Community Chest planned the “Bridgeport Better Breakfast Program.” The yearlong program lasted from September 1, 1944, to September 1, 1945, with the stated purpose of bettering the nation’s health. The program organizers distributed educational material and enlisted experts from across the country to teach city residents about the health benefits of eating a nutritious breakfast and how its related to productivity. Women were the primary leaders of the campaign. Ms. Rheta Hyatt assumed the position of Director of Bridgeport’s Community Nutrition Service and local female volunteers were recruited and trained as demonstrators. Food campaigns such as the Better Breakfast Program, allowed women to express their patriotism in ways that did not defy expectations for female behavior. Female volunteers hosted events and setup information booths at a diversity of platforms such as schools, department stores, and manufacturing plants. However, wives and mothers remained the target audience.[6]

As managers of the family diet, a housewife’s ability to prepare a healthy breakfast was a reflection of her quality as a wife and mother. Better Breakfast boosters chastised women that allowed their husbands and children to rush off to school or work in the morning without eating. This problem was connected to the influx of women into the workforce who hurried off to work with their husbands rather than prepare an adequate meal for their families. News advertisements depicted children and men whose intellect and/or working abilities were stunted because of the wife’s failure to provide a proper breakfast that included vitamin C, milk, bread, cereal and other proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.[7] One daily news article depicted a young boy in school who completed a math problem incorrectly in which it stated, “Growing children are handicapped when sent to school with less than an adequate breakfast.”[8] The responsibility for this fell largely on the mother. Training materials distributed to volunteers also maintained that housewives should make breakfast appealing to their husbands by way of the wives’ personal appearance.

Program coordinators taught female audiences that “an attractive mother is as good for the morale of the family as the food prepared for breakfast.”[9] Women that served breakfast in their bathrobes and slippers without makeup were disparaged as lazy and faulted for making breakfast unappealing to men. One Better Breakfast advertisement in the Bridgeport Post depicted the right and wrong way for a husband and wife to eat breakfast. Whereas the wrong way showed a woman wearing a robe with her hair undone and handing her husband a jacket as he sprinted out the door, the right way displayed the husband and wife eating at a table with the woman neatly dressed and hair orderly. The desire to make women, and by extension breakfast, appealing to the male gaze was accentuated by the Good Breakfast Fashion Parade. In March 1944, the Better Breakfast volunteers hosted a fashion parade for members of the Rotary and Exchange clubs of Bridgeport. The purpose was to “dramatize breakfast as a meal and to add glamour and feminine appeal to a male audience.”[10] The attractive young female models, many of whom were the daughters of club members, presented breakfast trays to the audience while wearing fashionable dresses.[11] Despite this preoccupation with looks, the Better Breakfast and other wartime food programs illustrate the dedication and multiplicity of female contributions to WWII. When the Bridgeport campaign concluded, public commentators applauded its success in improving the health and wartime productivity of the city’s populace.

Sources

[1] James Fifield, “Industrial Connecticut Made War History,” The Hartford Courant, 18 November 1945; Kent Hubbard. “Connecticut Arms Output Already Exceeds World War 1 Peak,” The Hartford Courant, 29 June 1941.
[2] Mei-ling Yang, “Creating the Kitchen Patriot: Media Promotion of Food Rationing and Nutrition Campaigns on the American Home Front during World War II,” American Journalism 22, issue 3 (June 2013): 55-58, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08821127.2005.10677658.
[3] “For Bigger Better Breakfast,” The Hartford Courant, 22 August 1944.
[4] The Bridgeport Community Nutrition Committee, A Community Project Report on The Better Breakfast Campaign. Bridgeport Community Chest. (Bridgeport: City of Bridgeport, January 2, 1946), 92.
[5] “Decline of the American Breakfast,” New York Times, 7 January 1945; Ida Jean Kain, “Working Girl Must Eat for Health,” Washington Post, 12 December 1941; “For the Sake of Daily Better Breakfasts,” Hartford Courant, 21 January 1945.
[6] The Bridgeport Community Nutrition Committee, A Community Project Report on The Better Breakfast Campaign.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Bridgeport Gas Light, “A Stunted Breakfast Means a Stunted Mind,” Bridgeport Post, 17 October 1944.
[9] The Bridgeport Community Nutrition Committee, A Community Project Report on The Better Breakfast Campaign, 50.
[10] Ibid, 61.
[11] Ibid, 61-66.

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About Author

Britney Murphy

Britney Murphy is currently a PhD student at the University of Connecticut. Her area of interest is 20th Century Urban American History. In May 2017, Britney received the Connecticut Celebration 350th Scholarship from UCONN, for her research on the Mount Trashmore removal campaign.

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