Article Summary by Alex Mold
Anyone who has ever suffered from a bout of food poisoning can attest to the importance of good food hygiene. Encouraging people to follow simple rules, such as washing hands before preparing or eating food, has long been a task for public health educators. In this article I examine public health messaging around food hygiene in Britain from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. A huge volume of material focusing on ‘clean food’ was produced by public health educators, including posters and leaflets, exhibitions, and films.
Looking closely at these sources suggests that more was at stake than just the prevention of food poisoning. Old ideas about morality, modernity and cleanliness were at work as certain kinds of people and places were singled out for more attention than others. At the same time, newer fears about the changing position of women, the nature of the home and the rise of consumerism also featured in food hygiene campaigns. Changing notions about what it meant to be a good citizen, and the kinds of actions citizens should take, underpinned many of these broader concerns.
Citizens, however, did not always respond to such messages in the ways that public health authorities expected. Although rates of food poisoning declined over the period, it was unclear if this was because individuals had changed their behaviour as a result of food hygiene campaigns. This article thus raises a set of questions not only about the effectiveness of public health messaging, but also the other issues that operated beneath the surface. In the age of Covid-19, as hygiene, citizenship and public health communication returns to centre stage, understanding how similar campaigns operated in the past offers useful insight into the present.
Read the full article on the Medical Humanities journal website.
Alex Mold is Associate Professor of History at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She is also Director of the Centre for History in Public Health. Alex’s work focuses on public health in post-war Britain, especially the development of health education.