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

Trade card for the B.T. Babbitt soap company showing a child, cat, and soap box. Created in 19th century. Trade card for the B.T. Babbitt soap company showing children, puppet, and dog. Created in 19th century. B.T. Babbitt Soap trade card with boy in Revolutionary Era costume, flag, and soap box. Created in the 19th century. "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 two children at a pond. Created in 19th century. Trade card for the B.T. Babbitt soap company showing child in a soap box sled. 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

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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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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Fish in Japanese Art: Hiroshige’s Woodblock Prints

Ise-ebi and Shiba-ebi by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Tobiuo and Ishimochi fish by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Hirame and Mebaru Fish with Cherry Blossoms by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bora Fish with Camellia by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Medetai and sasaki bamboo by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Kurodai and Kodai Fish with Bamboo Shoots and Berries by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Aji Fish and Kuruma-ebi by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Fugu and Inada Fish by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Memorial portrait of Hiroshige
Memorial portrait of Hiroshige from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of my favorite genres of art is the 19th century Japanese landscape print, especially the works by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), who is best known as the creator of several series that showed famous scenes from Japan, like “53 Stations of the Tokaido” and “Famous Views of the 60-Odd Provinces.”  The subjects of the prints in the series vary between the long and medium view — for example, a rainbow over a the sea, or travelers passing over a bridge.  So when I saw a series of Hiroshige fish prints appear in a Creative Commons CCSearch result, my curiosity was piqued.  What was the story behind the series?

It turns out that prints of animals, fish and plants were relatively rare in Hiroshige’s catalog:  in his 40-year art career, he designed over 10,000 single sheet prints and several hundred book illustrations, with only around 500 having an animal or plant as the subject [the statistics are from Birds and Flowers, a book in the reference list below].

After reviewing a few books about Hiroshige at the local libraries, I found the answer to my question, and it turned out to be straightforward: a poetry guild called Kyokashi hired him to make ten fish illustrations to accompany their poems.  During the design and printing process the poets gave their poems to the woodblock carvers, who added the lettering to a block so it would appear on the final print. 

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Japanese Vegetable Stew with Miso Broth

Vegetarian Japanese vegetable stew with miso

Vegetarian Japanese vegetable stew with miso broth
Japanese vegetable stew with miso (12 o’clock), brown rice (3 o’clock), Tokyo-style rolled omelet (6 o’clock), quick-pickled napa cabbage (9 o’clock)

When you’re looking for something hearty and warming as days become shorter and colder, consider the Japanese dishes called nabemono. These “simmered dishes” are often cooked in one pot (called a “nabe”), sometimes in the middle of the dining table over a portable burner.  In the West, the most famous nabemono is probably sukiyaki — beef and vegetables cooked in a broth of soy sauce, mirin (sweet sake), and other flavorings. All over Japan, you’re likely to see steaming pots of another famous nabemono called oden in convenience stores during the colder months (and, of course, oden makes plenty of appearances in standard restaurants and at home, and on some phones you’ll find an oden emoji).

A nabemono that I like to cook at home is a stew of root vegetables, Chinese cabbage, mushrooms and squash in a flavorful broth enriched by umami-packed miso and kelp-mushroom stock.  One might call it a “supercharged miso soup,” as it’s much thicker than that generic cup at the Japanese restaurant and packed with vegetables.

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Moringa Leaves and Other Emergency Food Plants of Pacific Islands

Let’s start this post with a bit of fiction:

It’s 1944, you’re a bomber pilot in the United States Navy, flying missions over Southeast Asia. It’s a dangerous job, but you’ve got a great crew: there’s Knute, a.k.a., “Swede”, the navigator, a quiet, big-hearted 18-year old blonde kid from northern Minnesota; Tony, the bombardier, a tough-talking street hustler from Brooklyn who’s really a Mama’s boy; Larry, the tail gunner, a farm boy from Kansas; Bobby, the co-pilot, a laid-back kid from California; Leonard, a.k.a. “Glasses,” the radio operator, a nerdy college student from Vermont, who operates the radio. Everyone picks on Leonard because he’d rather read books about Southeast Asia during off-duty hours than hit the bars.

On one mission, you hear an awful sound to your left: the sputter, sputter, sputter of an engine going out. Your plane starts losing altitude, and when it’s clear you won’t make it back to the carrier, it’s bail out time, and soon you’re parachuting onto unknown territory. You have a general idea of where you are and where you need to go to reach safety, but your emergency rations aren’t enough to feed you on your long journey to safety.

That nerd Glasses might be your life line. One of his interests is botany — he’s always looking at plants on the base — and so his flying kit includes a book called Emergency Food Plants and Poisonous Plants of the Islands of the Pacific. And so now the crew knows which plants are food — and which are poisonous — as they make their way across the jungle to a safe haven.

The little fictional lead-in above sets up one of my recent finds in the Internet Archive (via Flickr Commons). While looking in the Flickr Commons, Google Books and Hathi Trust for images of the Moringa oleifera plant, I ran across an ink drawing of the moringa plant in a book from the U.S. War Department that was published in 1943 (I also found the beautiful 19th-century painting that I used in my post about Moringa Leaves). Reading the introduction, I learned that the book was written for members of the U.S. military to help them survive on their own (“live off the land”) if they were separated from their unit or escaped from a prisoner of war camp.

The book provides a guide to edible plants in the Pacific Theater (Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, Indo-China, Thailand, Burma and eastern India). Chapters focus on classes of plants:  ferns, grasses, palms, tubers, seeds, greens and fruit. There are also sections on poisonous plants and “plants used to stupefy fish.”

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