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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Food Quackery

After the Civil War, America's population growth swelled like a tsunami with boatloads of immigrants arriving, it seemed, on every ocean wave. Even more pressing than the need to heal the masses was to keep them fed, but demand coupled with greed, allowing quackery to become pervasive in the food industry, just as was happening in the medicine industry.

Just about every type of food had problems attributable to new methods or slippery salesmen. Tin cans had been invented primarily for long-term storage of food used in ships, but imperfect canning procedures and lead-based solder tainted contents; an entire Arctic expedition was lost because of the lead that had leached into their canned foods. When desperate, starving crewmen realized the canned food was killing their shipmates, some resorted to the only other food left - each other. While the world was unaware of what happened to that lost expedition, concern about poisonous tin cans was already being expressed in the newspapers, giving the alternative Mason jars a boost in popularity.

A new reform movement, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, exposed the public to the practice of bleeding calves days before being slaughtered so that the meat would be white. The calves were sick for days before being slaughtered, "so weak they cannot stand, cannot bleat."

More women were now working outside the home, leaving their babies to be fed with bottles full of cow's milk. Some dairy farmers watered down their yields of cow's milk and then added chalk for coloring. Communities instituted milk statues forbidding the sale of milk produced by sick or diseased cows or which had been adulterated with any foreign substances, but complaints continued to roll in. One newspaper joked sarcastically that milkmen were leaving at the back door bottles of water that had been slightly adulterated with milk.

Even candy for kids was being adulterated for more profit. Terra Alba, or white earth, was being used instead of sugar because it was cheaper and gum drops sometimes got their chewy consistency from glue instead of gum arabic. "Poisons are much cheaper than genuine extracts," one paper pointed out, so prussic acid was used in place of almond flavor and pineapple flavoring was being created from the blending of rotten cheese and nitric acid. Food product labels began to be emblazoned with such promises as "wholesome," "fresh," and "unadulterated" because it had become such a big concern to the Victorian homemaker. She and/or her hired help made most of the family's food from scratch, so the quality of the ingredients - or at least the promise of quality - had become an increasingly important issue.

When she baked bread, one of the most frequently made foods in the Victorian home, she wanted to use real flour (not flour mixed with sawdust, as was sometimes the case) and quality yeast. The yeast meant everything to the success of the bread. Bad yeast made bad bread and wasted time and money. After all of the mixing and preparation of the bread ingredients and kneading the dough, the bread was often left overnight under a towel, for the miracle of the rising of the dough to occur. In the morning, the homemaker's hope was to see her towel looking like it was levitating in air because of the dough that had taken life from the yeast, rising and forming into a handsome loaf.

With this context, it's not at all strange to see a patent medicine maker also offering yeast. Hubert Harrington Warner was an extremely successful businessman with a shrewd appreciation for the power of advertising. His first business success was in the manufacture and sales of safes. He sold that business and then started a multi-million dollar patent medicine business, Warner's Safe Cures, with the safe as its trademark as well as its central message: whatever the medicine, if it's made by Warner, it's SAFE. The public latched on to his message and made him very, very wealthy in the 1880s. He applied the same trademark and message to his Warner's Safe Yeast product. His advertising promised the yeast was made "with the greatest care, without the touch of the human hand from mixing vat to packing case."
"Warner's Safe Yeast is guaranteed to be an absolutely Pure Dry Hop Yeast, and bread made with it will remain sweet and moist for many days. Be sure and insist upon getting Warner's Safe Yeast, the price of which is no more than the cheap and impure Yeasts with which the market is flooded."
Warner product advertising was found in newspapers and periodicals throughout the country, as well as in almanacs and trade cards. Two of those trade cards are shown here. They are fantastic custom-designed cards, employing the package of Warner's Safe Yeast to be not only at the center of visual attention, but symbolic of providing safety to the humans around it.

In glorious color, the first image shows the cardboard canister of Warner's Safe Yeast rising from the ocean, providing a lighthouse-like beacon to the small rowboat of shipwrecked sailors. These tiny humans (lower right corner) are dwarfed by the rough ocean and the dangerous rock outcroppings that lay ahead. The artist arranged those rock formations to have scary faces and painted messages of INDIGESTION and BAD HEALTH, but the didactic message is clear as is the sailor's escape from sure death: they will gain safe passage by heading for the Warner's Safe Yeast. Over the lighthouse we read the product's slogan, "Up With the Sun" - just what the homemaker hoped to see when she went into the kitchen at dawn - to find the levitating towel.

The second, equally eye-catching image shows two little children in their room, thrilled and amazed at one of the comets that filled the Victorian night sky. Their Warner's Safe Yeast canister is serving this time as a telescope which allows them to view the comet from the safety of their own room. It is also, therefore, the instrument through which they can see the light: Warner's.
In both trade cards the product promises both safety and light; Warner's is the lighthouse producing the light and the light in the sky (the comet). Don't be afraid of bad yeast - just use Warner's!

Safe food, safe medicine - it's what we all want - and it's the promise that made Warner one of the most successful quacks in the 19th century.

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