Until the late 19th century, Americans got their food from nearby farms or from their own gardens. Meals were prepared at home, and if a food wasn't in season, it wasn't on the table.
Beginning in the early 20th century, however, the way we produce, process, prepare and consume food underwent a fundamental change. A combination of new technologies, the need to feed a country at war and sophisticated marketing methods put factories between farms and what appeared on our plates.
Those profound changes are examined in an exhibit on display through Sept. 29 at the Wolfsonian-FIU. "Modern Meals: Remaking American Foods From Farm to Kitchen" was curated by April Merleaux, an assistant professor in FIU's history department, using materials from the museum's vast collection of decorative objects.
The exhibit opens with a poster that romanticizes rural life with its bucolic, seasonal portrayal of farming. You almost don't notice that the poster was created to sell Caterpillar tractors to farmers, who would use the machines to boost production. The exhibit includes other lithographs and even an oil on canvas that not only idealize farm life, but show how it was threatened by the economic problems of the 1920 and '30s.
The Rural Electrification Administration, part of Roosevelt's New Deal in 1935, was meant to bring electricity to underserved rural areas. Well-known graphic designer Lester Beall was hired to create posters for this new government agency that in hindsight look like any good government propaganda. One shows an aproned woman removing biscuits from a gleaming electric range, the background in eye-popping red polka dots with three simple words: "A better home."
World War II only made it easier to mechanize the way food is produced. The army had huge purchasing power, and it made many investments in new technologies. Technology was also responsibility for the success of Florida orange juice, first at the University of Florida, where frozen concentrated orange juice was first developed, and later with pasteurized juice.
The market for orange juice was created by growers giving away home juicers. One appears in the exhibit, along with orange juice posters. There's also a miniature scale model of an orange-juice packing system that probably was used in a trade show, but now looks like a vintage Fisher-Price toy. No wonder we love orange juice.
Modern Meals: Remaking American Foods From Farm to Kitchen
When: Noon-6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday; noon-9 p.m. Thursday-Friday; closed Wednesday. Through Sept. 29
Where: The Wolfsonian, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach
Cost: $7 for adults; $5 for seniors, students and children age 6 -12; free for Wolfsonian members and children under 6
Contact: 305-531-1001 or Wolfsonian.org