Food austerity from an historical perspective: Making sense of 1950s Mass Observation data in the contemporary era

Food austerity from an historical perspective: Making sense of 1950s Mass Observation data in the contemporary era

Image: Imperial War Museum

Rebecca O’Connell, Abigail Knight and Julia Brannen (UCL Institute of Education, London)


The use of the past as a symbolic resource in the current ‘era of austerity’ is part of popular culture and political rhetoric. At the heart of ‘contemporary austerity culture’, Rebecca Bramall (2013:37) suggests, ‘is the idea that there is an analogy to be drawn between our post-recessionary, deficit-cutting times and Britain in an earlier age of austerity’, in particular the years 1939-54. In the case of food, for example, this is epitomised by Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food and the rise of food blogs embracing ‘austerity chic’.

Bramall and others have been critical of the often inappropriate mobilisation of the past as a guide for modern consumer culture and point to the limitations of historical analogy for guiding contemporary practices. In a study of everyday food practices in the post-war period, Families and food in Hard Times, we were alerted to a number of key differences between the period of post war austerity and the current context.

Our study conducted secondary analysis of oral histories, archival data and other sources to examine everyday family food practices in different historical periods. This has included analysing data from the Mass Observation (MO) archive, including diaries, directives and a published MO Survey, all from 1950-51, in addition to other ‘contextual’ sources such as ephemera (menus and leaflets) and recipe books. Our research questions included what light MO data shed on everyday food practices during the period of austerity in post-war Britain and what we could learn about the process of using and reusing archived qualitative data. Our analysis was conducted in a contemporary climate in which some families are struggling to feed themselves and in the context of launching a new European study on the topic.

Reading and analysing the MO diaries, directives and Survey suggest some key differences between food practices during the period of immediate post war austerity and the current context, making the analogous use of the post war period inappropriate as a model for food practices today. The first concerns food shortages, the ration system and where responsibility for feeding oneself and one’s family is considered to lie. Household food insecurity is a feature of families’ experiences now, as then. However, the political and discursive contexts and policy solutions are very different. Rationing was introduced and maintained in the context of war and its aftermath (Lang et al., 2009:28). Whilst some people were starting to tire of post war rationing in the early 1950s, arguably whipped up by Tory propaganda (Zweiniger-Bargielowska, 1994), we have seen little in the diaries or directives to suggest that respondents considered the system unfair or questioned its moral basis. By contrast, in the contemporary era access to food is regarded by the neo-liberal State as the responsibility of the individual – and of corporatized philanthropy when the individual ‘fails’.

A second major difference concerns the high level of female employment today compared with the early 1950s, alongside the reduction of time spent by women (and the smaller increase by men) on food and cooking (Warde et al, 2007). Foodwork overwhelmingly remains women’s work in the contemporary era, despite a discourse of equality (Brannen and O’Connell, forthcoming). In the 1950s’ women’s diaries and the survey, however, food preparation appears as a very much more taken for granted and time-consuming part of a woman’s day. For example, one of the questions asked in a MO Directive, in April 1951, was, to women: ‘What are your feelings about housework – including shopping and all the domestic work (inside and outside the house) that a woman has to do? Whilst men were asked the question, ‘how do you imagine women feel about housework – including shopping and all the domestic work (inside and outside the house) that a woman has to do?’ The MO Survey, The Housewife’s Day’ (1951), describes how meal preparation (not including food shopping) took on average around 4 hours per day and that, ‘On balance, over one quarter of the housewives’ waking day was concerned with meal-time activities’ (p.6). Entries about foodwork hardly appear in the men’s diaries from this era, whilst women’s diaries attest to the effort and skill involved in sourcing foods, shopping, and planning, and also to some of the pleasure derived from the creative use of a limited range and volume of materials. This was mirrored by cookbooks of the time (we were struck, for example, by the number and variety of recipes based on prunes!).

At the same time, there are some resistances in the diary entries and the directives to the expectations placed upon women. We are also mindful that archival material from Mass Observation from the post-war period is over-representative of middle class housewives and women in general and that male diarists may have perceived their research role somewhat differently to women, as observers of public rather than private events (Stanley, 1995), underplaying their domestic contribution. Such issues suggest the benefit of using multiple sources of data rather than relying on one only and highlight the value of approaching archival data with a critical view to how researchers’ assumptions may be more or less built into different methodologies, such as surveys and diaries.

