Adulterations of food⁠—​Adulterations of liquor⁠—​The colonel’s whiskey⁠—​The humbugometer.

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 horrid 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 below.

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 cornmeal 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 overnight, 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 downstairs 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 downstairs 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 less.

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.