Jennifer L. Erickson | Review of International Studies
Reformers at the turn of the century struggled to understand why people were the way they were and whether they could really be changed. The reformers behind the New England Kitchen (NEK), a dietary reform experiment in 1890s Boston that hoped to change working-class diets, dedicated much of its efforts to answering the question at the heart of all social reform movements: Were people’s behaviors determined by biological or social factors? In the course of their work, these reformers came to understand the relationship between food and bodies as central to social reform and sought to use dietary reform to change working-class bodies. Their actions and ideas disrupt the neat categories historians have come to rely upon when discussing reformist thought and push us to embrace the messiness of ideas as they are being worked out. This article explores these messy ideas, using four conceptions of the body that emerged from the NEK efforts—the caloric body, the changing body, the citizen body, and the managed body—to make sense of ideas that were later taken up by the USDA and the Children’s Bureau, as well as other reform efforts in the Progressive Era.