Posts in Category: History

How drinking coffee substitutes makes for a happy marriage

Instant Postum ad c.1913

The vilification of food is something Americans do all too well. Many food items have swung back and forth between villain and savior (Harvey Levenstien wrote a great book about this: Fear of Food A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat). Caffeine has long been one of the most popular targets and perhaps no one did more to try to destroy the reputation of coffee than the man who brought us Grape Nuts: C.W. Post. If you’ve ever wondered why Grape Nuts has that strange, indiscernible but slightly gravely taste it’s because it originally wasn’t meant to be a cereal at all, but rather a coffee substitute–one of Posts’ many efforts to rip off Kellogg’s creations.

Riding on the wave of the success of Grape Nuts and new health concerns over coffee, which he called a “drug drink,” Post developed another coffee alternative made from roasted grains called Postum. In his book, Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast argues that Posts’ ability to use bogus health jargon while appealing to people’s fears and snobbery paved the way for modern consumer advertising practices. Post himself was likely influenced by Coke’s ads in the 1880′s promoting the drink as a “brain tonic.” Post promised that drinking Postum would put consumers on the “road to Wellville,” and as this ad contends, would also rebuild one’s nervous system from the effects of “the old poison–caffeine,” and win over one’s husband to boot! In the end, commerce won out over caffeine ideology. C.W. Posts’ daughter took over the company following his death and bought Maxwell House in 1928.

 

 

 

 

 

New York’s largest beer garden was kid-friendly

The Atlantic Beer Garden

The Atlantic Garden postcard 1872; New York Public Library, Mid-Manhattan Library, Picture Collection Online

Beer gardens are experiencing a small, but notable renaissance in New York City these days. Sadly they don’t even touch the kinds of massive, throbbing beer gardens that used to be commonplace. Sure, you could grab a beer at any of these German-style beer halls that dotted 19th century New York, but they were so much more than watering holes. The largest and most famous of these was the Atlantic Garden, which was a cavernous multi-storied social space were patrons would spend the better part of the day drinking, playing pool and listening to live music and of course, drinking beer. The largest of these was the Atlantic Garden, opened in 1858 on the Bowery at number 50 extending to Elizabeth Street. At a time when male and female social spheres rarely overlapped, beer halls were frequented by both men and women. The Atlantic Garden was particularly popular with German families who came to enjoy some evening entertainment together. This included an array of diversions such as a shooting gallery, pool tables, bowling allies and live entertainment. Despite the flowing beer, the crowd was relatively tame. On the lower lefthand corner of the postcard you can see a young girl sitting patiently at the end of the table as her parents chat away and another couple walking hand in hand between the tables on the right side.

As the Bowery increasingly became home to some of the most desolate populations in the city, Atlantic Garden managed to maintain its clean reputation and remained popular with locals and tourists. That is, until the locals finally left for less seedy pastures. Atlantic Garden was closed in 1902 because its main clientele, Germans and Irish, had moved away from the Bowery. This particularly vivid passage from the New York Times article announcing the closure describes the ending of an era:

Dwellers of the Bowery paused and rubbed their eyes yesterday when they passed Atlantic Garden, for the front of the famous old resort, which had stood almost unchanged on its site just below Canal Street since before the Civil War, was plastered over with Billboard in Yiddish announcing a Yiddish variety programme.”

(Yes, we still clung to that extra “me” in 1902.)

The article goes on to describe how the hall had hosted vaudeville acts, a new form of entertainment when it first opened, and specialized in novelty acts such as “‘teams’ of negro performers,” and later a “ladies orchestra.”

This past fall, it was discovered that the basement of the tavern that had previously occupied 50 Bowery and which had supposedly been George Washington’s headquarters, was still intact.  Almost just as soon, it was demolished to make way for a 22-story, 160-room hotel. Hopefully plans will also include an enormous beer hall.

When drinking gin led to epilepsy and other teetotaling tales

Abstinence pledge card.  23 September 1842.  (GLC 2542.27.  The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the Pierpont Morgan Library.)

Abstinence pledge card. 23 September 1842. (The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the Pierpont Morgan Library.)

January 17, 1920: the day Americans were legally prohibited from consuming alcohol for the next 13 years—the day the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. But teetotalism had been popular in America for nearly a century before the government got involved.

