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THEY called me to supper. "Most of us have our heartiest meal in the middle of the day," my sister said. "The average man, O Victim of Copious Instruction," added my brother-in-law, "does his work in the morning; the two hours that he has to, or the four that he usually puts in. Eight to twelve, or nine to one — that is the working day for everybody. Then home, rest, a bath maybe, and then — allow me to help you to some of our Improvements!"
I was hungry, and this simple meal looked and smelled most appetizing. There was in particular a large shining covered dish, which, being opened, gave forth so savory a steam as fairly to make my mouth water. A crisp and toothsome bread was by my plate; a hot drink, which they laughingly refused to name, proved most agreeable; a suave, cool salad followed; fruits, some of which were new to me, and most delicate little cakes, closed the meal.
They would not tell me a thing, only saying "Have some more!" and I did. Not till I had eaten, with continuous delight, three helpings from the large dish did I notice that it stood alone, so to speak.
Nellie followed my eye with her usual prompt intelligence. "Yes," she said, "this is all. But we can send for other things in the twinkling of an eye; what would you like?"
I leaned back in my chair and looked at her reproachfully. "I would like some of that salad — not very much, please. And some of those Burbankian products yonder, and one particular brown little cake — if I can hold it."
Nellie smiled demurely. "Oh!" she mildly remarked, "I thought for the moment that our little supper seemed scant to you."
I glared at her, retorting, "Now I will not utter the grateful praises that were rising to my lips. I will even try to look critical and dissatisfied." And I did, but they all laughed.
"It's no manner of use, Uncle John," cried my pretty niece; "we saw you eat it."
"'It' indeed!" I protested. "What is this undeniably easy-to-take concoction you have stuffed me with?"
"My esteemed new brother," Owen answered, "we have been considering your case in conclave assembled, and we think it is wiser to feed you for awhile and demand by all the rites of hospitality that you eat what is set before you and ask no questions for conscience sake. When you begin to pine, to lose your appetite, to look wan and hollow-eyed, then we may reconsider. Meanwhile we will tell you everything you want to know about food in general, and even some particulars — present dishes always excepted."
"I will now produce information," began Hallie, "my office being that of Food Inspector."
"Her main purpose in bringing you here, Uncle, was to give you food and then talk about it," said Jerrold solemnly. Hallie only made a face at him, and went on:
"We have a magnificent system of production and distribution," she explained, "with a decreasing use of animal foods."
"Was this a vegetarian meal?" I asked in a hollow voice.
"Mostly; but you shall have meat when you want it — better meat than you used to get, too."
"Cold Storage Meat?"
"Oh, no; that's long since stopped. The way we manage about meat is this: A proper proportion of edible animals are raised under good conditions — nice, healthy, happy beasts; killed so that they don't know and never kept beyond a certain time limit. You see — " she paused, looking for the moment like her mother, "the whole food business is changed — you don't realize — "
"Go ahead and tell me — tell me all — my life at present is that of Rollo, I perceive, and I am most complacent after this meal."
"Uncle, I rejoice in your discovery, I do indeed. You are an uncle after my own heart," said Jerrold.
So my fair niece, looking like any other charming girl in a pretty evening frock, began to expound her specialty. Her mother begged to interrupt for the moment. "Let me recall to him things as they were — which you hardly know, you happy child. Don't forget, John, that when we were young we did not know what good food was."
I started to protest, but she shook her finger at me.
"No, we didn't, my dear boy. We knew 'what we liked,' as the people said at the picture show; but that did not make it good — good in itself or good for us. The world was ill-fed. Most of the food was below par; a good deal was injurious, some absolutely poison. People sold poison for food in 1910, don't forget that. You may remember the row that was beginning to be made about it."
I admitted recalling something of the sort, though it had not particularly interested me at the time.
"Well, that row went on — and gained in force. The women woke up."
"If you have said that once since we met, my dear sister, you've said it forty times. I wish you would make a parenthesis in these food discussions and tell me how, when and why the women woke up."
