Tag Archives: food

White Flour and the American Family

Flour was one of the earliest products in America to become industrialized. The commercialization of flour was to play a critical role in transforming the lives of women and the structure of domestic life in America.

Automated flour mills began appearing just after the close of the Revolutionary War. These mills required about half the number of laborers required by traditional grist mills, and the new technology produced a finer, whiter flour than had been possible with more traditional methods. The high price of white flour, combined with reduced labor costs, made commercial mills a booming business in closing years of the eighteenth century.

White flour, stripped of its germ and bran, did not readily deteriorate during shipping. Therefore, most of this early white flour was produced for export to war-ravaged Europe; very little commercial flour was sold domestically during this period. American families continued to grow and process their own grain, and locally-produced whole-grain corn and wheat meal continued to be staple foods.

The domestic production and use of whole-grain flour required the contributions of each member of a household. Men and boys were traditionally given the job of hand-grinding corn and wheat. If the grain was to be hauled to a mill for grinding, this was father’s job. Because the grain began to deteriorate quickly after milling, the tough jobs of hauling or hand-grinding grains kept husbands and sons busy throughout the year. Mother had it a little easier, because baking with coarse flour was a straightforward process: liquid and leavening were added to the meal, and the batter was then baked or fried into a simple quick bread.

The booming export market for American flour eventually collapsed when the Napoleonic hostilities in Europe ceased. At the same time, the opening of several major canals in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states made it cheaper to transport flour domestically, while also making the small-scale production of flour less profitable. So flour from merchant mills began to replace the product of local grist mills in the early nineteenth century. By the outbreak of the Civil War, flour milling was the leading American industry, and homegrown and locally-ground grains had largely disappeared from American tables.

Commercial white flour did not deteriorate as rapidly as home-grown flour. Therefore, it did not need to be continually hauled and milled; large quantities could be purchased at a time and stored. The switch to store-bought flour relieved men and boys of one of their most time-consuming domestic chores, the grinding and hauling of flour.

White flour was also used very differently than whole-meal flour. White flour could be made into pastries, cakes, and white, fluffy loaves leavened with yeast. Soon, quick breads came to be regarded as fare fit only for the lower classes, while white bread became one of the first “status symbols” of the industrial period in America. Unfortunately, cake baking and the production of yeast breads required much time, heavy labor, and attention to detail. All this work, of course, fell exclusively to the housewife.

In short, the advent of industrialized flour meant that the nineteenth-century housewife was spending a lot more of her time working in the kitchen than her grandmother had, while the role of her husband and sons in domestic activity began to disappear.

The switch to white flour helped to make the industrial-era American home into a place of idleness for men and children, but where “woman’s work is never done.”

(Cowan 46-53)

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The Emigrant Diet

In 1859, U.S. Army Captain Randolph B. Marcy was asked by the War Department to write a guidebook for westward-bound pioneers. The resulting publication, The Prairie Traveler, became the emigrants’ principal manual for safe passage West. In The Prairie Traveler, Marcy spent a chapter advising pioneers on which routes to take and what to bring along. His section on “Stores and Provisions” is a glimpse into how the emigrants may have subsisted along the trail.

Marcy advised first that bacon or well-cured pork be brought along in hundred-pound sacks or packed in boxes, surrounded by “bran” to keep the fat from melting away. Flour was to be sewn up in stout, double-thick canvas bags, one hundred pounds to each. Butter was to be first boiled and skimmed until it was as clear as oil, and then sealed up in tin canisters. Sugar was to be secured into India-rubber sacks and kept well away from any source of dampness.

In the mid-nineteenth century, many people felt that fruits and vegetables were unhealthy. Marcy spent a long paragraph defending the usefulness of vegetables and emphasizing their antiscorbutic properties. Although canned vegetables were widely available, they were heavy, so emigrants were advised to purchase dried vegetables from a particular supplier in New York. Imported from Paris, the vegetables (they are only mentioned generically, no particular variety is named) were sliced and pressed into solid cakes which were as hard as rocks. A piece half the size of a man’s hand, he claimed, could be soaked in water and reconstituted to fill “a vegetable dish,” and would feed four men. A cubic yard of the stuff contained 16,000 rations.

If one were unable, or unwilling, to procure dessicated vegetables, Marcy advised them instead to take along citric acid. This could, if mixed with sugar and water and a little “essence of lemon,” pass as a substitute for lemonade. Other possible antidotes for scurvy were wild onions, wild grapes, greens, or tea made from hemlock leaves.

Another useful item was pemmican, which Marcy claimed constituted almost the entire diet of those working in the Northwest fur trade. To prepare pemmican, you were to take buffalo meat, cut it into thin strips, and dry it well in the sun. The dried meat was then to be pounded into a fine powder, mixed with melted grease, and sewn into bags of animal hide (with the fur, he is careful to mention, on the outside). Pemmican was to be eaten raw, but as a change one could also mix it with a little flour and boil it.

Then Marcy described the simplest and most portable source of calories, used extensively, he claimed, by Mexicans and Indians. It was something called “cold flour,” and it was made by mixing cornmeal with a little cinnamon and sugar. This was to be mixed into water and used as a beverage, and he claimed that on half a bushel of the stuff, and with no other provisions, a man could easily subsist for thirty days.

In extreme situations, a little creativity was to be exerted. Mules and horses could be consumed, but Marcy warned that if the animals were half-starved and stringy, a man would have to eat a lot of this excessively lean meat, perhaps five or six pounds a day, to stay alive. In the absence of salt, a mule or horse steak could be charred in the fire and then sprinkled with a little gunpowder to make it more palatable. Men desperate for tobacco could resort to smoking the roasted bark of the red willow, or sumac leaf. A good coffee substitute could be found in dried “horse mint.”

To make the journey from the Missouri River to California, each grown person would require 150 pounds of flour or hardtack, 25 pounds of bacon, cured pork, or meat driven on the hoof, 15 pounds of coffee, and 25 pounds of sugar. These were the essential articles needed, and Marcy warned travelers to be careful and not use up all their provisions during the first half of the trip. It is hard to imagine how that could have been a temptation.

(Marcy 30-36)

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