"Workers having lunch." New York Public Library Digital Collections

You’re not alone, historically speaking.

The “sad desk lunch seems peculiarly modern, both a byproduct of today’s hyper-connected, 24/7 work culture, and a memeified record of it. It’s rushed, it’s vaguely undignified, and, perhaps saddest of all, it’s solitary—even if you’re sitting near your coworkers as you do it. In fact, if you’re at work and picking at a Tupperware salad as you read this, you’re in good company: One recent industry study found that 46 percent of “adult eating occasions” in 2014 took place alone.

But there’s nothing new about wolfing down a sandwich at your desk and calling it lunch. The practice is, according to the annals of Good Housekeeping, at least a century old. In the magazine’s September 1904 issue, one man wrote in with this homemade, presumably novel answer to the “lunch question”:

For a number of years, the problem of lunch was very unsatisfactory. I did not want to carry a “full dinner-pail” and the restaurant meals offered the usual monotony. Besides I found my mind did not work as clearly for the first hour or two after a hot dinner. We use the whole wheat bread at home, and anyone who has once tried it knows how good it is. So when I said: “I want two buttered slices of that bread for my lunch and nothing else,” my wife declared she was not surprised. It has proved an inspiration, and has solved the lunch question forever with me. Two slices of that nutritious bread, sometimes with cheese, meat, fruit, or anything that the housewife thinks will make a dainty and nourishing sandwich, is wrapped in oiled paper and put in an envelope, and on top there is always some little dainty, also done up in the oiled paper. Raisins, pecan meats, salted peanuts or almonds, nut candy, etc, make up the list, and the best part is, I never know what I am going to find until I open it at noon. The package slips into a coat pocket unobtrusively, and after I eat it in my office, I have a quiet hour to work without being bothered by the “clamorous clients” that infest a down-town law office at all other hours of the day. C.S.

Far from “sad,” C.S.’s desk lunch was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the turn-of-the-century “quick lunch” grind. In Boston, New York, and other industrialized cities, lunch hour meant pushing and shoving your way through throngs of office workers at counter-service restaurants. These cafeterias, automats, and “one-arm joints”—whose rows of glorified school desks were designed for solo diners—were built to fill people up and get them back to work as quickly possible.

"The Great American Quick Lunch." (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

In a 1901 feature for Munsey’s Magazine, writer Granthorpe Sudley sketches a taxonomy of lunch in New York City. An “hour of luxurious ease” is afforded to manual laborers, who “sit in the half finished doorways, or prop themselves against the walls” or “even spread their luncheon on the curb.” This is a stark contrast to the hurried repast of the poor, unfortunate businessman, who “charges into the nearest restaurant, and there snatches up a sandwich, a fishball, pie, or some other latent physiological disorder … feeding—not lunching.” Exempt from this barbarism, of course, are the blissfully ignorant women at home, “who sit in silent loneliness at the midday meal.”

Sudley treats the whole thing with a rather unpalatable paternalism, but he’s right about at least one thing: Lunch is bound to get worse. It’s never been about the food—in America, lunch is something taken or skipped, not luxuriated over. But in the future, Sudley predicts, it might not even be food:

Some day, inventive genius will develop some wonderful form of concentrated food, and reduce lunching to the plane of taking medicine. Then, perhaps, we shall have our luncheon condensed into a couple of pills or tablets, and take it at the counter of a drug store.

If the makers of Soylent have their way, we’ll all be dosing for lunch soon enough.

While the culture of pre-made sandwiches scarfed over laptops and juices or energy bars consumed on the go may feel contemporary, it’s merely the latest incarnation of a long tradition of American speed-eating. It’s the foods that have changed, not the utilitarianism with which we eat them—or, more accurately, fuel up.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A colorful mural with a woman's head and words reading "take me out to the go-go."

    How Go-Go Music Became Kryptonite for Gentrification in D.C.

    Go-go has become the soundtrack for a growing anti-gentrification movement in Washington. Now a city council bill wants to make it D.C.’s official music.

  2. Life

    Talent May Be Shifting Away From Superstar Cities

    According to a new analysis, places away from the coasts in the Sunbelt and West are pulling ahead when it comes to attracting talented workers.

  3. photo: a police officer in the NYC subway.

    Is There a Better Way to Police Public Transit?

    From New York City to Santiago, public transit plays an increasingly central role in debates over social equity, inclusion, and who should get the right to ride.

  4. audience members at venue

    What Early-Career Income Volatility Means for Your Middle-Aged Brain

    A long-term study of people in four cities finds that income volatility in one’s 20s and 30s correlates with negative brain effects in middle age.

  5. photo: Helsinki's national library

    How Helsinki Built ‘Book Heaven’

    Finland’s most ambitious library has a lofty mission, says Helsinki’s Tommi Laitio: It’s a kind of monument to the Nordic model of civic engagement.