Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Unsafe in Candy Land

Eric Schultz

Recently, while researching material on an entrepreneur who launched her candy business at the turn of the twentieth century, I bumped into a series of newspapers articles that reminded me that the past really is a foreign (and often dangerous) land.

In 1900, America’s candy manufacturers boasted $100 million in invested capital and an annual business in candies and sweets that exceeded that of beer, wine and liquor combined.   A British newspaper declared that Americans “make their sweets as we make our bread, practically for a day’s consumption.”  In the days before the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, this extraordinary demand for all things sweet attracted swindlers, quacks and crooks.

The damage done was fathomless.  I uncovered article after article about children sickened and killed by adulterated candies throughout the 1890s and early 1900s.  Techniques used by manufacturers were often beyond the pale. Some candy was found to contain fusel oil (an ingredient used at the time in lacquer solvents). Other manufacturers cut their honey with glucose, brightened candies with the use of aniline colors (used in the manufacture of the precursors to polyurethane), and added terra cotta (a clay more often used to make bricks) for bulk and color.  In 1900, the Committee on Manufactures of the U.S. Senate found that condensed milk was among the most commonly adulterated products--except for perhaps extracts of fruit and vanilla, so suspect that only one manufacturer was even willing to allow a factory inspection.

A headline from the April 24,
1895, front page of the New
York Evening World.
It was a world of extremes where the Senate declared candy “a natural and proper element of food for children” while the American Confectioners’ Association insisted in 1899 that “poisonous candy has entirely disappeared from the market, and laws against such product are strictly obeyed in almost every State in the Union.”  The same year, delegates to the convention of jobbing confectioners took their own tepid swing at solving the problem when they adopted a resolution urging the Government to substitute aluminum for copper in making pennies since pennies, used largely in the candy business, “are disease carriers.” 

We commiserate among ourselves today about how fast our world moves and how abrupt change can be.  By that, we often mean the next iPad or app, the newest software we have to learn, or the amount of email in our in-box.  But not so long ago, the world could take an abrupt and devastating turn by a simple trip to the store for a handful of penny candy.


Randall said...

Food adulteration. Limited government.

I remember reading about all the food adulteration that took place in the 19th cen. Some of the cheap, poisonous additives are really shocking.

Kate said...

Sounds like food production in China today!

hcr said...

I reviewed a book on nineteenth-century sweets a number of years ago-- unfortunately I can't now recall the author or the title (and it was a good book!)-- and was shocked. Not just candy, but ice cream, too, which would melt over the course of the day and the vendors would simply scoop up the glop and refreeze it. That would be cream and raw eggs that had sat in the hot sun all day breeding salmonella, refrozen into a lovely toxic confection. Makes my stomach turn just to think of it.

Brings up the issue of urbanization. In small towns, you knew what people were using in food preparation and whom you could trust. Big cities, though, required the government to step in.

Also brings up women's suffrage. If their babies were dying, they wanted some say in creating a government that would stop the issue by doing something more effective than recasting pennies (which, from what I know of Gilded Age politics, I'll just bet was also good for the aluminum industry).

Home writing today-- just me and a bag of M&Ms....

Lisa Clark Diller said...

And all I ever heard about was sharp objects in Halloween candy/fruit. That's nothing. (and how did THAT rumor get started????)

Wow. I'm sure we're eating things now that would shock us--thanks for the reminder, Heather, that it is always great to know where your food is really coming from.

But still, thank God for the FDA.

Eric B. Schultz said...

M&Ms rock. . .but Reese's Pieces rule. I think a great capitalist, Ronald Reagan, had it right when he said: Trust, but verify.

Unknown said...

Since you mention's interesting how the current "local food" debate reintroduces many of these themes from a slightly different perspective. Quasi-libertarians among the foodies such as Joel Salatin are quick to point out that little local producers are held out of the market by the cost of complying with FDA and USDA regulations that really don't make us safer anyway. His solution is, know your farmer.

hcr said...

Heh, heh, heh. Reeses Pieces! The great genius of E. T.
and marketing.

I cannot tell you how many Friendly's Reeses Pieces sundaes I ate in my misspent youth, but for me, writing means chocolate. And only chocolate. And more chocolate. And....