A third difference compared to the current context relates to the types of food available and the exponential growth in packaged, marketised products. Many of these are ‘convenience’ foods which are viewed by some (e.g. Carrigan et al., 2006) as a market response to demand fuelled by the growth in maternal employment in the UK from the late 1980s. An alternative reading suggests that in enabling women to combine motherhood and paid employment without modifying the demands of either such products are inherently conservative of the status quo (e.g. Thompson, 1996). There is no doubt however about the growth in supply. Time series data describe the rise of packaged foods over the last century in Europe, North America, and now in the global South (Popkin, 2014). With the exception of tinned foods (which women reluctantly in some cases substituted for fresh food), and the occasional mention of some frozen foods, almost all of the foods in the MO diaries were ‘raw’ products and some, depending on where the diarists lived, were home-grown. However, post WWII saw the very rapid evolution of consumer packaged food, the evolution from minimally processed foods to ‘ultra processed’ products, with a modern consumer packaged food sector comprising in the US of around 600,000 unique barcoded products (Popkin, 2014).

A fourth, related, difference concerns the procurement of food. The diaries show that shopping in the post-war period was a social and interpersonal experience, with strong social relations between shopkeepers and customers, facilitated by continuing food rationing and queuing. However, the major transformation of food retailing (supermarkets) has had a profound effect on the organisation and experience of food procurement as well as retail geography. The temporal patterning of shopping has also changed. The MO survey and the diaries suggest synchronisation in terms of particular days, which appears in part to be dependent on the points and rationing system. In the contemporary context, the shift towards ‘flexibilization’ in the post-Fordist era involves the deregulation and ‘scattering’ of practices such as shopping and a move to the ‘24-hour society’ (Southerton et al., 2011). Further, the MO diaries reveal the reliance on friends, relatives and neighbours for informal assistance and gifts and for non-marketised transactions (e.g. swapping beef rations for bacon) to suit tastes and to provide for special occasions.

The MO diaries also include references to methods of storing (pickling) and cooking (stewing) which are now perhaps more common among the retired, particular ethnic groups and ‘reflexive’ or ethical consumers and producers, who have the disposition, time and competence to engage in such activities. Whilst such practices undoubtedly persist, today time-poor and low-income families are increasingly reliant on the foods available in the market and in the context of low pay and cuts in welfare benefits, consumers turn to food banks for emergency provision when informal help has been exhausted (Lambie-Mumford, 2014). In the post war era, food insecurity at the household level was symptomatic of national food shortages and policy intervened to reduce inequitable access; today in contrast policies which fail to address income inequality and insufficiency perpetuate inequitable access to an over abundance of marketised food.

So while the past is a reminder that household food insecurity is not new, it is, as others have pointed out, a mistake to conclude that the post-war period offers lessons for families battling for survival in conditions of contemporary austerity. By definition historical context is specific. In the case of food rationing in the 1950s the past tells us that this was accepted as just and fair under particular conditions. In the immediate post war period expectations concerning women’s time were different as were practices and expectations about foods and products to buy and cook and how shopping was organised. Since then the food and drink manufacturing industry in Britain has been transformed; it is now the single largest manufacturing sector in the UK, with a turnover of £92bn and Gross Value Added (GVA) of £24bn, accounting for 18% of the total manufacturing sector by turnover.

Expectations of what constitutes acceptable food have also changed, transforming people’s tastes, preferences, shopping and cooking habits. In this situation those who lack the wherewithal to purchase food to cover their needs are surrounded by plenty but are forced to rely at best on low quality convenience products and at worst on food banks.

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Rebecca O’Connell is Senior Research Officer, Abigail Knight is Research Officer and Julia Brannen is Professor, at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. Families and Food in Hard Times: Methodological Innovations is a sub-project of the NCRM Node, Novella: narratives of everyday lives and linked approaches based at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education, University of London. We are grateful to the Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive and would like to thank the staff at the Mass Observation Archive for their help during our study.