Boys eating at P.S. 40. Jessie Tarbox Beals. Silver gelatin print, 1919. CREDIT: NYPL, Manuscripts and Archives Division.
Do you eat dinner for lunch or lunch for dinner? Perhaps you’ve been failing to eat dinner learning instead to eat supper? I didn’t start eating dinner until I was into my twenties only to eventually discover that dinner is actually lunch and lunch is just a snack! A brief lesson in history reveals that I’ve been applying misplaced monikers to two of my daily meals for decades. On the other hand, a brief lesson in sociology reveals that all meaning is socially constructed and that lunch, dinner and supper remain necessary and (hopefully) delicious no matter what you call them or when you eat them.
Sociological semantics aside, questioning the origins of lunch as we know it reminds us that what and how we eat is deeply embedded in particular social and material conditions that are subject to change as cultural and economic realities shift. Examining the transformation of the midday meal, The New York Public Library’s exhibit Lunch Hour NYC demonstrates this by exploring how industrialization and urban living reshaped the notion (and the noshing!) of lunch. The exhibit opened in June and runs until February 2013. If you don’t live in New York and will not be travelling there before February, you can visit the exhibit’s fabulous website for more information and pictures from the archives.
Hot Dog Stand, West St. and North Moore, Manhattan. Berenice Abbott. Gelatin silver print, 1936. CREDIT: NYPL, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that lunch came to describe the practice of eating at midday. Prior to industrialization, the largest meal of the day was commonly eaten at noon and was referred to as dinner. As more and more people traded rural life for city life and work schedules shifted, dinner was increasingly eaten in the evening to coincide with the end of the work day. Nowhere was this more apparent than in large urban centres like New York. Pizza, pretzels and hot dogs became popular street fare, and delis and Chinese take-outs offered quick service and cheap eats for workers unable to return home for lunch.
“Lunch” entry in An American Dictionary of the English Language. Noah Webster. New Haven, CT: Noah Webster, 1841. CREDIT: NYPL, Rare Book Division.
Eating a Quick-lunch was seen to be essential for those attempting to make money in New York. The Automat, opened in Times Square in 1912, gave locals and tourists a plethora of lunch choices all for the price of a nickel and the wonder of seeing your meal come out of the individually selected compartment of a new machine. Lunch at home often consisted of very little as money was designated for the evening meal and male workers could acquire a cheap lunch on the street. It is interesting to note that while some were forced to scrimp on lunch, others were working to establish The Power Lunch at restaurants like Sardi’s and The Algonquin.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I am off to whip up some lunch! Perhaps something that could be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Just because people didn’t always eat three meals a day doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy them now!
For more about the evolution of meals and mealtimes read the article Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner: Have We Always Eaten Them? published in BBC News Magazine and be sure to check out Lunch Hour NYC.