The Good Old Days – Part 2


Have you ever wondered what everyday life was like for your grandparents – or even your great-grandparents? Anecdotal evidence suggests that many who engage in such speculation do so through rose-colored glasses. That is, there’s a tendency to believe that, while our forebears worked hard, they were rewarded by an existence marked by purity and simplicity.

According to this view, the produce of fields, flocks and herds—untainted by chemicals and unadulterated by alien substances—nourished the American population. But was that truly the case?

Deborah Blum’s The Poison Squad (2018) is a sobering account of the dangers the food industry long posed to American citizens. It then explains how the “pure food” movement resulted in legislation that, to a great degree, nowadays safeguards what we eat and drink.

To be sure, nefarious practices in food manufacturing predated the Industrial Revolution. In 1820 a British chemist wrote, “Our pickles are made green by copper; our vinegar rendered sharp by sulfuric acid; our cream composed of rice powder or arrowroot in bad milk; our [candies] mixed of sugar, starch and clay, coloured with preparations of copper and lead; our catsup often formed of dregs of distilled vinegar with a decoction of the outer green husks of walnuts, and seasoned with all-spice.”

The situation worsened when, in the late 19th Century, a significant amount of America’s rural population moved to crowded cities, seeking work. At the same time, the mushrooming number of chemical food additives exacerbated the problem of food purity. Here are some examples of the way Americans’ food was modified to increase profits.


  • Dairymen skimmed the fat from, and watered down, their product. To counter the bluish hue of the remaining liquid, whitening agents like plaster of Paris or chalk were added, while a dash of molasses lent a more golden creamy color. A squirt of a yellowish substance (occasionally pureed calf brains!) mimicked the expected layer of cream on top. The most popular preservative for milk—a product with a short shelf life before effective refrigeration was available—was formaldehyde.


  • The appearance of decaying meat was “restored” with formaldehyde solutions marketed under catchy names like Preservaline and Freezine.


  • Candies were often tainted with toxic dyes like arsenic and lead chromate to make them more attractive. On more than one occasion this led to children being poisoned to death.


  • Strawberry jam might be a sweetened paste dyed red, made from mashed apple peelings, laced with grass seeds.


  • Coffee could consist of sawdust, or a mixture of wheat, beets, peas, beans and dandelion seeds, scorched black and ground to resemble the genuine article.


  • Flour routinely contained crushed stone or gypsum as cheap extenders.


  • Spices were laced with pulverized coconut shells and charred rope—even floor sweepings.


As the 19th Century drew to a close, alarmed citizens pressed their state governments to address such fraud and trickery. While the Department of Agriculture (created in 1862) was responsible for analyzing the composition of American food and drink, it existed primarily to address the concerns of farmers who saw manufactured food undercutting their markets. It was left to individual states to undertake testing foods and to pass purity laws. Unfortunately, the resulting patchwork of legislation was only marginally helpful in fighting the larger problem.

The tide began to turn in 1883, when Agriculture hired Dr. William Washington Wiley as its chief chemist. (He penned the poem in Part 1 on this topic.) It was under Wiley’s leadership that the department began methodically investigating food and drink fraud. As a professor at Purdue University he had pressed the Indiana Board of Health to have food ingredients labeled accurately.

Needless to say, Dr. Wiley’s work soon attracted the ire of powerful food manufacturers, who devoted cash and political pressure in attempts to block efforts on the part of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry to expose their transgressions. The government took the fight to the public during the 1901 Pan-American Exposition (held in Buffalo, New York). A display called “Pure and Adulterated Foods” focused particularly on the new industrial preservatives formaldehyde, salicylic acid, sulfides, borax and benzoic acid. By that same year the Bureau of Chemistry had identified 152 new patent preservatives on the U.S. market.

To assess the effect of adulterated food on humans Wylie created hygienic table trials, experiments wherein half the male volunteers (soon nicknamed “The Poison Squad”) were served fresh, additive-free dishes; the other half received food dosed with specific amounts of chemical preservatives. Careful records were kept of each participant’s intake, weight, temperature and pulse. As Dr. Wiley surmised the health of participants whose food was adulterated began to suffer as the experiment progressed.

In the first decade of the 20th Century individual state governments began conducting their own food purity tests, warning citizens against consuming suspect foods and passing laws meant to guarantee wholesome fare. By 1903 seventeen states had passed such legislation. Upton Sinclair’s mudraking novel The Jungle was published the following year. This sensational exposé of the Chicago meatpacking industry described unsavory practices like pickling beef by immersing it in acid (which had an unfortunate tendency to eat away workers’ fingers). Sinclair described how tuberculosis germs thrived in the plants’ moist atmosphere, and how vermin overran them.

The legacy of William Wiley’s work is seen in the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906); the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (1938); and the Food Safety Modernization Act (2011), because of which listings of ingredients and nutritional information are required on food labels. Also, new products are safety tested, food-poisoning outbreaks are monitored and traced, tainted products are subject to recall, and food and drug manufacturers that cause harm are subject to criminal prosecution.

What conclusion do I believe can be drawn from this narrative, when it comes to rationally looking at the past in general? My perspective is: study, seek to understand and honor the past, but for heaven’s sake don’t romanticize it!

What do you think?

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