Into The Archives: 1957’s The Scientific & Easy Way To Gain Weight Is The Weirdest Diet Book Of All Time

My mom gave me treasure: a small pile of small paperback books produced by someone named Jose Bonomo who may or may not be a real person, from the 1950s-1960’s on various womanly things, like how to have flawless hair, makeup, figures, diets, and even parties. I feel like I am a 1960’s housewife in the modern world, despite not being married. I want to write the feminists’ guide to being a single 1960’s housewife, which I realize makes no sense and is contradictory, but I’m just so curious about how women lived in the ‘50s and ‘60s (thanks, “Mad Men”). I want to know how they did their hair, makeup, and maintained their figures.

So when I saw this one diet book in particular, I thought I misread the title. But no, I hadn’t, it’s actually a book titled The Scientific & Easy Way to Gain Wight. The cover shows an illustration of a thin woman measuring her thighs. “SHOWS YOU HOW TO ADD POUNDS AND INCHES” the book assures, while proclaiming, “SENSIBLE! SURE!”

Who would buy this book? I wondered. Was gaining weight as much of a problem for women then as losing it is today? The introduction page begins, “Pull up a chair and let’s talk about gaining weight” (by our friend Joe Bonomo). “As an underweight you have one thing in your favor…that insurance statistics show that your lifeline will be longer and that you are less inclined to suffer from many of the diseases associated with fat persons. […] Anyway, here is your weight gaining pocket manual. It is the result of a lifetime devoted to research in health nutrition.”

It suggests how much you “should” weigh based on your height and frame. For example, a woman of 5’2 with a small frame should weigh 109 pounds, 121 pounds if medium, and 133 pounds if large framed. There’s also a guide for how many calories certain activities burn. You know, daily housewife stuff like washing clothes, exercising (“lightly”), walking slow, sawing wood, conducting an orchestra, and walking up stairs. If you’d like to gain weight, then you follow Bonomo’s daily diet program, which is, forgive me, absolutely fucking insane.

Here’s day one:

Breakfast: Begin with fruit, “cereals next” (hot or dry, with honey or sugar for sweetening), toast with “at least one egg, or pancakes, waffles with syrup,” and butter with the toast of course. “Last, the beverage” – they suggest substituting coffee or tea with milk, or hot cocoa.

That’s just breakfast. Let’s continue:

Lunch: Tomato soup, 1 cup. Cheeseburger on a sweet roll. Butter, 1 pat mixed with hash browned potatoes. Apple pie, 1 wedge. Milk, 1 glass.

Dinner: Shrimp cocktail, 4 pcs. Swordfish steak, broiled. Broccoli, ½ cup. Boiled potato, 1 med. Baking powder biscuit (what?), 2 med. Butter, 2 pats. Angel food cake, 1 pc. Cocoa, 1 cup.

Bedtime: Hard boiled egg, 1 med. Take vitamin-mineral capsule.

They estimate that the entire day’s worth of calories is approx. 3,055. Note a few things:

  • They made “bedtime” its own category.
  • This was published in 1957, so it’s likely that the calorie count of this would be double, as portion sizes have doubled.
  • It seems to assume that you will be cooking ALL OF THIS, as there’s no suggested brands for anything – and of course you would, it’s 1957, what else are you doing with your time, woman?
  • All the butter.

I understand that the diet is about gaining weight, but surely this can’t be a healthy way to do it? A cheeseburger with hash browns with butter with milk for lunch? And that’s not even all of it. This diet would put me in a food coma before 2 p.m. and wake me up with stomach pains at 4 a.m.

I’d like to share Day 16’s lunch (approximately 1,565 calories):

Cream of celery, 1 cup. Beef tongue, 8 oz., with lettuce, 4 lge. Leaves. Sliced tomatoes, 4 sl. Mayonnaise, 1 tbs. Whole wheat toast, 2 slices. Butter, 3 pats. Hashed brown potatoes, ½ cup. Berries, ½ cup, and cream. Milk, 1 glass.

That’s just LUNCH! Also keep in mind, next to these diets are photos of women who look like Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner.

I just can’t believe how much times have changed. Note though, that I also have diet books from the era on how to lose weight, and they’re just as extreme. One book proudly boasts a “1,000 calorie diet.” It’s called the Hollywood Star Diet Book.

But that’s a whole other article.