The Color of New Tastes: State Power, Industry, and Hegemony of Vision in Modern Food Stores in the United States, 1870s-1930s

Ai Hisano

Food coloring has been a common practice across cultures for millennia, at least since ancient Egyptians used saffron to color various foods. In the early twentieth century, the increasing use of synthetic dyes and the transformation of food production and retailing systems dramatically changed the function of color in food businesses. As visual appeal became highly important in food retailing and new knowledge in food science and technology became available, food color became a marketing tool for food manufacturers and retailers to convey standardized ideas about goodness, naturalness, and freshness of foods. By focusing on the regulation and expansion of food coloring businesses in the early-twentieth-century United States, this paper examines how food producers and retailers understood and controlled consumers’ visual experience in buying and eating foods and how they capitalized on color to sell their products. Synthetic dyes afforded food manufacturers convenient, economical, and consistent ways of making food look appetizing. As the labor and technology involved in manipulating color changed, food producers and marketers added new economic value to the color of foods. Food manufacturers utilized color as a marker of consistent quality that would appeal to consumers’ eyes in the market transaction.