B.T. Babbitt’s Soap Factory and a New Shoreline for Lower Manhattan

Image of a soap and saleratus factory for the B.T. Babbitt company. From Industrial America or manufacturers and inventors of the United States, 1876. Via-NYPL
The B.T. Babbitt company’s soap and saleratus (baking soda) factory in Lower Manhattan, 1876 (note Trinity Church in the background)

My previous post about B.T. Babbitt and his soap company provides a brief sketch of his life and soap company. As I looked closer at his company it turned out that the location of his factory is also an interesting story (to me anyway).

Babbitt’s New York City soap and saleratus (baking soda) factory was near the southern tip of Manhattan, occupying about 20,000 sq. ft. (1,848 sq. m) of land on 1/2 of the block bordered by West St, Rector St, Washington St, and Morris St (41-44 & 46-51 West St, and 64-82A Washington St). The first map below shows that it was just a few blocks from Battery Park (“The Bronx is up, and the Battery’s down”, as the “New York, New York” song in “On The Town” goes). The second and third maps show other views of the area.

Its riverfront location was probably not by accident, as the facility produced more than 100,000 pounds (~45,000 kg) of soap, and a large amount of baking soda each day. This required a lot of raw materials from outside of New York City, and therefore, having the docks close by was an advantage.

Today the Babbitt factory site is covered by residential buildings and a large parking garage.

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B.T. Babbitt, Soap and Baking Soda Magnate of the Late 1800s

B.T. Babbitt Soap trade card with boy in Revolutionary Era costume, flag, and soap box. Created in the 19th century. Trade card for the B.T. Babbitt soap company showing a child, cat, and soap box. Created in 19th century. B T Babbitt Soap trade card from the late 1800s. The reverse of the card showing a child, cat on table, and soap box "Pet of the Household" trade card for the B.T. Babbitt soap company showing child and cat on a soap box. Created in 19th century. Trade card for the B.T. Babbitt soap company showing child in a soap box sled. Created in 19th century. Trade card for the B.T. Babbitt soap company showing children, puppet, and dog. Created in 19th century. Trade card for the B.T. Babbitt soap company showing two children at a pond. Created in 19th century.

At the end of my post on the Sanitary Fair in Brooklyn to raise funds for Union Army soldiers, I highlighted an advertisement from the B.T. Babbitt company, and noted that one of their all-text ad felt as if it could have been written today. It offered free shipping for certain orders and promised a donation to charity with every purchase. Those features, plus the wording made me think that this B.T. Babbitt company was a small operation, maybe even a huckster.  I was wrong.

It didn’t take long to find out that that Benjamin T. Babbitt was a big deal: he held numerous patents, his company was an innovator in advertising, the company had multiple factories and multiple product lines, including a 300,000 sq. ft. (27,870 sq. m) factory in Lower Manhattan.

The B.T. Babbitt company was a pioneer in advertising and marketing, perhaps the first to use retail premiums to sell products in America, as they gave away free lithographic prints with purchase of baking soda 1. Some of the marketing items that survive are advertising cards: one side typically shows a cute child or two, sometimes a pet, and always a box of B.T. Babbitt soap; the other side has text that praises the soap and its proprietor Mr. Babbitt. For example:

“Full of hope with Babbitt’s soap…Call on B.T. Babbitt if you would know how joyous life is beyond the clouds…”

“Behold! you washing world; the soap, / That lightens labor, brightens hope, / Begrudge to worthless wares your dimes, / And order BABBITT’S BEST betimes”

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Using Arduino for Better Homemade Bread

Drawing of a DIY dough proofing box that is controlled by an Arduino microcontroller
Photograph of homemade proofing chamber for bread dough
The DIY proofing box in use

During the COVID-19 pandemic and run-up to the 2020 U.S. Election, I started watching the Great British Baking Show (a.k.a. Great British Bake Off) on Netflix as a way to reduce stress. When one of the contestants mentioned a “proofing drawer” my ears perked up. Soon I understood that the proofing drawer (a.k.a. warming drawer) as a tool that provided a warm, temperature-controlled environment that would keep a batch of dough happy and growing.

My personal interest in this appliance is driven by the room temperature in my house Berkeley, California, which is usually too cool for most bread fermentation (typically 65 F/18 C)1, but I don’t have space or energy to research and install a commercial proofing drawer.

Evolution of the DIY Proofing Drawer

A few years ago, while living in another house in Berkeley, I also faced the room temperature problem. Full of creative inspiration from the Maker Movement of the time, I built a DIY proofing drawer, using a kitchen cabinet as the container and a 60 Watt incandescent light bulb as the heat source. An Arduino microcontroller with various accessories controlled the temperature in the cabinet. It worked OK, but I didn’t use it much because it was a pain to set up — empty the cabinet, dig out my Arduino stuff, set it up, etc.