Alcohol had long been the target of American reformers who aimed to restore order to society through publishing diatribes on the harmful effects of excessive drinking, such as this illuminating pamphlet by University of Pennsylvania professor, Dr. Benjamin Rush, An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind (in its 8th edition by 1823).

A note to those considering imbibing tonight: Dr. Rush warns that while small amounts of alcohol “have a friendly influence upon health and life,” overindulgence in anything as innocent as punch leads to idleness, which leads to sickness and eventually to debt. Cordials lead to swindling, while the stronger stuff like gin and brandy will ultimately lead to murder and…the gallows. He suggests sticking to water which brings “health and wealth”—a radical concept at a time when the quality of most water was questionable.

An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind

An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind, by Dr. Benjamin Rush (1823)

American Teetotalism actually has its origins in Ireland with the Catholic Temperance movement when priest Mathew Theobald established the Cork Total Abstinence Society in 1838. His followers each signed a pledge of total alcohol abstinence and met on Friday and Saturday nights and on Sundays after Mass. In just the first five months, Theobald had conscribed 130,000 members. He began taking his cause on the road and eventually came to the U.S. in 1849 where he enlisted another 500,000. Catherine Cauty was the  4,281,797th to sign the pledge, promising to “abstain from all intoxicating drinks, except used medicinally and by order of a medical man, and to discountenance the cause and practice of intemperance.” The above card illustrates the consequences of alcohol consumption: wife-beating, and the benefits of temperance: a happy family gathering in front of a hearth.

From oysters with love: for rich and poor

Oyster advertisement, American, early twentieth century. © The Bridgeman Art Library

Oyster advertisement, American, early twentieth century. © The Bridgeman Art Library

Slimy, briny and amorphous; oysters are an implausible aphrodisiac and an unlikely delicacy. And yet, oysters are part of a cadre of much-valued foods with the fabled powers to generate sexual stimulation, along with chocolate and apparently striped bass. While oysters have long been shrouded in a myth of sensuality, they were not always so rarefied. In the nineteenth century, oysters were one of few foods that both rich and poor could agree were delicious, and they ate them with equal enthusiasm. Mark Kurlansky writes in The Big Oyster: History of the Half Shell that mid-nineteenth century New York oystermania “was one of the few moments in culinary history when a single food, served in more or less the same preparations, was commonplace for all socioeconomic levels.”

New York was synonymous with oysters long before it was known for its hotdogs and bagels. The nineteenth century waterways were so bountiful that oysters were sold as street food for pennies. New Yorkers were so mad for oysters that shuckers would work 10 hour days opening up 1,000 oysters per hour just to keep up with the demand.

Oysters could be found all over town and prepared in all sorts of ways: boiled, stuffed into in pies and stewed. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart seeks refuge at a white table-clothed restaurant on 59th Street and Park Avenue where she has a rejuvenating snack of tea and stewed oysters. While just a few blocks downtown in Edith Wharton’s New York, oysters were casually consumed for a penny each off carts by the harbor.

When it came to oysters, elites were essentially indulgent gilded age locavores. Delmonico’s, New York’s original fine dining establishment, put oysters, or huîtres as was their francophile predilection, at the very top of their menu and set the trend for serving them raw on the half-shell. Oysters also attracted the attention of visitors to New York, including Charles Dickens who found most of America to be horrendous and did not hesitate to call parts of New York “loathsome, drooping, and decayed.” And yet, he found the New York oyster cellars “pleasant retreats” and seemed to enjoy their “wonderful cookery.”

Oyster Bay Sea Food Restaurant, NYC

Museum of the City of New York

Oyster Stand NYC c.1900 Thomas Mcallister

Oyster Stand NYC c.1900 Thomas Mcallister, Museum of the City of New York

 

 

 

 

 

I certainly cannot think of a single food item, even with the relative democratization of food over the past century and the increased access and exposure to a wider variety of cuisines, that would be equally celebrated at, let’s say Daniel’s and IHOP. I would love to be wrong about this (Cronuts at Dunkin’ Donuts don’t count), and maybe someone will point out that I am. But from what I can tell, I’m not.

A combination of pollution and bitter turf wars between competing fisherman caused the decline of New York’s oyster population. Eventually typhoid fever and cholera outbreaks forced the City Health Commission to close all the oyster beds in 1927, ending New York’s oyster bonanza.