Nellie looked a little dashed, and Owen laughed outright.
"You stand up for your rights, John!" he said, rising and slapping me on the shoulder. "Let's go in the other room and settle down for a chin — it's our fate."
"Hold him till he sees our housekeeping," said Jerrold. I stood watching, while they rapidly placed our dishes — which I now noticed were very few — in a neat square case which stood on a side table. Everything went in out of sight; paper napkins from the same receptacle wiped the shining table; and then a smooth-running dumbwaiter took it from our sight.
"This is housework," said Nellie, mischievously.
"I refuse to be impressed. Come back to our muttons," I insisted. "You can tell me about your domestic sleight-of-hand in due season."
So we lounged in the large and pleasant parlor, the broad river before us, rimmed with starry lamps, sparkling everywhere with the lights of tiny pleasure craft, and occasionally the blaze and wash of larger boats. I had a sense of pleasant well-being. I had eaten heartily, very heartily, yet was not oppressed. My new-found family pleased me well. The quiet room was beautiful in color and proportion, and as my eyes wandered idly over it I noted how few in number and how harmonious were its contents giving a sense of peace and spaciousness.
The air was sweet — I did not notice then, as I did later, that the whole city was sweet-aired now; at least by comparison with what cities used to be. From somewhere came the sound of soft music, grateful to the ear. I stretched myself luxuriously with:
"Now, then, Nellie — let her go — 'the women woke up.' "
"Some women were waking up tremendously, before you left, John Robertson, only I dare say you never noticed it. They just kept on, faster and faster, till they all did — about all. There are some Dodos left, even yet, but they don't count — discredited grandmothers!"
"And, being awake?" I gently suggested.
"And being awake, they — " She paused for an instant, seeking an expression, and Jerrold's smooth bass voice put in, "They saw their duty and they did it."
"Exactly," his mother agreed, with a proudly loving glance at him; "that's just what they did! And in regard to the food business, they recognized at last that it was their duty to feed the world — and that it was miserably done! So they took hold."
"Now, mother, this is my specialty," Hallie interposed.
"When a person can only talk about one thing, why oppose them?" murmured Jerrold. But she quite ignored him, and reopened her discussion.
"We — that is, most of the women and some of the men — began to seriously study the food question, both from a hygienic and an economic standpoint. I can't tell you that thirty years' work in a minute, Uncle John, but here's the way we manage it now: We have learned very definitely what people ought not to eat, and it is not only a punishable, but a punished offense to sell improper food stuffs."
"How are the people to know?" I ventured.
"The people are not required to know everything. All the food is watched and tested by specialists; what goes into the market is good — all of it."
"By impeccable angelic specialists — like my niece?"
She shook her head at me. "If they were not, the purchaser would spot them at once. You see, our food supply is not at the mercy of the millions of ignorant housewives any more. Food is bought and prepared by people who know how — and they have all the means — and knowledge — for expert tests."
"And if the purchaser too was humanly fallible? — "
She cast a pitying glance on me, and her father took the floor for a moment.
"You see, John, in the old time the dealers were mostly poor, and sold cheap and bad stuff to make a little money. The buyers were mostly poor, and had to buy the cheap and nasty stuff. Even large manufacturers were under pressure, and had to cheat to make a profit — or thought they had to. Then when we got to inspectors and such like they were under the harrow, too, and were by no means inpeccable. Our big change is this: Nobody is poor now."
"I hear you say that," I answered, "but I can't seem to get it through my head. Have you really divided all the property?"
"John Robertson, I'm ashamed of you!" cried Nellie. "Even in 1910 people knew better than that — people who knew anything!"
"That wasn't necessary," said Owen, "nor desirable. What we have done is this: First, we have raised the productive capacity of the population; second, we have secured their right to our natural resources; third, we have learned to administer business without waste. The wealth of the world grows enormously. It is not what you call 'equally distributed,' but every one has enough. There is no economic danger any more; there is economic peace."
