Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Burgess and the Pure Food Movement

Let's begin with a poem (1906)

Just in case you don't get the reference, here's the original Longfellow:

But today's post is not about Burgess's love of rhyming verse or his skill as a parodist, rather it is about the content of the poem--food safety.

Good Housekeeping was a leader in the Pure Food movement during the period when Thornton Burgess began to assume editorial duties. The Pure Food movement, in short, fought the "adulteration" of food, especially harmful additives; Good Housekeeping promoted the cause in its pages, organized support for legislation, and established a policy of only accepting advertisements from brands that passed its pure food assurance tests.

It is unclear how much Burgess himself led this fight (Harvey W. Wiley, who would later join the staff of Good Housekeeping, provided the scientific firepower) but he was clearly a participant.

Here's an example from late in the campaign in which Burgess extends the concern with adulteration from food to drugs. (Legislation passed in 1906 was called the "Pure Food and Drug Act").

What I find interesting about this movement and Good Housekeeping's role in it is how much the proposed remedy revolved around branding and how much the grocer and the druggist were held in suspicion. Companies that put their names on the line would be more concerned about quality, went the argument. And in fact, many of the advertisers appearing in Good Housekeeping during this period have entered the pantheon of enduring global brands (Nestle, Jello, Campbells' Soup). This helps to make sense of the following Burgess poem, "A Tale of Substitution."

It is anti-grocer, pro-brand (reflecting the interests of Good Housekeeping's advertisers).

Good Housekeeping also stressed the importance of personal responsibility. Indeed, there was a risk in the Pure Food movement becoming too trendy (shallow support and sensationalized) and too focused on legislation.

It was far better to make wise decisions (informed by Good Housekeeping's scientific approach to best practices in home economics).

Two more relevant Burgess pieces, both from 1908: the first is his contribution to a larger discussion of milk safety.

Note how he incorporates the cat as a source of disease (a reference to his "Cat Question" article two years earlier).

The second, published under the name, "Arthur Chapouille," is a sermon against the use of public water cups.

The style of this one is a little more overheated than usual, making me think Burgess is inhabiting a persona that his pen-name makes possible.

My overall point is that Burgess's later participation in a environmental movements can be seen as an extension of his experiences with social movements at Good Housekeeping. Granted, this was the "Progessive Era," and the stress on social change was simply part of the zeitgeist. On the other hand, the Pure Food movement was a particularly key, successful, project.

Tomorrow: Burgess the Vigilante

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