New York is more socioeconomically divided today than it has been in over a century but it has been nearly as long since oysters were consumed with equal gusto by both the haves and have nots. But could it happen again? There are projects to revitalize New York’s oyster population, like efforts by the New York Harbor School and The River Project. But it’s doubtful that their numbers will ever get as high as they once were when oysters were so plentiful that their shells literally paved the streets.

The rise and fall of orange juice as a health drink

The magical cure for everything from singlehood to the common cold

OJ ad 2

The very first thing I do each morning is not shower, not check my email, not even caffeinate. I open up the fridge, reach for a plastic bottle and pour myself a small glass of orange juice. The citrus and sweetness seem to go through my tastebuds and right to that “on” switch in my brain. You know how courteous hosts ask if there’s anything you’d like them to stock up on when you’re visiting, and this is meant as a gesture rather than an invitation? Well, I actually answer: orange juice.

So when I started researching how orange juice became a staple of the American breakfast, it did not surprise me that its reputation for restoring energy and vitality was a central marketing theme. What I didn’t expect was that its meteoric rise to breakfast classic also involved a scare over a rare blood condition, an obsession with vitamin C and nearly a decade of government research. Oh, and then there’s this: If you value your morning glass of orange juice with its happy bits of pulp and consider it to be as close to the real thing as can be readily available at your local supermarket, do not read on. If, however, you are prepared to be nauseated by your once innocent glass of store-bought orange juice, this one’s for you.

“Most commercial orange juice is so heavily processed that it would be undrinkable if not for the addition of something called flavor packs. This is the latest technological innovation in the industry’s perpetual quest to mimic the simplicity of fresh juice. Oils and essences are extracted from the oranges and then sold to a flavor manufacturer who concocts a carefully composed flavor pack customized to the company’s flavor specifications. The juice, which has been patiently sitting in storage sometimes for more than a year, is then pumped with these packs to restore its aroma and taste, which by this point have been thoroughly annihilated. You’re welcome.”

For more on flavor packs, juice processing and the entire orange juice industry, read Alissa Hamilton’s illuminating book, Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice. I’m not sure what my mornings are going to look like from now on, but thanks to her I’ve drunk my last glass of year-old orange juice. For more on how we got here in the first place, read the rest of my piece on TheAtlantic.com: The Myth of Orange Juice as a Health Drink.

Here are some delightful orange juice commercials that didn’t make it into the piece:
1950′s canned Florida Citrus: “Because I like to get my vitamin C the way nature intended.”
1950′s Florida Citrus Fresh-Frozen: “Quench your thirst with health.”
1954 animated Bing Crosby for Minute Maid: “Healthier teeth, sturdier bones, better growth, rich red blood, and more vitality.”
1980 Florida Orange Growers: “It isn’t just for breakfast anymore.”
1993 Tropicana Pure Premium Grovestand: “The newest orange juice sensation…a taste so fresh, so pure, so real, every sip is like biting into an orange.”

 

Graham crackers for the depraved soul

smoreSylvester Graham says: white flour does not give the teeth or the stomach a proper workout and leads to a “lazy colon.”

Poor Reverend Sylvester Graham only wanted to save Americans from themselves and their harmful sexual urges, glutinous habits and materialism. His solution: crackers.

This most humble and innocent of American snacks has a strange and unlikely history that spans health and dress reforms, temperance movements, early vegetarianism, a mob of bakers, and the birth of the entire cereal industry. Read my full story on TheAtlantic.com and listen to me talk all about Grahamism on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth.

 

You’ve come a long way, Columbus Circle

  • c.1894
    c.1894
  • c.1905
    c.1905
  • c.1912
    c.1912
  • c.1921
    c.1921
  • 1938
    1938
  • 1943
    1943
  • c. 1960
    c. 1960
  • c. 1980
    c. 1980
  • Columbus Circle as it appears today viewed from the Time Warner Center
    Columbus Circle as it appears today viewed from the Time Warner Center

In the early 1990′s in New York City, on the southwest corner of Central Park a few blocks down from Lincoln Center, lay a disused blocky convention center, a strange Venetianesque latticework building and a few other functional butnondescript structures. This hodgepodge group all crowded around a traffic circle that was decorated with parked motorcycles and punctuated by a sooty column topped by a statue of a famous dead white man. The buildings all seemed to face this traffic circle expectantly, as if asking: why must our fate be to stare at you day after day? You are a blight on our fair city. Alas, we are doomed to continue staring at you until someone comes along with better plans for us all.