"And economic freedom?" asked I sharply.
"And economic freedom. People choose the work they like best, and work — freely, more than they have to."
I pondered on this. "Ah, but they have to — labor is compulsory."
Owen grinned. "Yes, labor is compulsory — always was. It is compulsory on everyone now. We used to have two sets who wouldn't work — paupers and the idle rich; no such classes left — all busy."
"But, the freedom of the individual — " I persisted.
"Come, come, brother; society always played hob with the freedom of the individuals whenever it saw fit. It killed, imprisoned, fined; it had compulsory laws and regulations; it required people to wear clothes and furnished no clothes for them to wear. If society has a right to take human life, why has it not a right to improve it? No, my dear man," continued Owen (he was evidently launched on his specialty now) "society is not somebody else domineering over us! Society is us — taking care of ourselves."
I took no exception to this, and he began again. "Society, in our young days, was in a state of auto-intoxication. It generated its own poisons, and absorbed them in peaceful, slow suicide. To think! — it seems impossible now — to think of allowing anybody to sell bad food!"
"That wasn't the only bad thing they sold," I suggested.
"No; unfortunately. Why, look here — " Owen slid a glass panel in the wall and took out a book.
"That's clever," I remarked approvingly. "Bookcases built in!"
"Yes, they are everywhere now," said Nellie. "Books — a few of them — are common human necessities. Every home, every room almost, has these little dust-tight, insect-proof wall cases. Concrete construction has helped very much in all such matters."
Owen had found his place, and now poured upon me a concentrated list of the adulterated materials deteriorating the world in that period so slightingly referred to as "my day." I noticed with gratitude that Owen said "When we were young!"
"You never were sure of getting anything pure," he said scornfully, "no matter what you paid for it. How we submitted to such rank outrage for so long I cannot imagine! This was taken up very definitely some twenty years ago, by the women mostly."
"Aha — when the women woke up!" I cried.
"Yes, just that. It is true that their being mostly mere housewives and seamstresses was a handicap in some ways; but it was a direct advantage in others. They were almost all consumers, you see, not producers. They were not so much influenced by considerations of the profits of the manufacturer as they were by the direct loss to their own pockets and health. Yes," he smiled reminiscently, "there were some pretty warm years while this thing was thrashed out. One of the most successful lines of attack was in the New Food system, though."
"I will talk!" cried Hallie. "Here I've inveigled Uncle John up here — and — and fed him to repletion; and have him completely at my mercy, and then you people butt in and do all the talking!"
"Go it, little sister — you're dead right!" agreed Jerrold.
"You see, Uncle, it's one thing to restrain and prevent and punish — and another thing to substitute improvements."
"Kindergarten methods?" I ventured.
"Yes, exactly. As women had learned this in handling children, they began to apply it to grown people — the same children, only a little older. Ever so many people had been talking and writing about this food business, and finally some of them got together and really started it."
"One of these co-operative schemes?" I was beginning, but the women looked at me with such pitying contempt that I promptly withdrew the suggestion.
"Not much!" said Nellie disdainfully. "Of course, those co-operative schemes were a natural result of the growing difficulties in our old methods, but they were on utterly wrong lines. No, sir; the new food business was a real business, and a very successful one. The first company began about 1912 or '13, I think. Just some women with a real business sense, and enough capital. They wisely concluded that a block of apartments was the natural field for their services; and that professional women were their natural patrons."
"The unprofessional women — or professional wives, as you might call them — had only their housewifery to preserve their self-respect, you see," put in Owen. "If they didn't do housekeeping for a living, what — in the name of decency — did they do?"
"This was called the Home Service Company," said Hanle. "(I will talk, mother!) They built some unusually attractive apartments, planned by women, to please women; this block was one of the finest designs of their architects — women, too, by the way."
"Who had waked up," murmured Jerrold, unnoticed.
