Monday, November 28, 2016

Is Your Pantry Ready?

By Megan Barney, Elmira College Intern

During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a widespread fear of nuclear war. In response, the government advocated for the creation of fallout shelters, both in personal homes and in community places.  In Elmira, families built their own fallout shelters and organizations created community ones.  Among others, one was located in the since demolished Robinson Building on Lake Street.  Each location provided a central place for people to escape to in the event of a nuclear attack.
Advertisement, 1950
Robinson Building, c. 1960s
The Office of Civil Defense on the local, state, and federal levels also released comprehensive documents on how to survive a nuclear attack. Such publications included what goods and necessities should be stocked in the fallout shelter.  When it came to food, the New York State Civil Defense Commission and the United States Department of Defense suggested that food should be stockpiled in the shelter.  Each family member was supposed to have enough food for 14 days in order to let the nuclear fallout settle.

The suggested foods included milk, juice, fruits, vegetables, soups, one-dish meals, sweet spreads, crackers, cereals, beverages, sugar, hard candy, and salt, all of which equated to 2000 calories per day for an adult.  Most Civil Defense Offices argued that non-perishable food such as the ones listed above could last for up to three years if stored correctly.  In the case of emergency, however, moldy bread was edible, sour milk was drinkable, and fruits and vegetables with rotten spots were acceptable to eat.  Even foods that were exposed to nuclear fallout could be washed, peeled, and enjoyed.

C. 1950-60
In the case of a nuclear attack, water was more important for the survival of people than food.  Under extreme circumstances, people can survive three weeks without food, but only three days without water.  The Civil Defense Offices advocated that each family member should have seven gallons of drinking water stored in air tight containers.  In most cases, water could also be found in hot water heaters that often stored anywhere from 30 to 60 gallons of water. However, if push came to shove, water was readily available in different pipes in the home, including the toilet bowl.

In the end, the most important part of surviving an atomic bombing was not only finding immediate shelter and having a stockpile of food for two weeks, but also selecting familiar foods.  The New York State Civil Defense Commission suggested that families should select familiar foods because “they are more heartening and acceptable during times of stress” and could be a potential morale lifter in times of tragedy.  So if tragedy strikes, is your pantry and family ready?

Friday, November 18, 2016

If I’d Known You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake

by Rachel Dworkin,  Archivist

Pork Cake – Half a pound of salt pork chopped fine, two cups of molasses, half-pound of raisins chopped well, two eggs, two teaspoons each of clove, allspice and mace, half a teaspoon of salertus or soda, and soda enough to make a stiff better.  Oven must not be too hot.  Our Own Book of Everyday Wants, 1888

Baking isn’t easy for me on a good day, but old-time recipes certainly don’t make it any easier. Our Own Book of Everyday Wants was published and distributed by the Elmira Weekly Gazette & Free Press in the autumn 1888. It contains recipes for deserts like cakes and cookies, as well as meat and side dishes. Some of them sound pretty good and some of them are creamed codfish. None of them include cook times or cooking directions any more specific than ‘not too hot.’
Top of the line stove in 1888.
 The modern convenience of an oven with precise temperature control is a relatively new thing.  Back when Our Own Book of Everyday Wants came out, most kitchens had a cast iron wood or coal burning oven range.   Temperature control was less than precise. On the stove top, cooks adjusted the temperature by moving the pots to warmer or cooler sections of the range.  This was known, for some reason, as the ‘piano method.’ The oven, on the other hand, could only be adjusted by adding more fuel or letting the fire die down.
The first electric range was patented in the 1890s. It produced heat by running electricity through a metal coil and allowed the user to adjust the temperature by controlling the strength of the current. Despite the usefulness of the invention, it took a while for electrical oven range to catch on. The biggest problem was infrastructure. In the 1890s, only the new mansions along Maple Avenue actually had power and it wasn’t until 1930 that the entire county was electrified. See Let There Be Light for details.