This was the Columbus Circle that I knew as a child. Today it is the manicured center of high-end shopping and living. Recently, Columbus Circle was named Best Roundabout in the World 2013 by the Roundabout Appreciate Society (which should itself be voted Most Unapologetically British Society 2013). Fountains and careful landscaping have replaced the motorcycles, Columbus and his column have received a scrub down, the weird latticework building whose arcade was essentially a homeless shelter, has been discreetly covered up and is now the Museum of Arts and Design, the abandoned convention center (a Robert Moses creation) was torn down to make way for the billion dollar Time Warner Center, and Donald Trump took over the anonymous glass tower by the park. Actual people, lots of them, sit on the benches backed by a row of fountains. It’s easy to romanticize the “bad old days” of New York and confuse grit and neglect with authenticity, but Columbus Circle itself is a gleaming example of a resuscitated public space. And while I wish it didn’t mean that William Sonoma and Whole Foods are today as much of a draw to this corner of the city as Jazz at Lincoln Center, I am very glad the motorcycle parking lot is a distant memory.

 

Where’s the boef?

norman conquest

I guess lamb wasn’t popular in medieval England otherwise we’d be eating rack of agneau. Let me explain. Ever wonder why we eat beef but raise cows? Why once sheep hit the stock pot, they become mutton? Well, like with most overcomplicated things, we have the French to thank.  The Norman conquest of England brought French habits and words to the English language, specifically, as one would expect, many food words. While the invading Normans enjoyed the luxuries and foods of their newly conquered land, the local Saxons were left on the farm. Thus, the French brought to court their food language: mouton (sheep), boef (cow), veau (calf), poulet (fowl), porc (pig), which eventually becomes mutton, beef, veal, poultry and pork. As with most things, the Supersizers do a much better job explaining this in costume, if you can get past Giles Coren’s deafening chewing noises.

Vegetarians for voting rights

life1-500x777It’s World Vegetarian Day! For all our meat-shunning friends it’s a day to celebrate the earth’s bounty while sneering at the barbarians who still partake of flesh (me!). Also, it’s a day to remember a piece of forgotten women’s history. Feminist theory has long highlighted the common subjugation of women and animals in a patriarcal world where meat-eating plays an integral role in male dominance. In mid-19th century America, the early vegetarian movement was closely linked with several reform movements including animal welfare, health reform, abolition and women’s suffrage. The American Vegetarian Society was founded in 1850 under the leadership of several prominent American health reformers of the day, including noted vegetarian Reverend Sylvester Graham (of Graham cracker fame). It was the first society of it’s kind in the U.S and attracted supporters the like of Susan B. Anthony, who was known to throw vegetarian dinners but also still enjoyed the odd turkey and cow.

In the U.K. where vegetarian diets were being adopted up by the upper classes, London was teeming with vegetarian eateries. By the 1880′s, 30 new vegetarian restaurants had opened in London. These restaurants, as well as tea rooms, became popular meeting spots for suffragettes as there were few places where women could gather alone together outside the home. Away from the steaming kitchen and roast beef dinners, vegetarian restaurants also set an example of the kind of simple and fast cooking that could liberate women from the stove. Eventually women created their own spaces. London’s Minerva Club was founded by the Women’s Freedom League in 1920 attracting women from all branches of the women’s suffrage movement. Knowing their clientele, the club’s restaurant advertised that its vegetarian dishes were cooked separately and entirely free of animal fat. Eight years later the Representation of the People Act granted all women over the age of 21 the right to vote.

 

 

The historic healing power of the beach

Image via Wiki Commons

Image via Wiki Commons

What if your doctor actually prescribed you a trip to the beach? These days we go to the beach to relax and rejuvenate. But we used to believe that a trip to the beach would actually cure us. Eighteenth century British beachgoers dunked themselves in the chilly waters of the North Sea to relieve their moral and physical ailments. For decades, taking in sea air and drinking seawater was prescribed with medical certainty. Through the tuberculosis epidemic of the nineteenth century, the seaside was a place of refuge and rehabilitation for the wealthy. Eventually, as the middle class flocked to the beach in the twentieth century, we turned our gazes from the sea to the sun–the new source of therapeutic wonder that rejuvenated and revitalized us with the tans to prove it. Here’s the full story on The Atlantic.