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Eating Cotton: Cottonseed, Crisco, and Consumer Ignorance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 July 2019

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Abstract

Americans have eaten significant amounts of cottonseed oil since the late nineteenth century. Yet for generations, few Americans have known how often they eat foods made from the cotton plant. Crisco paved the way for this kind of consumer ignorance. Launched by the Procter & Gamble company in 1911, Crisco was a wholly new product: a solid fat made entirely from liquid cottonseed oil, the result of the novel technology of hydrogenation. Responding to tenacious prejudice against cottonseed, Crisco's marketers made consumer ignorance acceptable by promoting the idea that industrial processing was akin to purification and encouraging consumers to put trust in brands rather than to focus on ingredients. The Progressive Era is supposed to be a period when food processing became increasingly transparent, and in some ways it was. But in the wake of the Pure Food legislation of 1906 and in conjunction with an exploding food advertising industry that highlighted factory processing as a unique virtue, American consumers increasingly trusted both government oversight and industrial food production. Cottonseed oil's history is ultimately a story of consumers’ growing confidence in highly processed food and their growing comfort with ignorance about the ingredients that went into it.

Type
Special Issue: Food Studies and The Gilded Age and Progressive Era
Copyright
Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2019 

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89 Crisco advertisement, Good Housekeeping (July 1916): 15; Crisco advertisement, Good Housekeeping (Feb. 1916): 15.

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91 Wrenn, Cinderella of the New South, 83. As late as early 1911, Procter & Gamble had planned to use the name “Krispo,” but there was already a cracker by that name. Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed, 9.

92 Italics original. Neil, Calendar of Dinners, 8th ed., 12, 15. Crisco advertisement, Good Housekeeping (Jan. 1912): 21.

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103 Cottonseed boosters regularly acknowledged such prejudice, although they usually did so, optimistically, in the past tense. For example, Cottonseed and Its Uses,” Scientific American 106:26 (June 29, 1912): 584Google Scholar.

104 “Facts About Cottonseed,” reprinted from The Washington Post, The San Francisco Call, July 1, 1911, 6, Chronicling America, LOC. Sarah T. Rorer, “Fats and Oils,” Mrs. Rorer's Cooking School: Seventh Lesson, Ladies’ Home Journal (May 1902): 28. For example, Letter from Mrs. F. A. B. in CT, “Dr. Wiley's Question-Box,” Good Housekeeping (May 1923): 84.

105 Ransom, The Great Cottonseed Industry of the South.

106 L. M. Tolman, Lewis Storms Munson, “Olive Oil and Its Substitutes,” USDA bulletin no. 77 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1903), 4–5.

107 “Every Housewife Her Own Chemist,” Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville American (Nashville, TN), Nov. 13, 1910, A8.

108 For example, Vernon Campbell, “Tests for Olive Oil,” Good Housekeeping (Aug 1905): 162–63; “To Test Olive Oil, The Wenatchee Daily World (Wenatchee, WA), Mar. 28, 1907, 2, Chronicling America, LOC; “Every Housewife Her Own Chemist,” The San Francisco Call, Nov. 6, 1910, 14, Chronicling America, LOC.

109 Thomas, Courtney, In Food We Trust: The Politics of Purity in American Food Regulation (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Cohen, Ben, Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019)Google Scholar.

110 “Poisoned Rubbish Is Sold by Unscrupulous Men for Food,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 20, 1898, 26.

111 Thomas, In Food We Trust, 18. Turner, Katherine Leonard, “How the Other Half Ate: A History of Working-Class Meals at the Turn of the Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014)Google Scholar.

112 For instance, Albert H. Welles, “Truthful Labels on Food Products,” Good Housekeeping (May 1902): 385. Harvey Wiley, quoted in William MacHarg, “Speaking of Dr. Wiley,” Good Housekeeping (Apr. 1920): 123. “Every Housewife Her Own Chemist,” Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville American, Nov. 13, 1910, A8. “Use Cottonseed Oil,” The Weekly Iberian (New Iberia, LA), Nov. 14, 1914, 1, Chronicling America, LOC; “Use Cottonseed Oil,” Nov. 12, 1914, The Manchester Journal (Manchester, VT), Chronicling America, LOC; “Opportunity to Become Better Acquainted” The Idaho Recorder (Salmon City, ID), Dec. 10, 1914, Chronicling America, LOC.

