“Evil Habits” and “Personal Choices”: Assigning Responsibility for Health in the 20th Century


Address correspondence to: Howard M. Leichter, 900 S.E. Baker Street, McMinnville, OR 97128 (e-mail: hleich@linfield.edu).


The 20th century began and ended with many of the nation's more affluent and better-educated citizens in a near-frenzied pursuit of better health through lifestyle modification. Americans sought and received health-enhancing and disease-preventing advice in books, newspapers, popular magazine articles, and government studies. They followed exercise regimes and bought self-improvement paraphernalia from “medicine balls” to elliptical machines in order to learn “How to Avoid Heart Troubles” (Groedel 1901) and, even more ambitiously, to stay Forever Young (Berger 1989). Upton Sinclair alerted early 20th-century Americans to the appalling conditions in the meatpacking industry (1906), and nearly a century later Eric Schlosser warned of the “Dark Side of the All-American Meal” (2001). Finally, San Franciscans, fretting about the nutritional dangers to their children's health, began the last century by banning “roving pie vendors” who catered to the “habitual pie-eating” habits of schoolchildren (Habitual Pie-Eating Ruining Health of Children 1910) and began this century by prohibiting the sale of soft drinks and other unhealthy snacks on school campuses (Delgado 2003).