From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Better Bread = Less Divorce

Dr. Harvey M. Wiley, food purity crusader



Atlantic City, N.J., July 16, 1908
Dr. Wiley of the Government's "Poison Squad," Talks of Foods.

"Better bread making would lead to fewer divorces," said Dr. H. M. Wiley, of the government's "poison squad" in an address before the American Biscuit Makers association.

"Good bread, in my opinion," he added, "would help solve the American evil of divorce. If the bakers make good bread and they educate the people to buy it, the great destroyer of domestic happiness, dyspesia, would be removed and we will hear no more of the divorce problem."

Quoted from the Lewiston Evening Journal, Lewiston, Maine, July 16, 1908, page 1, column 3.

Ah, dyspesia, the wrecker of marriages! Apparently, "dyspesia" is an old-time medical term that encompassed a list of indigestive symptoms: gas, bloating, belching, nausea, heartburn, etc. I agree with the doctor that it would be a very good thing indeed to eliminate those things from marriage.

I'm smiling at the thought of Victorian spouses enduring each other's dyspesia, but I'm also remembering that food purity regulation was in its infancy in 1908. Contaminated, spoiled, and unsafe ingredients were a huge problem.

Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, (1844-1930) was the Dr. Wiley of the newspaper story I quoted above. He was the chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 1882-1912. His research into food safety changed the lives of Americans then and still affects us today.

Dr. Wiley in his laboratory at the USDA
When asked by Congress to help determine the safety of food preservatives, Dr. Wiley developed a battery of tests to detect and measure the amount being used in foods. Then he organized "Poison Squads" of volunteers who ate a diet containing controlled amounts of the four food preservatives that Wiley considered most dangerous: borax, salicylic acid, formaldehyde, and copper sulfate. Careful records were kept of the amount of these preservatives the men consumed, the amount that was excreted, and the condition of their health.

Because of the publicity generated by Dr. Wiley and the Poison Squads, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was passed by Congress and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. Surprisingly, this act did not eliminate the food preservatives mentioned above.
 "While Wiley agreed that small amounts of preservatives were harmless and could slow food spoilage, he also argued that the accumulation of additives posed a public health threat, because it was not possible to control how much a person ate over time. He was ultimately unsuccessful in fighting food preservatives, but borax, salicylic acid, formaldehyde, and copper sulfate fell out of use." (Source: "Pioneering Consumer Advocate Gave Rise to FDA")

After Dr. Wiley left the USDA in 1912, he accepted a position with Good Housekeeping magazine, where he founded the Good Housekeeping laboratories and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and continued his crusade for safer food.

In honor of his many years of public service and his pioneering work in food safety, Dr. Wiley is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

7 comments:

Collagemama said...

Gen--Interesting! I've been on a food safety rant, and here is the story of the food safety concept.

Genevieve said...

I was talking with my daughter, the scientist, about Dr. Wiley and the Poison Squads today, and she had some interesting insights. One thing she said was that a lot of food safety issues became serious problems when factories started making food, instead of housewives. For example, a housewife cooking for her own family would never have used the spoiled eggs imported from China that are described by Dr. Wiley in other paragraphs of the "Better Bread" article.

Elaine said...

What about Upton Sinclair's book, "The Jungle," about canning factories and their practices? A 'colorful' columnist described Teddy Roosevelt reading from the book at breakfast, and then throwing his sausage out the window, where it exploded. Sinclair was trying to rally Labor, but in effect he 'aimed at the nation's heart and hit its stomach.'
Always learn something from your great blog!

Genevieve said...

Yes, right at the same time -- a few years after the turn of the century.

Upton Sinclair and the meat packing industry (yuck!) of his era made such an impression on me in U.S. history class that I remember his name and his book 50 years later. I never read any part of the book and our teacher didn't give us the details, but I have a lively imagination. :(

Now we'll see if I can solve the captcha on my own blog...

Elaine said...

The book is an interesting read, actually. I can't recall if it was required reading (Norris's _The Octopus_ was) but I was riveted.

Sunny said...

Very interesting post. Glad I stopped by to read your blog today!

Genevieve said...

Hi, Sunny. Thanks for stopping by and taking time to write a comment. I enjoyed looking at some of your paintings on your blog tonight. You have so much talent.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.