And I’m not talking about chewing tobacco.
Recently, there was a program called The Poison Squad on the PBS show, American Experience. It was based on the book by Deborah Blum, The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. The story was fascinating, and if you were lucky enough to have seen it, you would know that the work was started by Dr. Harvey Wiley, the father and first commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration. I wanted to find out more about how this new bill affected Denton and decided to look into it.
The Pure Foods and Drug Act was passed in 1906 – and here I’m going to do a book plug because it was Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, that rallied the public outcry for better meat inspection. To comply with public concern, the state of Texas approved the Blanton Pure Food Bill. It was very similar as it “entitled an act to prohibit and prevent the adulteration, fraud and deception in the manufacture and sale of articles of food and drink; prescribed penalties for the violation of the act and provided for the appointment of a dairy and food commissioner.” It also allowed a salary for the new commissioner of $2,000 per annum, a deputy at $1,200, and a stenographer at $600 a year.
Governor Campbell appointed Dr. J. S. Abbott of Dallas. He was a graduate of the University of Mississippi and had completed his post graduate work in chemistry and bacteriology at the University of Chicago. Abbott was also the candidate of the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs, and he chose Robert H. Hoffman Jr., a Denton man, as his deputy.
Their offices were located at the College of Industrial Arts (CIA) in Denton (now known as TWU) in the main building, something that was not the original wish of the “A&M men” who had intended them to be ensconced in the men’s Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. As it was the State Federation of Women’s Clubs who had rallied nearly fifty clubs, as well as individuals to petition their representatives to support the food law, the location of the headquarters was most important to them, and they had to fight to have it at the CIA. “The point of contact,”they said, “was with the women of the State instead of with politicians.”
The new law stated that every city and town in the state had to have an inspector who would demand samples of any foods that were offered for sale and the samples would then be sent to Denton for analysis. In the early days, a budget had not been set aside for inspectors, so Abbott traveled a lot. His investigations were not always welcome and those travels sometimes proved to be dangerous.
The “Soft Drink Situation.”
In August 1908, he began investigating the “soft drink situation” which had been brewing for some time. Once again, the purpose was to make sure that the soft drinks remained pure and did not contain anything other than what they were supposed to – such as tar for coloring or saccharine instead of real sugar. In one instance, Abbott found in an establishment near the CIA campus where some bottled soft drinks had “genuine beer” in them instead of soda.
The good doctor reported in the Texas State Journal of Medicine’s October 1908 issue that “Five popular soda water drinks have been found to contain cocaine. We refrain from publishing their names as warrants only have as yet been sworn out. Three of these preparations were made in the State and two outside the State. One was manufactured in Denton near the Dairy Commissioner’s laboratory.” The establishment of Mr. O. M. Curtis was one of those five and Mr. Curtis later published an explanation and apology in the local paper. Afterwards, it can be noted that his advertisements became more professional.
Back in the day, some manufacturers peddled “near beer” that was advertised as having low alcohol content (about two percent). They had names like: “Frosty,” “Uno,” “Hiawatha,” “Tin-Top”, and “Teetotal.” For some reason, this wasn’t always the case, and so it was, that while in the fair town of Burnet, Texas, a prohibition county, that Dr. Abbott entered a Frosty joint.
Note: The following is a creative scenario based on a newspaper account, please excuse my liberty.
Dr. Abbott: (showing the proprietor his card), “Please good sir, I would like to procure a bottle of Frosty to take back to my lab for analysis.”
Proprietor of the Frosty joint: “If you don’t take your weaselly hands off my bottle of Frosty,” he sneered, “and back out that door – I’ll shoot you in the gut!” Abbott puffed up his chest and said, with a quavering voice, “My good sir, do not force me to take legal action, because I will!”
This must have worked because the paper stated that he got his Frosty without being shot.
Word spread quickly while he was in Burnett, and as Abbott visited more establishments, he found himself being followed around town by “parties who attempted to disfigure his face.” Needless to say, he kept out of alleys and ate in the dining room while he was there.
Wheat had been a source of pride to Millers in Denton County. The Alliance Mill of Denton won the first prize for the best flour exhibited at the Dallas Fair from 1886 to 1896, the St. Louis Fair in 1895 and 1896, and the Paris Exposition of 1900 and 1904. The Krum Mill won a blue ribbon at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1904 and honorable mention at the Paris Exposition of 1910.
