Do you like to be scared? If you do, forget about watching Halloween or The Ring or even the Treehouse of Horror episode on The Simpsons.
If you really like to be scared, you should come to the National Archives’ “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” exhibit and see the records that document why the Government became involved in food safety. Before Federal regulation in 1906 with the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, American citizens were chowing down on food flavored or preserved with sulfuric acid, formaldehyde, and borax.
Perhaps you could even craft some Halloween costumes from them. Here are four terrifying costumes inspired by our holdings:
Poison squad member
In 1902, these 12 Federal employees were true guinea pigs in the name of food safety. For five years, they sat down to delicious meals at the Bureau of Chemistry’s basement kitchen and ate a poisonous substance. They were not told what it was, or where in the food it was disguised. Then Chief Chemist Harvey Wiley recorded their symptoms, which were unpleasant but apparently not fatal. The “Poison Squad” was enormously popular in the press, and they even had songs written about their exploits in the test kitchen. This is a pretty easy costume. Just wear a suit and fedora and complain of headache, nausea, or vomiting.
Is your ketchup a ticking time bomb waiting to go off just as your pour it over your fries? The answer is yes, when ketchup is made from fermenting tomato skins and benzoate of soda. This costume is especially easy for lazy partygoers. Just dump a bottle of ketchup all over yourself and carry the empty bottle all evening.
Did you ever have to put your Halloween candy through an x-ray? I never knew anyone to come to any harm other than a stomach ache from too much candy on October 31, but candy poisoning was an very real danger at the turn of the century. A tiny notebook kept by a food adulteration inspector noted: “This sample of candy requires a very careful examination. After eating of it—one child died and two others were taken sick.” You’ll never buy a licorice stick from the old-timey candy store again.
Perhaps the idea of Spam makes you want to run screaming? But as you can see in the postcard above, spoiled or rotten meat was a possibility for anyone opening a can of potted tongue. President Theodore Roosevelt saw soldiers sicken and die during the Spanish-American War from eating tainted tinned meat, which made him inclined to treat Upton Sinclair’s letter about the meatpacking industry more seriously. The postcard is part of a set: use it for inspiration for whether you want to be a tainted can of deer, chicken, or pork.
But food frights like these aren’t in the past. We hear about tainted melons and peant butter on the news. And we worry about eating meat that is farmed or wild. And what about mad cow disease? Food concerns didn’t end with the Pure Food and Drug Act. Join us at the National Archives for Food Day Open House on October 24 and Food Frights! on October 27 for discussions with the people who regulate, make, and care about food.