Adulterations Of Food And Liquor

It was about eight hundred and fifty years before Christ when the young

prophet cried out to his master, Elisha, over the pottage of wild

gourds, "There is death in the pot!" It was two thousand six hundred and

seventy years afterward, in 1820, that Accum, the chemist cried out over

again, "There is death in the pot!" in the title page of a book so

named, which gave almost everybody a pain in the stomach, with its

d stories of the unhealthful humbugs sold for food and drink. This

excitement has been stirred up more than once since Mr. Accum's time,

with some success; yet nothing is more certain than that a very large

proportion of the food we eat, of the liquid we drink--always excepting

good well-filtered water--and the medicines we take, not to say a word

about the clothes we wear and the miscellaneous merchandise we use, is

more or less adulterated with cheaper materials. Sometimes these are

merely harmless; as flour, starch, annatto, lard, etc.; sometimes they

are vigorous, destructive poisons--as red lead, arsenic, strychnine, oil

of vitriol, potash, etc.

It is not agreeable to find ourselves so thickly beset by humbugs; to

find that we are not merely called on to see them, to hear them, to

believe them, to invest capital in them, but to eat and drink them. Yet

so it is; and, if my short discussion of this kind of humbug shall make

people a little more careful, and help them to preserve their health, I

shall think myself fortunate.

To begin with bread. Alum is very commonly put into it by the bakers, to

make it white. Flour of inferior quality, "runny" flour, and even that

from wormy wheat--ground-up worms, bugs, and all--is often mixed in as

much as the case will bear. Potato flour has been known to be mixed with

wheat; and so, thirty years ago, were plaster-of-Paris, bone-dust, white

clay, etc. But these are little used now, if at all; and the worst thing

in bread, aside from bad flour, which is bad enough, is usually the

alum. It is often put in ready mixed with salt, and it accomplishes two

things, viz., to make the bread white, and to suck up a good deal of

water, and make the bread weigh well. It has been sometimes found that

the alum was put in at the mill instead of the bakery.

Milk is most commonly adulterated with cold water; and many are the

jokes on the milkmen about their best cow being choked etc., by a turnip

in the pump-spout--their "cow with the wooden tail" (i. e., the

pump-handle,) and so on. Awful stories are told about the London

milkmen, who are said to manufacture a fearful kind of medicine to be

sold as milk, the cream being made of a quantity of calf's brain beaten

to a slime. Stories are told around New York, too, of a mysterious

powder sold by druggists, which with water makes milk; but it is milk

that must be used quickly, or it turns into a curious mess. But the

worst adulteration of milk is to adulterate the old cow herself; as is

done in the swill-milk establishments which received such an exposure a

few years ago in a city paper. This milk is still furnished; and many a

poor little baby is daily suffering convulsions from its effects. So

difficult is it to find real milk for babies in the city, that

physicians often prescribe the use of what is called "condensed" milk

instead; which, though very different from milk not evaporated, is at

least made of the genuine article. A series of careful experiments to

develop the milk-humbug was made by a competent physician in Boston

within a few years, but he found the milk there (aside from swill-milk)

adulterated with nothing worse than water, salt, and burnt sugar.

Tea is bejuggled first by John Chinaman, who is a very cunning rascal;

and second, by the seller here. Green and black tea are made from the

same plant, but by different processes--the green being most expensive.

To meet the increased demand for green tea, Master John takes immense

quantities of black tea and "paints" it, by stirring into it over a fire

a fine powder of plaster Paris and Prussian-blue, at the rate of half a

pound to each hundred pounds of tea. John also sometimes takes a very

cheap kind, and puts on a nice gloss by stirring it in gum-water, with

some stove-polish in it. We may imagine ourselves, after drinking this

kind of tea, with a beautiful black gloss on our insides. John moreover,

manufactures vast quantities of what he plainly calls "Lie-tea." This

is dust and refuse of tea-leaves and other leaves, made up with dust and

starch or gum into little lumps, and used to adulterate better tea.

Seven hundred and fifty thousand pounds of this nice stuff were imported

into England in one period of eighteen months. It seems to be used in

New-York only for green tea.

Coffee is adulterated with chicory-root (which costs only about

one-third as much)--dandelion-root, peas, beans, mangold-wurzel, wheat,

rye, acorns, carrots, parsnips, horse-chestnuts, and sometimes with

livers of horses and cattle! All these things are roasted or baked to

the proper color and consistency, and then mixed in. No great sympathy

need be expended on those who suffer from this particular humbug,

however; for when it is so easy to buy the real berry, and roast or at

least grind it one's self, it is our own fault if our laziness leaves us

to eat all those sorts of stuff.

Cocoa is "extended" with sugar, starch, flour, iron-rust, Venetian-red,

grease, and various earths. But it is believed by pretty good authority

that the American-made preparations of cocoa are nearly or quite pure.

Even if they are not the whole bean can be used instead.

Butter and lard have one tenth, and sometimes even one-quarter, of water

mixed up in them. It is easy to find this out by melting a sample before

the fire and putting it away to cool, when the humbug appears by the

grease going up, and the water, perhaps turbid with whey, settling


Honey is humbugged with sugar or molasses. Sugar is not often sanded as

the old stories have it. Fine white sugar is sometimes floured pretty

well; and brown sugar is sometimes made of a portion of good sugar with

a cheaper kind mixed in. Inferior brown sugars are often full of a

certain crab-like animalcule or minute bug, often visible without a

microscope, in water where the sugar is dissolved. It is believed that

this pleasing insect sometimes gets into the skin, and produces a kind

of itch. I do not believe there is much danger of adulteration in good

loaf or crushed white sugar, or good granulated or brown sugar.