In 1910, Dr. Abbott was called in to be a witness for the Federal prosecution of grain shippers. The case involved wheat that had been shipped into the Texas via Missouri. Gainesville had received around $20,000 worth of corn in very bad condition. Other Texas flour mills, including Denton, had previously received inferior grades of wheat – wheat that was “scarcely better than a No. 3 grade. In short, Texas was used as an unloading ground. This had happened in the past because there were no “expert graders” located here.” Now that Texas had Abbott – someone in a paid position and with a budget to build a case – the government was able to go after them.
Later, in 1911, Dr. Abbott, sent out a letter to the attention of women’s club members, asking for volunteers to become food inspectors. He regularly addressed the various clubs with the purpose of educating and generating their interest, urging them to “study these problems and then distribute their knowledge by talking to their neighbors and friends. Abbott used the newspapers to educate the public, but was often criticized by “wasting” so much newspaper space.
The Dipping Problem
Then there was the dipping problem: farmers would dip seed potatoes into a solution of formaldehyde (or called Formalin) to act as a fungicide during the “post-harvest treatment” of potato seed tubers. Formaldehyde was not a recognized carcinogen for a time; some people knew that it was dangerous, but it had been – and still was – used in several ways involving food items such as wheat and potatoes, as well as the part of the pasteurization process of milk bottles. Dr. Abbott reminded potato growers in Denton (and elsewhere) that the practice was illegal.
I shared this bit of trivia to a friend of mine who said, “I guess that wasn’t the “pure” they were hoping for.”
This was soon removed from the legislation as it was determined to be a “safe” and necessary method for preventing diseases such as Black Scab and Scurf.
In which history repeats itself (again)
Lucky him. In the years that followed, Abbott “educated” many: “We have a specific law in Texas now, and with sufficient assistance we are going to undertake the consumers not only from adulteration and impurities, but from unsanitary conditions surrounding handling food products.” “Almost ever slaughter house we have inspected in our rounds has been condemned as unsanitary and in violation of the Texas pure food statute, and we expect to condemn and close fully half of those in the state before our rounds are completed.”
He was, unfortunately referring to slaughterhouses, which among many other practices, accepted hogs that had been fed on offal. In case you don’t know what that is, offal is the entrails and internal organs of an animal. Humans eat it, but animals that eat it can contract diseases which can make them sick, and in turn make humans who eat these animals sick.
I am grateful that this came about because the practice was – and is – just awful.
Dr. Abbott resigned in 1914 after going before the federal government asking them to create a department “to promote uniformity in the food and drug legislation.” As a result, he was made head of the newly created department, called the Bureau of Chemistry which eventually became the Food and Drug Administration. He spent six years with them until he was named the secretary and director of research for the Institute of Margarine Manufacturers until his death in 1943.
The governor appointed Claude O. O. Yates, of Austin to take his place and the office was moved from Denton to Austin. The City Federation of Women’s Clubs’ pure food committee continued to promote the Pure Food and Drug Work for the next twenty-five years.
Leslie Couture, Special Collections
“Pure Food Law is Signed,” Jacksboro Gazette, Mar 28 1907, p.2.
The Daily Express, Sept. 2, 1907, p.6
“About Coca Cola. Dr. J. S. Abbott Is After the Soft Drinks That Contain Cocoa Cola,” Denton County News, August 20, 1908, pp 3&6
“Abbott Assaulted. Pure Food Commissioner Has Strenuous Time While In Town of Burnet,” Record and Chronicle, January 8, 1909, p.1
“Pure Food Report,” Dallas Morning News, December 9, 1907, p8
“A History of Small Grain Crops in Texas: Wheat, Oats, Barley, Rye, 1582-1976.” Irvin Milburn Atkins. 1976; p.23
“Dr. Abbott At Houston. Denton Man Talks of the Enforcement of the Pure Food Law. Federal Department Is Now After Shippers of Inferior and Damaged Grain Shipments Into Texas with Dr. Abbott Co-operating,” Record and Chronicle, May 5, 1910, p.2
“Club Women, Attention,” The Lampasas Daily Leader, Nov. 14, 1907, p.2
“Unclean, Unsound Food Is Worthless Food,” Says Abbott,” Record and Chronicle, Tuesday, Oct. 7, 1913, p.2”
“U. S. Abbott Head New Department,” The Bryan Daily Eagle, Apr. 11, 1914, p.1
“Chemical Society Convenes Tonite; Dr. Abbot Speaks,” The Technique [Georgia School of Technology], Oct. 15, 1937, p.1