113 “Cottonseed and Its Uses,” 584.

114 F. E. Carruth and W. A. Withers, “Gossypol—A Toxic Substance in Cottonseed. A Preliminary Note,” Science XLI:1052 (Feb. 2, 1915): 324.

115 Bell and Williams, “Cottonseed Meal for Horses,” 8, 3.

116 For example, W. F. Ward, “Cottonseed Meal for Feeding Beef Cattle,” USDA bulletin no. 655, (Washington, DC: GPO, Apr. 1915), 1; and “Feeding Cottonseed Products to Livestock,” USDA bulletin no. 1179 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1920, rev. 1924). “Feeding Cottonseed Products to Livestock,” USDA bulletin no. 1179 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1920, rev. 1936), 1–2.

117 Gallup, Willis D., “Studies on the Toxicity of Gossypol: The Response of Rats to Gossypol Administration During Avitaminosis,” Journal of Biological Chemistry 93 (1931): 382Google Scholar.

118 For example, “Is Cottonseed Oil Wholesome?” one reader wrote doubtfully to the Ladies Home Journal in 1908. In Emma Walker, “Pretty Girl Questions: April Rains a Rejuvenator,” Ladies’ Home Journal (Apr. 1908): 54.

119 The Bureau of Chemistry, created in the wake of the Pure Food Act of 1906, was “the first federal regulatory agency” and “predecessor to the Food and Drug Administration.” Thomas, In Food We Trust, 20.

120 “Dr. Harvey A. Wiley Explains Resignation,” Daily Princetonian, Mar. 16, 1912, 1.

121 Thomas, In Food We Trust, 21.

122 Ibid. de Koven, Anna, “The Athletic Woman: Good Housekeeping (1912),” The American New Woman Revisited: A Reader, 1894–1930, ed. Patterson, Martha (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

Ibid.

123 Crisco advertised regularly in Good Housekeeping throughout this time period.

124 Letter from J. S. M. from NY to Dr. Wiley's Question-Box, Good Housekeeping (July 1916): 85.

125 Letter from Mrs. F. W. O. in Pennsylvania to Dr. Wiley's Question-Box, Good Housekeeping (Sept. 1919): 98.

126 Letter from Mrs. W. D. N. in Indiana to Dr. Wiley's Question-Box, Good Housekeeping (June 1920): 88.

127 Letter from Mrs. H. R. G. in Montana to Harvey Wiley, Dr. Wiley's Question-Box,” Good Housekeeping (Dec. 1921): 78.

128 Letter from Mrs. F. A. B. in Connecticut to “Dr. Wiley's Question-Box, Good Housekeeping (May 1923): 84.

129 Lonier, Alchemy in Eden, 109–10. Wrenn, Cinderella of the New South, 82.

130 Crisco advertisement, Good Housekeeping (Jan. 1912): 20.

131 “How Crisco Was Made Possible,” advertisement, Ladies’ Home Journal (June 1912): 47.

132 “Progress in Cooking,” Crisco advertisement, Ladies' Home Journal (Sept. 1912): 59. “Revising the Nation's Cook Book!” Crisco advertisement, Ladies’ Home Journal (July 1913): 33.

133 “Crisco Makes for Better Cooking,” advertisement, Ladies Home Journal (Nov. 1919): 2; “How Crisco Was Made Possible,” advertisement, Ladies’ Home Journal (June 1912): 47; “The Rich Solid Cream of the Oil,” Crisco advertisement, Ladies’ Home Journal (Nov. 1913): 53.

134 Mrs. W. W. Vaughn, “A Few Cooking Suggestions,” recipe leaflet (Cincinnati, OH: Procter & Gamble, ca. 1912), Sliker Collection.