Pepper is mixed with fine dust, dirt, linseed-meal, ground rice, or

mustard and wheat-flour; ginger, with wheat flour colored by turmeric

and reinforced by cayenne. Cinnamon is sometimes not present at all in

what is so called--the stuff being the inferior and cheaper cassia bark;

sometimes it is only part cassia; sometimes the humbug part of it is

flour and ochre. Cayenne-pepper is mixed with corn-meal and salt,

Venetian-red, mustard, brickdust, fine sawdust, and red-lead. Mustard

with flour and turmeric. Confectionery is often poisoned with

Prussian-blue, Antwerp-blue, gamboge, ultramarine, chrome yellow,

red-lead, white-lead, vermilion, Brunswick-green, and Scheele's green,

or arsenite of copper! Never buy any confectionery that is colored or

painted. Vinegar is made of whisky, or of oil of vitriol. Pickles have

verdigris in them to make them a pretty green. "Pretty green" he must be

who will eat bought pickles! Preserved fruits often have verdigris in

them, too.

An awful list! Imagine a meal of such bewitched food, where the actual

articles are named. "Take some of the alum bread." "Have a cup of

pea-soup and chicory-coffee?" "I'll trouble you for the oil-of-vitriol,

if you please." "Have some sawdust on your meat, or do you prefer this

flour and turmeric mustard?" "A piece of this verdigris-preserve

gooseberry pie, Madam?" "Won't you put a few more sugar-bugs in your

ash-leaf tea?" "Do you prefer black tea, or Prussian-blue tea?" "Do you

like your tea with swill-milk, or without?"

I have not left myself space to speak of the tricks played by the

druggists and the liquor-dealers; but I propose to devote another

chapter exclusively to the adulteration of liquors in this country. It

is a subject so fearful and so important that nothing less than a

chapter can do it justice. I must now end with a story or two and a

suggestion or two.

Old Colonel P. sold much whisky; and his manner was to sell by sample

out of a pure barrel over night, at a marvelous cheap rate, and then to

"rectify" before morning, under pretence of coopering and marking.

Certain persons having a grudge against the Colonel, once made an

arrangement with a carman, who executed their plan, thus:--He went to

the Colonel, and asked to see whisky. The jolly old fellow took him down

stairs and showed him a great cellar full. Carman samples a barrel.

"Fust rate, Colonel, how d'ye sell it?" Colonel names his price on the

rectified basis. "Well, Colonel, how much yer got?" "So many

barrels--two or three hundred." "Colonel, here's your money. I'll take

the lot." "All right," says Colonel P.; "there's some coopering to be

done on it; some of the hoops and heads are a very little loose. You

shall have it all in the morning." "No, colonel, we'll roll it right out

this minnit! My trucks are up there, all ready." And, sure enough, he

had a string of a dozen or more brigaded in the street. The Colonel was

sadly dumbfounded; he turned several colors--red mostly--stammered, made

excuses. It was no go, the whisky was the customer's, and the game was

up. The humbugged old humbug finally "came down," and bought his man off

by paying him several hundred dollars.

There is a much older and better known story about a grocer who was a

deacon, and who was heard to call down stairs before breakfast, to his

clerk: "John, have you watered the rum?" "Yes, Sir." "And sanded the

sugar?" "Yes, Sir." "And dusted the pepper?" "Yes, Sir." "And chicoried

the coffee?" "Yes, Sir." "Then come up to prayers." Let us hope that the

grocers of the present day, while they adulterate less, do not pray


Between 1851 and 1854, Mr. Wakley of the "London Lancet" gave an awful

roasting to the adulteration-interest in London. He employed an able

analyzer, who began by going about without telling what he was at; and

buying a great number of samples of all kinds of food, drugs, etc., at a

great number of shops. Then he analyzed them; and when he found humbug

in any sample, he published the facts, and the seller's name and place

of business. It may be imagined what a terrible row this kicked up. Very

numerous and violent threats were made; but the "Lancet," was never once

sued by any of the aggrieved, for it had told the truth.

Perhaps some discouraged reader may ask, What can I eat? Well, I don't

pretend to direct people's diet. Ask your doctor, if you can't find out.

But I will suggest that there are a few things that can't be

adulterated. You can't adulterate an egg, nor an oyster, nor an apple,

nor a potato, nor a salt codfish; and if they are spoiled they will

notify you themselves! and when good, they are all good healthy food. In

short, one good safeguard is, to use, as far as you can, things with

their life in them when you buy them, whether vegetable or animal. The

next best rule against these adulteration-humbugs is, to buy goods crude

instead of manufactured; coffee, and pepper, and spices, etc., whole

instead of ground, for instance. Thus, though you give more work, you

buy purity with it. And lastly, there are various chemical processes,

and the microscope, to detect adulterations; and milk, in particular,

may always be tested by a lactometer,--a simple little instrument which

the milkmen use, which costs a few shillings, and which tells the story

in an instant. It is a glass bulb, with a stem above and a scale on it,

and a weight below. In good average milk, at sixty degrees of heat, the

lactometer floats at twenty on its scale; and in poorer milk, at from

that figure down. If it floats at fifteen, the milk is one-fourth water;

if at ten, one half.

It would be a wonderful thing for mankind if some philosophic Yankee

would contrive some kind of "ometer" that would measure the infusion of

humbug in anything. A "Humbugometer" he might call it. I would warrant

him a good sale.