Open search
« Tuna 2 / 2018

Blood or Grain! The Struggle for a Healthy Diet in Estonia in the First Half of the 20th Century

This article considers the spread of ideas and practices on the topic of a healthy diet in the media and literature on public education, and by way of schools and courses, along with the activity of organisations and activists. The propagation of consuming vegetarian food expressed the idea of healthfulness and practicality most clearly in the food culture of the first decades of the 20th century. This was associated with the general modernisation of domestic culture and the development of gardening.

The first writings introducing vegetarianism appeared in the Estonian-language press in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. Doctor Peeter Hellat (1857–1912) and the pomologist Jaan Spuhl-Rotalia (1859–1916), who were moderate supporters of vegetarianism, undertook the comprehensive discussion of topics on healthy eating in literature on public education. The Danish Dr. Mikkel Hindhede was the primary authority for Estonian vegetarians in the interwar period.

During the years preceding World War I, women and women’s organisations assumed the leading role in educational work on Estonian food culture. Teaching on gardening and diet was targeted at housewives. In the situation during the First World War when food was scarce, the need for and interest in vegetarian food increased: such food was introduced at exhibitions and offered in eating houses. Finland exerted considerable influence as a model in the modernisation of food culture and gardening. Alumni of Finnish schools of home economics and female Finnish teachers became the leaders in this field.

While moral arguments were prominent in early advisory literature, scientific and economic considerations became prevalent through the influence of professional specialists in home economics during the interwar decades. Appeals to switch completely to vegetarian food, or even to exclusively raw food, also spread in Estonia in the 1920s–1930s. Primarily middle class townspeople showed interest in vegetarian food. Rustic eating habits and attitudes towards food persisted in the countryside. In the latter half of the 1930s, when a large proportion of housewives had become familiar with the principles of modern home economics through courses or the press, a shift towards a new food culture nevertheless took place.