135 Crisco Advertisement, Good Housekeeping (July 1916): 15. Crisco Advertisement, Good Housekeeping (Jan. 1917): 13.

136 Crisco Advertisement, Good Housekeeping (Jan. 1917): 13. Neil, Calendar of Dinners, 8th ed., 14.

137 Crisco advertisement, Good Housekeeping (July 1916): 15.

138 “Foods–Wholesome Delicate and Dainty,” Crisco advertisement, Good Housekeeping (Feb. 1912): 15.

139 Crisco advertisement, Ladies’ Home Journal (Mar. 1913): 49. Crisco advertisement, Good Housekeeping (Jan. 1919): 7.

140 For example, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, breakfast cereal manufacturers argued that “only industrial production could make natural food.” Kideckel, Michael S., “Anti-Intellectualism and Natural Food: The Shared Language of Industry and Activists in America since 1830,” Gastronomica 18:1 (Spring 2018): 47CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

141 For example, Crisco's factory processing “freed [it] from every possible impurity.” “Why Don't You Use Crisco?” advertisement, Good Housekeeping (Sept. 1916): 13.

142 “The Rich Solid Cream of the Oil,” Crisco advertisement, Ladies' Home Journal (Nov. 1913): 53.

143 Smith-Howard, Kendra, Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)Google Scholar. Kideckel, “Anti-Intellectualism and Natural Food.”

144 Proctor, Robert N., “Agnotology: A Missing Term to Describe the Cultural Production of Ignorance (and Its Study),” Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, eds. Proctor, Robert N. and Schiebinger, Londa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 2Google Scholar.

145 Proctor, “Agnotology,” Agnotology, 3.

146 Neil, Calendar of Dinners, 8th ed., 13, Sliker Collection. “Why Don't You Use Crisco?” advertisement, Good Housekeeping (Sept. 1916): 13.

147 Terri Lonier suggests that Crisco's launch may have marked “a culinary breaking point in American culture, when scientific labs began to construct food and the line between food and product began to dissolve.” Emphasis original. Lonier, Alchemy in Eden, 169.

148 Emily E. LB. Twarog documents the vigilance and activism exercised by some consumers to ensure that they could buy pure food. Twarog, Politics of the Pantry: Housewives, Food, and Consumer Protest in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)Google Scholar. Lonier, “Alchemy in Eden,” 701.

149 Koehn, Brand New.

150 Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed, 11.

151 “Foods—Wholesome Delicate and Dainty,” Crisco advertisement, Ladies’ Home Journal (Feb. 1912): 51.

152 Crisco Advertisement, Good Housekeeping (Jan.1917): 13.

153 Emphasis original. “Why Don't You Use Crisco?” Good Housekeeping (Sept. 1916): 13.

154 Helen Zoe Veit, “American Food, Cooking, and Nutrition, 1900–1945,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, 2018, https://americanhistory.oxfordre.com.

155 “How Crisco Was Made Possible,” Crisco advertisement, Ladies’ Home Journal (June 1912): 47.

156 Cooper, “Cotton Crisis,” 388.

157 Coclanis, Peter A., “Seeds of Reform: David R. Coker, Premium Cotton, and the Campaign to Modernize the Rural South,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine 102:3 (July 2001): 206Google Scholar; Wrenn, Cinderella of the New South, xvi–xvii. Cooper, “Cotton Crisis,” 387.

158 “Cottonseed Second as Southern Cash Crop,” The Tuscaloosa News, Dec. 23, 1937, 1.

159 Quoted from The Atlanta Constitution, Sept. 24, 1905, in Ransom, The Great Cottonseed Industry of the South, 63.

160 As of 2015, 90 million gallons of cottonseed oil a year were used in human food. “USDA Coexistence Fact Sheet: Cotton” (Feb. 2015): 1, USDA, Office of Communications, Washington, DC.

161 “Cotton,” rev. Sept. 2017, Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, https://agmrc.org. Data for the year 2016. “Consumption of edible oils in the United States in 2016, by type,” Statista: The Statistics Portal.

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