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.

President Lincoln in 1862 and the great California cheese from Steele Bros (round added digitally in 2019) - original from Met Museum
The 3,930 lb great California cheese (7 feet in diameter (213 cm), 2 feet deep (60.9 cm)) and President Lincoln (who was about 6’4″ (193 cm) tall).

What Was the United States Sanitary Commission?

Before the Civil War began, the United States military had minimal medical infrastructure. Small medical facilities could be found at most bases, of course, but they were designed for peacetime injuries, without the scale and mobility required for a massive war involving hundreds of thousands of troops across vast areas.  (Note: in this section I am drawing on two 19th century documents. The first one I found was the ‘Official’ history that was submitted to Congress, published in 1866 and 500+ pages long. It is not easy to read. Fortunately, I later found a 14 page “Sketch” by Lewis H. Steiner presented at a historical society that was much more digestible.)

Recalling the mass off-battlefield misery of the recently-concluded Crimean War in Europe (i.e., disease killing more soldiers than battlefield weapons), medical professionals wanted to avoid a similar situation in the upcoming conflict. Intense lobbying by a group of influential medical professionals convinced the Secretary of War Simon Cameron that the military needed an advisory board on health matters. Secretary Cameron drafted an order establishing the United States Sanitary Commission, and on June 13, 1861, President Lincoln signed the order (see signature page below).   Part of the order reads:

The Commission…will direct its inquiries to the principles and practices connected with the inspection of recruits and enlisted men; the sanitary condition of the volunteers; to the means of preserving and restoring the health, and of securing the general comfort and efficiency of troops; to the proper provision of cooks, nurses, and hospitals; and to other subjects of like nature.

Page 532, History of the United States Sanitary Commission
Last page of the order creating the U.S. Sanitary Commission, June 13, 1861 with A. Lincoln signature

One of the major challenges faces by the new Sanitary Commission was that the Union Army was organized by state: soldiers were collected into camps that were under authority of the state that sent them, and each state had its own idea about how to manage the health of the soldiers — some were acceptable, some were not. In general, “Gross neglect prevailed…” (p. 25, Stillé ).

As the war progressed and the number of casualties climbed into the hundreds of thousands, the organization by state became a major issue as each state’s hospital would be reserved for soldiers from that state, requiring much additional transportation of the wounded to find the right hospital4.

The Commission had several missions during the war:

  • Inspect camps and hospitals to identify sanitation and nutrition problems, and to identify best practices to be shared with other sites
  • Make recommendations to camp and hospital administrators of ways to improve soldiers’ health
  • Collect data on disease rates, how changes to camp design affected health, etc., and then publish the data for use by other sanitary scientists
  • Collect supplies to supplement the government’s offerings. Volunteers from across the Union sent clothing, food, and etc.
  • An anti-scurvy campaign that provided fruits and vegetables (especially shelf-stable foods like sauerkraut and dried fruit)
  • The “Special Relief” program that helped discharged soldiers get home by providing lodging, food, clothing, and medical care during the trip home, which could take a long time
  • Help family members locate wounded and killed relatives. The war’s massive battles led to massive chaos, with wounded soldiers moved all over the place, the dead collected from the battlefield in a hurry with poor record keeping

The supply campaign had participation from a wide group of people from across the Union, and Steiner praised it as an example of the best of humanity:

And what a grand testimony to the idea of Union was there not afforded by these same donations? They were not sent for the soldiers of any particular State. He was entitled to them, who had donned the blue uniform of his country and had left home and friends to contend for its integrity and honor. Ohio’s contributions would sometimes reach the sons of New England, while the rich stores of Massachusetts were offered to the needy soldiers from the far west; and New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, every loyal State, was represented in these same stores.

Steiner, page 7
US Sanitary Commission supply wagon during the Civil War - Photo by James Gardner, April 1865 - from Library of Congress
U.S. Sanitary Commission supply wagon (1865)

The Giant Cheese was a Fundraiser

The Sanitary Commission needed to raise its own funds — kind of amazing for a group supporting the health of Federal troops at war — and they had many tools to get the dollars. One of the most successful fundraising tools was the “Sanitary Fair,” which started in 1863 in Chicago, and later were held in Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York, Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Albany, St. Louis, and elsewhere, raising more than $3 million (Stillé, pp. 192-193) 5.

The giant cheese was made for the Fourth Industrial Fair of the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco, which was not an “official” Sanitary Fair, but had significant energy devoted to raising funds for the Sanitary Commission. A report from the San Francisco Soldiers’ Relief Committee tells the origin story of the giant cheese:

At a meeting of the committee, on Saturday evening, June 4th [1864], an offer was received, through Mr. Sneath, from Messrs. Steele Brothers, to make a mammoth cheese, of 4,000 pounds weight, to be exhibited and finally sold for the benefit of the Sanitary Fund. … The proposition was immediately acquiesced in, and the expenses assumed by the committee. The matter of the cheese was referred to a committee, by whom arrangements were subsequently made, upon its reception, for its exhibition in the pavillion of the Mechanics’ Institute, erected for the Industrial Fair, and open to visitors on the first of September. 