Of course, the electric oven wasn’t the only new and improved thing in the kitchen.   From the 1880s through the 1920s, there were hundreds of patents issued for time and labor-saving devices. These handy kitchen gadgets included everything from mechanical peelers to meat grinders to mixers to beaters. They made life so much easier and housewives quickly fell in love.
Sargent's Gem Food Chopper - Your kitchen isn't complete without it

Take, for example, Sargent’s Gem Food Chopper, first patented in 1901.  It came with four blades for shredding, chopping, and pulverizing, as well as a special sausage stuffing attachment. Instead of spending hours manually chopping up meats or vegetables, a housewife could do it all with a few cranks of a handle.  It even came with its own cookbook full tasty recipes and labor-saving ideas.  Compare the two pork cake recipes.  Which one sounds easier?

Pork Cake
1 pound fat salt pork
1 pound raisins
2 cups sugar
1 cup molasses
2 eggs
5 cups flower
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon soda

Gem-Chop together one pound each of fat salt pork and raisins; pour over these one pint of boiling water, add two cups of sugar, one cup of molasses and two eggs, well beaten; mix thoroughly, then sift in nearly five cups of silted flour, two teaspoons of cinnamon, one teaspoon each, of cloves, mace, and soda. Beat thoroughly and bake in two tins, lined with buttered paper, about one hour.  A slow oven (300o) is needed.  Gem Chopper Cook Book, compliments of G.A. Gridley &  Son, grocer, 1901

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Tragic History of Tiny Stoves

by Erin Doane, curator

Children love to pretend to cook. That’s not surprising as food is such a huge part of our lives. I remember making mud “pies,” milk weed pod “pickles,” and “pizza” out of a piece of wood covered in sawdust “cheese” (I grew up at a lumber mill). Some of my luckier friends actually had Easy-Bake Ovens so they could really bake. Kitchen toys have been around for longer than some of us may imagine. In the 19th century, girls played with toy stoves to help them learn their duties as a housewife.
Miniature cast iron stove, late 19th-early 20th century
Miniature cast iron stoves, which very closely resembled the real thing, were very popular by the 1890s. No child’s playroom was complete without a real little kitchen including a toy stove. Some were just toys that children could pretend to cook on while others were functional. In 1892, the Marshal Field & Co. catalog had a listing for a toy stove that could actually be used for cooking. Small hot coals could be put inside to heat it up. The miniature stove pictured below from the museum’s collection has some sooty residue inside which means it was probably used like that at one time or another.

Miniature cast iron stove, late 19th-early 20th century
You might think that giving a child a working stove may be a bad idea and you would be correct. My research into toy stoves took a dark turn when I found a story in the April 23, 1890 Rome Daily Sentinel reporting on how some children in Utica tipped over a toy stove and set their 2-story frame house ablaze. That made me wonder if it was common for children’s toy stoves to set things on fire. Unfortunately, it appears that it was.

I did not find any stories of accidental toy stove fires in Chemung County but there were many more from around the state and region. In 1897 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a 2-year-old left alone at home was playing with matches and a toy stove. She set her clothes on fire and burned to death. In 1909, a 6-year-old in St. Louis, Missouri lit a fire in her toy stove with coal oil. The stove exploded, setting her dress on fire. Both her mother and father were injured trying to extinguish the flames and the child died of her burns. There were two reported cases of toy stove fires in New York just days apart in 1915. A 2-month-old burned to death in her a crib after her 3-year-old sister started a fire with her toy stove. Another 5-year-old girl, Edna May Frost, died when she tried to heat up some milk on her toy stove to feed her new baby doll. You can read all the sad, terrible details of both incidents in the article below.

Article from the New York Herald, June 12, 1915
These kinds of accidents kept appearing in newspapers through the 1920s. In 1921, three little girls are playing with a new toy stove and iron they had just received for Christmas. The youngest, 3-year-old Lillian, tried to put some paper into the stove and her cloths caught on fire. Marion, who was 5 years old, and Gertrude, 7, tried to put out the flames but also caught fire. An older sister came to their rescue but Lillian died from her burns. An opinion article that appeared in the Watertown Daily Times in 1923 called for the manufacture and sale of toys stoves to be prohibited because of all these fires. The writer argued that children naturally wanted to emulate the adults around them. They would find ways to start fires in their stoves as they saw their mothers do in their real kitchens no matter how careful the parents were. A ban on the toys could be the only solution.