"It was frankly advertised as specially designed for professional women. They looked at it, liked it, and moved it; teachers, largely doctors, lawyers, dressmakers; women who worked."
"Sort of a nunnery?" I asked.
"My dear brother, do you imagine that all working women were orphan spinsters, even in your day?" cried Nellie. "The self-supporting women of that time generally had other people to support, too. Lots of them were married; many were widows with children; even the single ones had brothers and sisters to take care of."
"They rushed in, anyhow," said Hallie. "The place was beautiful and built for enjoyment. There was a nice garden in the middle — "
"Like this one here?" I interrupted. "This is a charming patio. How did they make space for it?"
"New York blocks were not divinely ordained," Owen replied. "It occurred to the citizens at last they they could bisect those 200x800-foot oblongs, and they did. Wide, tree-shaded, pleasant ways run between the old avenues, and the blocks remaining are practically squares."
"You noticed the irregular border of grass and shrubbery as we came up, didn't you, Uncle?" asked Jerrold. "We forgot to speak about it, because we are used to it."
I did recall now that our ride had been not through monotonous, stone-faced, right-angled ravines, but along the pleasant fronts of gracious varying buildings, whose skyline was a pleasure and street line bordered greenly.
"You didn't live here and don't remember, maybe," Owen remarked, "but the regular thing uptown was one of those lean, long blocks, flat-faced and solid, built to the sidewalk's edge. If it was a line of private houses they were bordered with gloomy little stone-paved areas, and ornamented with ash-cans and garbage pails. If the avenue end was faced with tall apartments, their lower margin was infested with a row of little shops — meat, fish, vegetable, fruit — with all their litter and refuse and flies, and constant traffic. Now a residence block is a thing of beauty on all sides. The really necessary shops are maintained, but planned for in the building, and made beautiful. Those fly-tainted meat markets no longer exist."
"I will talk!" said Hallie, so plaintively that we all laughed and let her.
"That first one I was telling you about was very charming and attractive. There were arrangements on the top floor for nurseries and child gardens; and the roof was for children all day; evenings the grown-ups had it. Great care was taken by the management in letting this part to the best professionals in child culture.
"There were big rooms, too, for meetings and parties; places for billiards and bowling and swimming — it was planned for real human enjoyment, like a summer hotel."
"But I thought you said this place was for women," I incautiously ventured.
"Oh, Uncle John! And has it never occurred to you that women like to amuse themselves? Or that professional women have men relatives and men friends? There were plenty of men in the building, and plenty more to visit it. They were shown how nice it was, you see. But the chief card was the food and service. This company engaged, at high wages, first-class houseworkers, and the residents paid for them by the hour; and they had a food service which was beyond the dreams of — of — homes, or boarding houses."
"Your professional women must have been millionaires," I mildly suggested.
"You think so because you do not understand the food business, Uncle John; nobody did in those days. We were so used to the criminal waste of individual housekeeping, with its pitifully low standards, and to monotonous low-grade restaurant meals, with their waste and extortion, that it never occurred to us to estimate the amount of profit there really was in the business. These far-seeing women were pioneers — but not for long! Dozens are claiming first place now, just as the early Women's Clubs' used to.
"They established in that block a meal service that was a wonder for excellence, and for cheapness, too; and people began to learn."
I was impressed, but not convinced, and she saw it.
"Look here, Uncle John, I hate to use figures on a helpless listener, but you drive me to it."
Then she reached for the bookcase and produced her evidence, sparingly, but with effect. She showed me that the difference between the expense of hiring separate service and the same number of people patronizing a service company was sufficient to reduce expenses to the patrons and leave a handsome payment for the company
Owen looked on, interpreting to my ignorance.
"You never kept house, old, man," he said, "nor thought much about it, I expect; but you can figure this out for yourself easily enough. Here were a hundred families, equal to, say, five hundred persons. They hired a hundred cooks, of course; paid them something like six dollars a week — call it five on an average. There's $500 a week, just for cooks — $26,000 a year!