Pages 60-61 in Reports of the Treasurer

[Later on…] Also, Messrs. Steele Bros., dairymen of Santa Cruz county, made and presented to the Commission a cheese, weighing 3,930 pounds, from the exhibition (room for the same being donated by the Mechanics’ Institute at its Fair) and sale of which the net receipts were $1,889.41 in coin, and $1.00 in currency.

Page 66 in Reports of the Treasurer

The giant cheese made a big impact on San Francisco, as you can see in this report from the Daily Alta California newspaper (the first daily in the state):

The exhibition is so extensive, and so varied, that no brief description can give an adequate idea of all its parts. It contains many thousands of articles, representing nearly every branch of industry in the country.

Perhaps the greatest wonder of the Fair is the Sanitary Cheese, a cheese which weighs 4,000 pounds, and was donated to the Sanitary Fund. It is in the first story of a Chinese pagoda which stands under the centre of the dome, and rises to a height of thirty feet. The outside of this pagoda has a number of shelves or steps upon which flower pots are placed so as to make a pyramid of foliage. The cheese is a separate show, and is exhibited for the benefit of the Sanitary Fund.

The cheese was made by Steele & Brothers, dairymen, of Santa Cruz. They have 1,500 cows, and the material was obtained exclusively from them. It is well known that even little cheeses must be turned and handled to keep them sweet, while curing; and such a cheese as this, which measures about seven feet wide and two feet deep [Ed. note: 2.13 m x 0.609 m], does not require less care [Ed. note: 77 ft3 (2,180 L)]. It must be turned every day, and for that purpose a tub has been made with heavy iron bands and gudgeons. The tub and fixings cost about $500; and the cheese, at the current price per pound, is worth about $800 [Ed. note: $0.20/lb in 1864 dollars. In 2016 dollars, that’s about $3.00/lb, via Robert Sahr’s inflation data at Oregon State University].

Daily Alta California, Volume 16, Number 5298, 4 September 1864, page 1

According to the History of San Mateo County, California book, the giant cheese “…was afterwards cut up, pieces being sent to President Lincoln, General Grant and General Steele.” With a transcontinental trip taking many days in 1864, I wonder about the state of the cheese when it arrived its destinations in General Grant’s camp or the White House.

I was able to find a photograph of the great California cheese at Carleton, but the terms of use prevent sharing it here. Just below is a stereoscopic view of an exhibit at the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair to give an idea of how the San Francisco exhibition might have looked — basically, chaotic and loaded with flair. (To be honest, with the low resolution and limited contrast of the 150+ year old stereoscopic photo, this one looks pretty much the same as the Watkins: a pyramid shape, lots of flags and buntings.)

Exhibits at the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair, stereoscopic photo by J.A. Scholten (NYPL Digital Collections)

Cheese blocks with a weight or volume approaching that of the Steele Bros. Giant cheeses are still made today. In Lansing, Michigan, Horrock’s typically has a few massive cheeses near the cheese counter, like this 3,800 pound block of cheddar cheese at Horrock’s (in jt c’s Flickr collection).

The Pavilion of the Mechanics’ Institute

To further the Institute’s mission of sharing new technological developments, the members decided to hold an annual exhibition that would “bring together annually the scientific and practical men of our country … exciting a spirit of emulation and generous rivalry which cannot fail to redound…” (opening address by Henry F. Williams, p. xxii, Report of the First Industrial Exhibition)

The Fourth Industrial Exhibition was in 1864, and ran from September 2 to October 1 in a temporary building constructed on Union Square in downtown San Francisco (bordered by Stockton, Post, Powell, and Geary). Inside were scores of displays including machinery (especially agricultural and mining equipment), jewelry, furniture, wool, wine (most are from vineyards in Los Angeles and Anaheim), pieces of ore, and much more. Food was displayed, including “samples of Prepared Coffee, Chocolate, and various Cocoa Preparations” from Ghirardelli & Co. (established 1852)6 (The family’s grave is in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. I wrote about some of Ghirardelli’s early 20th century advertisements a little while ago.)

Detail of cover page for report on fourth industrial exhibition of the Mechanics' Institute 1864
Detail of cover page for the report on the Fourth Industrial Exhibition of the Mechanics’ Institute, 1864

The Exhibition was a major happening, with daily newspaper coverage on the front page 7, all kinds of public officials attending, and around 50,000 tickets sold (single day visit was $0.50, about $7.50 in today’s dollars). (note that San Francisco’s population was somewhere between 56,802 (1860 census) and 149,473 (1870 census), source: Bay Area Census)

The Cheesemakers

As mentioned above, the great cheese was manufactured by the Steele Brothers dairy. It turns out that Steele Brothers company was one of the most prominent dairy operations in Northern and Central California in the 19th century. There were five Steele brothers, with four of them spending time in California. The first to arrive was Frederick in April 1849, while serving as a Captain in the U.S. Army. He was so impressed with the region and its opportunities that he convinced three other brothers — Isaac Chapman, George, and Edgar Willis — to make the perilous journey from Ohio to California in 1857 along with other relatives. This was before the Transcontinental Railroad, so their journeys were quite challenging, involving a journey by ship to Panama, a railroad trip across the Isthmus of Panama to reach the Pacific, and then another ship journey up to San Francisco. Their stories tell of ship fires, riots, and train crashes.

