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Who Put The Borax In Dr. Wiley’s Butter?
False cures and adulterated foodstuffs were flooding the market when a chemist and his “poison squad” pushed through the first Pure Food and Drugs Law
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
The enforcement of the law was placed in the hands of Dr. Wiley. According to the Doctor, it was after the bill became law that the real fight began. Most food and drug manufacturers and dealers adjusted their operations to the new law, and found themselves in a better position because of it, with curtailment of the activities of fly-by-night competition and re-establishment of the consumers’ confidence in goods of known quality. But there were die-hards like the sugar and molasses refiners, the fruit driers, whisky rectifiers, and purveyors of wahoo bitters, Peruna and Indian Doctor wonder drugs.
The administration of the Food and Drugs Act involved the Bureau of Chemistry in thousands of court proceedings, United States v. Two Barrels of Desiccated Eggs , United States v. One Hundred Barrels of Vinegar ; and one merciful judge noted that Section 6 extended the protection of the act to our four-footed friends. Pure food inspectors had seized 620 cases of spoiled canned cat food. When the case of the smelly tuna fish turned up in the western district court of the state of Washington, the judge cited man’s experience with cats throughout recorded time: “Who will not feed cats must feed mice and rats.” He confirmed the seizure and directed an order of condemnation.
The law was subsequently strengthened both by legal interpretations and by legislative action, as experience developed needs not met by the original act. Government technicians worked with private industry in the solution of specific problems such as refrigeration and the handling of food. When Dr. Wiley retired from public service in 1912, a revolution had occurred in food processing in only six years’ time. Yet the food industry had hardly begun to grow.
“The conditions created by the passage of the act,” said Clarence Francis, former president and chairman of the board of General Foods Corporation, “invited responsible business men to put real money into the food business.”
The next 25 years saw the decline of the barrel as a food container and its replacement by the consumer unit package; the setting of official standards for the composition of basic food products; and the banning of quack therapeutic mechanical devices such as the electric belt, whose galvanic properties were once presented so vividly to the “Lost Manhood” market. We still have with us in some measure the “horse beef” butcher and the “butterlegger.” Tap water remains a tempting means of “extending” many foods. But there is no question about the general integrity of our food supply, the contribution to the national well-being of the original food law, as amended, and the readiness of today’s food industry leaders to accept what is now called the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as a proper blueprint of their obligation to the nation’s consumers.
Gerald H. Carson, a retired advertising agency executive and author of The Old Country Store , is a student of American social history. He contributed “Holiday Time at the Old Country Store” to the December, 1954, issue of A MERICAN H ERITAGE .