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Before 1950, Celery Was an Extremely Popular Restaurant Menu Item

Charts of celery on restaurant menus, data from NYPL

I don’t like celery, so it might have been a defense mechanism when I started noticing it on menu after menu from the late-19th and early-20th centuries1. As I looked through the Buttolph Collection of Menus for food conservation messages on World War I-era menus, it seemed that nearly every menu included celery as a distinct menu item, like the five shown below.

Collage of menus with celery, menus from NYPL
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The Brooklyn Fair To Aid Union Soldiers During the U.S. Civil War

“Anything for me, if you please?” – Post Office of the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, engraving by Winslow Homer in Harper's Weekly, 1964
“Anything for me, if you please?” – Post Office of the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, engraving by Winslow Homer in Harper's Weekly, 1964
“‘Anything for me, if you please?’ by Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, March 5, 1864

Brooklyn, February 1864. A young woman steps up to the Post Office counter and asks “Anything for me, if you please?”

Is she hoping for a letter from a brother, husband, or ‘beau’ who is serving in the Grand Army of the Republic? Is he in the field, waiting for action? Or in a hospital recovering from battle wounds (perhaps from Gettysburg, which took place 7 months earlier)? Or does she have a sister or aunt working as a nurse in a military hospital?

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Examining the Hangover Cure in the Western “El Dorado”: Was Asafoetida Known in the Old West?

John Wayne in El Dorado
John Wayne in El Dorado

For some forgotten reason, I recently watched the 1966 Western El Dorado. It’s one of the better Westerns I have seen, with more humor and a lot less racism than the typical Western (though there’s a short cringe-worthy stereotyping of a Chinese person near the end). The film has a top-notch cast and crew: the great Howard Hawks directing, John Wayne playing a roving gun for hire, Robert Mitchum as a troubled sheriff, and James Caan as a mysterious man from the South with a mysterious grudge (they call him “Mississippi”). The performances are engaging: John Wayne is in full “John Wayne mode” but not over the top, Mitchum gives a laid-back performance that feels more 1960s than 1860s, and Caan is enthusiastic in his supporting role.

Like many Westerns, the central conflict is access to water: a big rancher wants to take a family’s water. The town sheriff (Mitchum) recently had his heart broken by the main female character and has been drowning his sorrows in a lot of alcohol, so he can’t help in the battle for justice against the nefarious rancher and his goons. But when things get really serious, the sheriff needs to sober up.

Mississippi suggests a sure-fire potion to free someone from alcohol’s grip that has a bunch of odd ingredients, including asafoetida (full recipe at Booze Movies). When I heard Mississippi say “asafoetida”, I was quite surprised. It’s something that I completely associate with Indian cooking and not at all with the United States in the 19th century or medicinal use (to be sure, that’s a subject that I’m ignorant about). So I started wondering: Was it put into the script because the word “asafoetida” has an exotic sound that makes it a perfect ingredient for a quack remedy? Or was this ingredient actually known in the U.S. in the late 19th century so that Mississippi could have run across it (in his fictional life)?

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Old Restaurant Menus for Christmas, New Year’s Day, and a Gathering of Bankers

Griswold House 1900 Christmas Menu

The Buttolph Collection of Menus at the New York Public Library is a way to see what people were eating at restaurants in the past. The collection contains tens of thousands of menus, with the bulk from the early 20th century, when the collection’s creator, Miss Frank E. Buttolph, was actively collecting menus.  In this post, I’ll highlight two seasonal menus and a creative menu for bankers.

A Stocking Menu from Detroit

The Christmas Spirit moved the Griswold House’s menu designer in 1900, leading to a stocking-shaped menu. Based on my reading of menus from around 1900, this one is fairly typical. It is loaded with French cuisine, and also has some game (roast canvasback duck and stuffed roast opossum). And celery, of course (restaurant menus of that era often had celery in the salad or appetizer section).

Griswold House 1900 Christmas Menu
Cover and interior of Griswold House 1900 Christmas Menu (a much larger picture of the 1900 Griswold House Christmas menu, ~4 MB)
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Sarah Hale’s Campaign for a National Thanksgiving Holiday

Portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale in Woman's record, or, Sketches of all distinguished women

Silhouette portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale by Auguste Edouart, National Portrait Gallery
Silhouette portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale by Auguste Edouart, 1842, National Portrait Gallery

If you love Thanksgiving, you should learn the name Sarah Josepha Hale.

