Meals on a Budget

Advertising related to the challenges of maintaining a family on a tight budget.

Margarine Advertisement

“Nucoa Margarine Advertisement,” Life magazine, January 11, 1937. New-York Historical Society Library.

Campbell’s Soup Advertisement

“Campbell’s Soup Advertisement,” Life magazine, February 22, 1937. New-York Historical Society Library.

Flour sacked in new printed fabrics

Lee Russell (photographer), Flour sacked in new printed fabrics. Chart above indicates various uses of the sacking. Migrant camp near Sebastian, Texas, Feb. 1939. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.


Although many married women entered the paid workforce during the Great Depression, most continued to focus solely on running the home. The new economy made managing a household budget more challenging than ever. Housewives needed to be thrifty, creative, and resourceful.

Expectations for healthy homes continued to be high, and that responsibility continued to fall on women. Children needed to be fed not just food, but nutritious and wholesome meals. Even middle-class housewives who were relatively financially stable felt the stress of needing to do more with less each and every day.

Companies that sold mass-produced foods like margarine, mayonnaise, and canned soup responded to these needs by emphasizing how their products helped housewives accomplish their goals. Basic foodstuffs like milk, eggs, vegetables, and meat were expensive. Advertisements argued processed foods combined with basic goods stretched a home budget. Canned soup, for example, could be mixed with other ingredients to create a casserole. Or fresh homemade biscuits could be made with margarine, a cheaper butter substitute.

About the Image

The first resource is an advertisement for margarine. The second is for Campbell’s canned soup. Both advertisements emphasize the health and cost benefits of consuming the product.

The third resource is a poster teaching women how to reuse large flour sacks. Housewives often bought flour in large quantities because it was inexpensive and could be used as the basis for stomach-filling breads, biscuits, and gravies. To attract buyers, flour companies printed decorative patterns on their bags. Housewives used this fabric to make dresses, pillows, and stuffed animals for their children.


  • ephemera: Items like ads, posters, and tickets that are cheaply made to exist for a short time.
  • margarine: A substitute for butter made with vegetable or animal fat.
  • Nucoa: A brand of margarine.
  • thrifty: Spending less money through smart and creative ideas.
  • wholesome: Healthy and clean.

Discussion Questions

  • What information does the margarine advertisement provide? Why was margarine a wise choice for housewives?
  • What do you notice about the image in the margarine advertisement? How does this picture reinforce gender stereotypes for women and girls?
  • What could women make with recycled flour sacks? Why did women use flour sacks to make these items?
  • Why do you think flour companies sold their flour in such beautiful bags?
  • How do these two resources “speak” to one another? What do they tell you about the challenges of house work in this era?

Suggested Activities



Source Notes