Who Put The Borax In Dr. Wiley’s Butter?


The ensuing controversy was symptomatic of the passing—painful, nostalgic to many, including no doubt many a big business senator—of the old, simple life of village and farm which was doomed by the expanding national life. It was, one feels, not solely in defense of the hake (sold as genuine codfish with boric acid as a preservative) that Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts rose in the Senate to exalt “the exquisite flavor of the codfish, salted, made into balls, and eaten on a Sunday morning by a person whose theology is sound, and who believes in the five points of Calvinism.”

The friends of food reform needed all the courage and public discussion they could muster. Since 1879, when the first federal bill was proposed, 190 measures to protect the consumer had been introduced in Congress, of which 49 had some kind of a subsequent history, and 141 were never heard of again. Meanwhile the states did what they could. About half of them had passed pure food laws by 1895. But there was no uniformity in their regulations. Foods legal in one state might be banned in another. Some of the laws were so loosely drawn that it was quite conceivable that Beechnut Bacon might be seized by the inspectors because no beechnuts were involved in its curing. Was GrapeNuts misbranded because the great Battle Creek “brain I’ood” had only a fanciful connection with either grapes or nuts? One bill actually proposed a numerical count of the contents of a package—the grains of salt, the cherries in a jar of preserves. What if Mr. Kellogg had to count every corn flake which went into his millions of packages?

Conflicts and foolish regulations could be ironed out over a period of time. The fatal flaw was that individual states had no power to get at the real problem: interstate traffic: in the “patented” bitters, cancer cures, and strawberry jellies made out of dyed glucose, citric acid, and timothy seed.

The act which Wiley drew up was first introduced in 1902. It was successfully sidetracked in one legislative branch or the other for four years. The provisions were simple. In essence, it was a labeling act.

“Tell the truth on the label,” Dr. Wiley said, “and let the consumer judge for himself.”

Some of the legislators who opposed the act were states’ rights Democrats, concerned about constitutional interpretation, who in the end fortunately saw the wisdom of sacrificing principle for expediency. Others were Old Guard Republicans who were special custodians of the status quo and highly sensitive to the sentiments of the business community: men like Senators Aldrich of Rhode Island (wholesale groceries), Kean of New Jersey (preserving and canning), Platt of Connecticut (home of the great Kickapoo Indian remedies), Hale and Frye of Maine, along whose rock-bound coast the familiar Maine herring became “imported French sardines,” packaged in boxes with French labels.

The tactic in the Senate was one of unobtrusive obstruction and lip service to the idea of regulation. Open opposition was never much of a factor. “The ‘right’ to use deceptive labels,” observed The Nation , “is not one for which impassioned oratory can be readily invoked.” When a serious try was made to pass a general pure food law in 1902-3, Senator Lodge was able to direct the attention of the Senate to legislation more urgently needed, such as a Philippine tariff bill. In the last session of the 59th Congress (1904-5) the food bill was considered less pressing than a proposal to award naval commissions to a couple of young men who had been expelled from the Academy for hazing but still wanted very much to become officers in the United States Navy.

President Roosevelt finally decided to push the issue. “Mr. Dooley” offered a version of how it happened. “Tiddy,” he said, was reading Upton Sinclair’s novel, The jungle, a grisly sociological tract on “Packingtown.” “Tiddy was toying with a light breakfast an’ idly turnin’ over th’ pages iv th’ new book with both hands. Suddenly he rose fr’m th’ table, an’ cryin’: Tin pizened,’ begun throwin’ sausages out iv th’ window. Th’ ninth wan sthruck Sinitor Biv’ridge on th’ head an’ made him a blond. It bounced off, exploded, an’ blew a leg off a secret-service agent, an’ th’ scatthred fragmints desthroyed a handsome row iv ol’ oak-trees. Sinitor Biv’ridge rushed in, thinkin’ that th’ Prisidint was bein’ assassynated be his devoted followers in th’ Sinit, an’ discovered Tiddy engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict with a potted ham. Th’ Sinitor fr’m Injyanny, with a few well-directed wurruds, put out th’ fuse an’ rendered th’ missile harmless. Since thin th’ Prisidint, like th’ rest iv us, has become a viggytaryan. …” At any rate, in his annual message to Congress, December 5, 1905, Roosevelt recommended in the interest of the consumer and the legitimate manufacturer “that a law be enacted to regulate interstate commerce in misbranded and adulterated foods, drinks and drugs,” and the bill was re-introduced in the Senate by Senator Weldon B. Heyburn of Idaho. Pressure from the American Medical Association, the graphic exposé of revolting conditions in the Chicago packing houses, and Roosevelt’s skillful use of the report of an official commission which investigated the stockyards, finally forced a favorable vote in the Senate and then the House on the Pure Food and Drugs Bill. The meat inspection problem was, actually, a different matter. But an angry public was in no mood to make fine distinctions. Meat, processed foods, and fake medicines all tapped the family pocketbook, all went into the human stomach, and all smelled to high heaven in the spring of 1906. Roosevelt signed the bill into law on June 30, 1906.