"Now, as a matter of fact (our learned daughter tells us this), ten cooks are plenty for five hundred persons — at the same price would cost $1,300 a year!"
"Ten are plenty, and to spare," said Hal-lie; "but we pay them handsomely. One chef at 3,000; two next bests at $2,000 each, four thousand; two at $1,000 apiece, two thousand; five at $800, four thousand. That's $13,000 — half what we paid before, and the difference in service between a kitchen maid and a scientific artist."
"Fifty per cent. saved on wages, and 500 per cent, added to skill," Owen continued. "And you can go right on and add 90 per cent. saving in fuel, 90 per cent. in plant, 50 per cent. in utensils, and — how much is it, Hallie, in materials?"
Hallie looked very important.
"Even when they first started, when food was shamefully expensive and required all manner of tests and examinations, the saving was all of 60 per cent. Now it is fully 80 per cent."
"That makes a good deal all told, Uncle John," Jerrold quietly remarked, handing me a bit of paper. "You see, it does leave a margin of profit."
I looked rather helplessly at the figures; also at Hallie.
"It is a shame, Uncle, to hurry you so, but the sooner you get these little matters clear in your head, the better. We have these great food furnishing companies, now, all over the country; and they have market gardens and dairies and so on, of their own. There is a Food Bureau in every city, and a National Food Bureau, with international relations. The best scientific knowledge is used to study food values, to improve old materials and develop new ones; there's a tremendous gain."
"But — do the people swallow things as directed by the government?" I protested. "Is there no chance to go and buy what you want to eat when you want it?"
They rose to their feet with one accord. Jerrold seized me by the hand.
"Come on, Uncle!" he cried. "Now is as good a time as any. You shall see our food department — come to scoff and remain to prey — if you like."
The elevator took us down, and I was led unresistingly among their shining modernities.
"Here is the source of supply," said Owen, showing where the basement supply room connected with a clean, airy subway under the glass-paved sidewalk. "Ice we make, drinking water we distil, fuel is wired to us; but the food stuffs are brought this way. Come down early enough and you would find these arteries of the city flowing steadily with —"
"Milk and honey," put in Jerrold.
"With the milk train, the meat train, the vegetable train, and so on."
"Ordered beforehand?" I asked.
"Ordered beforehand. Up to midnight you may send down word as to the kind of mushrooms you prefer — and no extra charge. During the day you can still order, but there's a trifle more expense — not much. But most of us are more than content to have our managers cater for us. From the home outfit you may choose at any time. There are lists upstairs, and here is the array."
There were but few officials in this part of the great establishment at this hour, but we were politely shown about by a scholarly looking man in white linen, who had been reading as we entered. They took me between rows of glass cases, standing as books do in the library, and showed me the day's baking; the year's preserves; the fragrant, colorful shelves of such fruit and vegetables as were not fresh picked from day to day.
"We don't get to-day's strawberries till the local ones are ripe," Jerrold told us.
"These are yesterday's, and pretty good yet."
"Excuse me, but those have just come in," said the white-linen person; "this morning's picking, from Maryland."
I tasted them with warm approval. There was a fascinating display of cakes and cookies, some old favorites, some of a new but attractive aspect; and in glass-doored separate ice-chambers, meats, fish, milk, and butter.
"Can people come in here and get what they want, though?" I inquired triumphantly.
"They can, and occasionally they do. But what it will take you some time to realize, John," my sister explained, "is the different attitude of people toward their food. We are all not only well fed — sufficiently fed — but so wisely fed that we seldom think of wanting anything further. When we do we can order from upstairs, come down to the eating room and order, send to the big depots if it is some rare thing, or even come in like this. To the regular purchasers it is practically free,"
"And how if you are a stranger — a man in the street?"
"In every city in our land you may go into any eating house and find food as good — and cheap — as this," said Hallie, triumphantly.