Meals on Wheels

Jessica Helfand, author of Reinventing the Wheel (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), shares some of her favorite vintage culinary wheelcharts.

The Wheel o' Life

Twenty years ago, my father gave me my first paper wheel chart. An information-rich rotating nutrition guide marketed to physicians and druggists in the 1940s, it was dubbed The Wheel o’ Life. I loved its bold design, neat functionality, and kitschy terminology (phosphorus was labeled “the life-thought mineral”; chlorine, “the laundry man mineral”). It wasn’t long before I became an avid collector of other such charts. The computers of their day, volvelles, as they’re called, originated in medieval manuscripts as tools for representing data.

Rollator Recipe Chart

By the early 20th century, wheel charts had begun their migration from the utilitarian (as maps, calculators, and scientific devises) to the everyday, which included dinner. To advertise its refrigerators with circular “rollator” compressors, the Norge refrigerator company created the similarly shaped Rollator Recipe Chart, a 1933 guide to chilly dishes like jellied chicken bouillion and peppermint candy ice cream.

Gordon's Cocktail Wheel

Post-Prohibition, home bar aides like the Gordon’s Cocktail Wheel were on the rise. Often sponsored by distillers, they included recipes for martinis and other classics along with such rarities as the egg sherry.

What Your Corn Can Do to Help Win the War

During World War II, the seed company DeKalb Hybrids produced the patriotic What Your Corn Can Do to Help Win the War. The chart provided a quantifiable inventory of corn products, from lard and butter to rubber and glycerol, overseen by a corn soldier reporting for duty on the farm. As I realized when researching my book, Reinventing the Wheel (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), these volvelles are more than culinary curiosities; they are beacons of social history, telling us what people ate, drank, and cared about.

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