George and his cousin Rensselaer Steele began dairying in Sonoma County in 1857.  Later that year, the three brothers (George, Isaac Chapman, and Edgar Willis) and cousin Rensselaer leased land for a dairy near Point Reyes (Marin County). In 1862 the team moved to Pescadero (San Mateo County), where they established five dairies with about 150 cows at each site8. As their business grew, they sought new land farther south, ending up with a major purchase of land in San Luis Obispo County. At their peak (around 1870), they owned 1,400 dairy cows, five dairies, 2,000 beef cattle, which were scattered across 15,000 acres around Pescadero, and 45,000 acres in San Luis Obispo County. Eventually, the dairies were sold off, and the Steele Brothers company dissolved (the article by Steele is not clear at all on this subject, saying only “The Steele Brothers are gone. Their dairies are in other hands.”).

While the three brothers were running dairies, Frederick remained in the army, and during the Civil War attained the rank of Major General, serving in the Southwest part of the U.S. Frederick’s involvement in the war might have been one of the reasons that the Steele Brothers undertook the giant cheese project.

I don’t know if any of the original 19th century Steele Brothers buildings survive to this day, but there is a Steele Brothers historical landmark alongside State Highway 1 south of Pescadero (a beautiful stretch of California Coastline that includes plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities, including elephant seals at the Año Nuevo State Reserve).

Wrapping Up the Giant Cheese

The 3,930 pound cheese poster turned out to be quite a learning experience for me — and I hope for you also. This odd poster connects to several of my favorite subjects: food, California history, San Francisco, and the Civil War. And it’s an old example of using big things — like 10 foot pans of paella or 30 foot long submarine sandwiches — for fundraising, but never a big cheese. What big foods have you seen used for fundraising?


Civil War envelope promoting Great Central Fair for the Sanitary Commission - 1864 - from Library of Congress
Envelope promoting the Great Central Fair for the Sanitary Commission (1864)

Image Credits

Engraving by Winslow Homer: A woman asks “Anything for me, if you please?” at the Post-office of the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair. Published in Harper’s Weekly, March 5, 1864
“Anything for me, if you please?” at the Post Office in the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair. Engraving by Winslow Homer.

Originally published July 28, 2019


  1. President Lincoln’s height was 6’4″ (193 cm) according to a piece by the National Museum of American History about Lincoln’s top hat.
  2. The typesetting of Sanitary Commission in this announcement is strange. Why break “Commission” into two lines with different font sizes? Perhaps the typesetter had a limited number of type pieces available along with strict margins on the printing press?
  3. One of the other Commission members was Frederick Law Olmstead — the legendary park, university, and landscape designer. He’s best known for designing New York’s Central Park.
  4. Stillé’s History has a righteous rant about this on pages 150-151 that includes this: “When it is remembered that the army which fought at Shiloh was composed of men coming not only from all the States of the West, but from other portions of the country also, that they had defended with equal valor the same flag, and had suffered from the same cause, when it is further considered, that from the nature of the case it was impossible that each State represented in that Army could provide specially for the care of the wounded among its own citizens, the indiscreet zeal, which was willing to recognize State lines even in its ministrations of mercy on the battle-field, can hardly be too strongly condemned. It was only another development of that obnoxious heresy of State-sovereignty, against which the whole war was directed, and its practical injury to the national cause in creating disaffection among the troops who were not recipients of its peculiar care, was scarcely less great, than its violation of those sacred laws of humanity, which make no distinction in the relief bestowed upon the suffering, except to seek first for those who most need succor. ”
  5. “Everything was crowded into them which the busy brains, or the warm hearts or the skillful hands of our country-women could create or gather as a fit offering of their gratitude to the soldier. The products of the farm, the manufactory, the machine shop, the delicate workmanship of the skilled artisan, works of art and beauty, of taste and utility, represented there the sympathy of all classes of the community for the suffering soldier.” (p. 193, Stillé )
  6. Ghirardelli also exhibited at the first exhibition. The post-event report states: “Chocolate. The only specimen exhibited which was prepared here. Very good, and awarded a Diploma.” (p. 76, report on the first exhibition) A Diploma was awarded to “…the best specimen of its class, produced or manufactured within the State of California.” (p. 24, report on the first exhibition)
  7. While working on this post I learned about the California Digital Newspaper Collection (CDNC), a collection of over 1,500,000 pages of newspapers from 1846 to the present. The first two newspapers I looked at — the Daily Alta California and California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences — had voluminous coverage of the Pavillion.
  8. For those interested in 19th century cheese making, pages 265-266 of Steele explain the process and materials used by the Steele Brothers dairy.

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