The instances of fires and deaths caused by toy stoves decrease through early 20th century. That could have been because of some sort of crackdown on the sales of the toys. It could have also been because of the introduction of electric toy stoves around 1915. Girls no longer needed fire to heat their stoves. They simply plugged them in and the tiny ovens and range tops would come up to temperature. By the late 1930s, parents were adding electrical outlets to their children’s play rooms so they could plug in their new toy stoves.

Electric toy stove, early-mid-20th century
Electric toy stove, mid-20th century

Monday, November 7, 2016

Competitive Eating: A Local History

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

In recent years, competitive eating has become a popular and widely-recognized activity (some would say sport) with professional organizations and contests with major prize money. The 4th of July hot dog eating contest sponsored by Nathan’s Famous on Coney Island is a televised annual spectacle that features contestants downing inhuman amounts of processed meats. But, while taken to extremes now, competitive eating is nothing new. For example, in Elmira over the past 100+ years, there have been eating contests featuring raisins, crackers, corn, bread, cake, fried cake, pancakes, ice cream, clams, hot dogs, doughnuts, eggs, lollipops, apples, candy, milk, sandwiches, and peanuts, just to name a few.
Local corn eating contest, 1921
American eating contests got their start at county fairs and community gatherings. For most, pie was the food of choice. Pie eating contests were popular in Elmira from as early as the 1890s. Sometimes the contests would be only for youths or they would be separated by gender (yes, ladies-only pie contests were popular). In other contests, everyone participated together.
Pie contest, Elmira Heights, 1955
 Pie contests were a centerpiece of local company outings and were the source of the most anticipation and drama. For example, at a September 1920 American-LaFrance annual gathering: “In the tug-of-war contest the most disastrous event of the afternoon occurred. P.D. Zeippto, a man upon whom friends relied to carry away the laurels in the pie eating contest, lost a tooth. Zeippto, while resting upon the ground, placed the end of the tug-of-war rope in his mouth. Someone pulled the rope and with it came one of Zeippto’s teeth.” The contest continued, minus Zeippto, and “All four contestants during the contest suffered from acute attacks of lockjaw” from the quantity of huckleberry pie.
Advertisement, 1926
That same month, at the American Sales Book Company picnic, “the most disastrous event of the afternoon came in the pie eating contest. Murphy was far in the lead in this game and was nearing the center of his third cocoanut pie when someone pushed his head. Flanden then took the lead in the race and easily won by eating four pies- an apple, one custard, and two rhubarbs in less than three minutes.”

The other most popular food for eating contests was watermelon. Watermelon contests, while frequently open to all competitors, did often have racist connotations and built upon the post-Emancipation stereotypical racial symbolism of the fruit. As late as the 1930s, these contests were advertised as only open to African American boys or they pitted black children against white children.
Contest recruitment, 1901.
Most contests were more light-hearted, however. When the Hoyt’s Musical Revue was at the Lyceum Theatre in 1918, they arranged special events, including a spaghetti eating contest to “learn who the champion spaghetti eater is in Elmira.” In 1925, cracker contests (which involved eating a bunch of crackers and whistling a tune) were so popular, the newspaper printed contest instructions. The YWCA hosted caramel and marshmallow contests in 1930 as part of their Halloween celebration. A 1933 Kiwanis meeting featured a “ludicrous banana eating contest” between Fred D. Crispin and Osmond G. Wall.

The heyday of competitive eating in Elmira seems to have peaked in the 1920s, but it remained popular through early 1950s. Understandably, there was a decrease in that type of activity during the Great Depression. Likely, if there was extra food available, it would have been seen as poor taste to make such a spectacle of gorging oneself. By the 1910s and 1920s, contests sometimes featured branded products (like the original Nathan’s contest in 1916) or a 1920 Nabisco eating contest in Elmira.
I will conclude with my favorite instance of competitive eating in Elmira, which also happened to be a city-wide endeavor. For Good Friday, April 10, 1925, local bakeries worked together to make 56,936 hot cross buns. The goal was for everyone in the city to have all of them eaten by midnight. By 3pm, 31,726 had been eaten. I’m not sure if they hit their goal or not.