Starting in 1846 and continuing until her retirement in 1877, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) used her position as editress1 of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine — one of the most popular and influential magazines of the time — to campaign for a national Thanksgiving holiday in November. For many years, she wrote two editorials in the magazine explaining the benefits of a national Thanksgiving holiday and encouraging her readers to work for one by pressuring public officials. She also wrote thousands of personal letters (by hand!) to elected officials, to the influencers of the day (other magazine editors, prominent preachers, etc.), and to her wide network of friends and family.

When Hale started her campaign, Thanksgiving wasn’t a new concept in America. Towns, villages and states held harvest festivals that included a late-morning trip to church for a special service, followed by a feast2.  But there was no national Thanksgiving Day.

For example, in the late 1700s, towns on Long Island celebrated Thanksgiving on the first Thursday after the cattle returned from the common pasture. Because the return of the cattle was weather-dependent, the date varied from year to year3. In 1789, President Washington issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that set forth “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” but this was a one-time event.

Hale wanted a national Thanksgiving holiday. To Hale, a national holiday would be a “promoter of this national spirit,” demonstrate the “prosperity and happiness of the American people,” encourage generosity, and add a third patriotic holiday to the national calendar to supplement Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July.

Her campaign achieved a major success in 1863 when President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the fourth Thursday of November 1863 a national day of thanksgiving4. But it was only a partial success for Hale, because it was a one-time declaration, not a Congressionally-mandated national holiday, so her campaign continued until her retirement. Unfortunately for Hale, she didn’t live to see complete success — it wasn’t until 1941 that Congress finally made Thanksgiving a national holiday, the fourth Thursday in November.

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How a 3,930 Pound Cheese Helped Union Army Soldiers During the Civil War

Poster advertising the "3930 lb. cheese" at the 1864 Mechanics' Institute fair in San Francisco
Poster advertising the “3930 lb. cheese” at the 1864 Mechanics’ Institute fair in San Francisco

When I saw #NationalCheeseDay trending on Twitter, I did what I often do on “national days”: I went to my favorite public domain sites to look for interesting and fun images that fit the day’s theme.

I’m glad I went looking on National Cheese Day, because I found a poster with a mysterious headline: “Presentation of the 3930 lb. Cheese! To the Sanitary Commission.”

I had questions: “Why would a giant cheese be displayed?”, “What was the Sanitary Commission?”, “What year was this?”, “What is the Pavilion of the Mechanics Institute?”, to name a few.

Let’s start by cutting this mysterious announcement into manageable chunks. Later in the post I’ll share more details (and there are many more details about the subjects available to on-line researchers).

The 3,930 lb cheese:  That’s a big chunk of cheese!  According to a newspaper report from the time, the great cheese was a cylinder with diameter of 7 feet and height of 2 feet (2.13 m by 0.61 m), for a volume of 77 ft3 (2,180 L). To give a sense of the size, I used my low-level image creation skills to put the cheese behind President Lincoln in a photograph from the era (it’s a few paragraphs below). The cheese cylinder’s width matches the height of Lincoln and his top hat! 1)

The Sanitary Commission:  The Sanitary Commission was a government-authorized — but not government funded! — organization that focused on the health of Union soldiers during the Civil War.  Their funding came from donations by the public.2

The Pavilion of the Mechanics’ Institute: The Mechanics’ Institute is a scholarly organization founded in San Francisco in 1855. It is still around (at 57 Post Street in downtown San Francisco), with their main attractions being a members-only library and lectures.  In the late 1800s, the Institute held annual exhibitions in San Francisco to showcase new technologies, art, quilts, agricultural products, and much more.

Rev. Dr. Bellows:   Henry Whitney Bellows (1814-1882) was a clergyman from Boston associated with the Unitarian Church. He was the president of the Sanitary Commission throughout its entire existence (1861-1878)3.

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Van Gogh’s Olive Tree Paintings

Olive Grove - Vincent Van Gogh (1889) from Metropolitan Museum of Art
Olive Grove - Vincent van Gogh (1889) from Metropolitan Museum of Art
Olive Grove by Vincent van Gogh (1889), Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of my blogging hobbies (“blobbies”?) is using CC Search from Creative Commons and the Flickr Commons to look up images connected to my blogging. This time the search term was olives.

Olives were on my mind after visits to an olive grove and olive oil processing facility. Not surprisingly, the search tools led me to a handful of advertisements and ephemera, but the real gems were Vincent Van Gogh’s olive tree paintings from 1889. Join me below to learn more about this series of paintings.

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