“The place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.”
“Miracles happen only to those who believe in them.”
IN AMERICA the crude intractable facts of life, without which miracles never would have been necessary, were being dissolved. The regularities of nature, by which men knew that they were alive and were only human—the boundaries of seasons, of indoors and outdoors, of space and time, and the uniqueness of each passing moment—all these were being confused. The old tricks of the miracle maker, the witch, and the magician became commonplace. Foods were preserved out of season, water poured from bottomless indoor containers, men flew up into space and landed out of the sky, past events were conjured up again, the living images and resounding voices of the dead were made audible, and the present moment was packaged for future use.
When man could accomplish miracles he began to lose his sense of the miraculous. This meant, too, a decline of common sense, and the irrelevance of the rules of thumb that had governed man since the beginning of history. Americans who could no longer expect the usual were in danger of depriving themselves of the charms of the unexpected. “Everyday miracles” added immeasurably to life, but they also subtracted something that could never be measured. Democratizing everything enlarged the daily experience of millions; but spreading also meant thinning.
Attenuation summed up the new quality of experience. Attenuated experience was thinner, more diluted, its sensations were weaker and less poignant. It was a life punctuated by commas and semicolons rather than by periods and exclamation marks.
“I mean to put a potato into a pillbox, a pumpkin into a tablespoon, the biggest sort of watermelon into a saucer. . . . The Turks made acres of roses into attar of roses. . . . I intend to make attar of everything!”
THE FIRST CHARM and virgin promise of America were that it was so different a place. But the fulfillment of modern America would be its power to level times and places, to erase differences between here and there, between now and then. And finally the uniqueness of America would prove to be its ability to erase uniqueness.
Elsewhere democracy had meant forms of personal, political, economic, and social equality. In the United States, in addition, there would be a novel environmental democracy. Here, as never before, the world would witness the “equalizing” of times and places.
The flavor of life had once come from winter’s cold, summer’s heat, the special taste and color of each season’s diet. The American Democracy of Times and Places meant making one place and one thing more like another, by bringing them under the control of man. The flavor of fresh meat would be tasted anywhere anytime, summer would have its ice, and winter would have its warmth, inside and outside would flow together, and men would live and work not only on the unlevel ground but also in the homogeneous air.
Civilization had survived man’s limitations. Could it also survive his near-omnipotence? Men had been drawn together by their common weakness. Could they also find community in their new-found powers?
IN NOVEMBER 1846 the Donner Party of eighty-seven emigrants on their way from Sangamon County, Illinois, to California were trapped in deep snow while camping at Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains. According to the familiar story, they would all have starved to death had not the survivors sustained themselves by eating the flesh of those who had died. The rescue parties from California managed to bring out forty-seven survivors. For practical-minded Americans of the day this was not only an episode in the history of morals; it also dramatized the peculiar needs of Americans on the move.
WHEN GAIL BORDEN, a surveyor and land agent at Galveston in the recently annexed state of Texas, heard of the starvation of the Donner Party and the hunger of the others who were trying to cross the continent, he was stirred to invent a way of making food more portable. Born on a farm in central New York, he had meandered west with his parents, first to Ohio, and then on to Kentucky and Indiana. He personally knew the problems of westward travel. He taught himself surveying, then earned his living as a schoolteacher on the borderlands of Mississippi before joining his family at Stephen A. Austin’s colony in Texas in 1829. There Austin put him in charge of the official land surveys, which gave him the power to make and break fortunes. In 1835, when the colony needed a newspaper, the versatile Borden and a friend founded the weekly Telegraph and Texas Register. The tenth newspaper started in Texas, Borden’s Telegraph was the first to last longer than two years. He knew the usual troubles of the backwoods booster press—scarce materials, scarce news, subscribers who could not be found or who would not pay when they were found. To make ends meet, he became the official printer to the new Republic of Texas, and the Texas Declaration of Independence was published by his press in March 1836. When the site of Houston was chosen for the capital, Borden was named official surveyor. Then he moved on again to Galveston Island, where he served as Collector of the Port, helped lay out streets, planned a water supply, sold city lots, and became a passionate booster for “The New York of Texas.”
But Borden was no ordinary public servant. “He has dozens of inventions,” a Galveston neighbor observed, “and he is the most wonderful of them all himself.” His “Locomotive Bath House,” for example, could be carried out into the Galveston surf so that ladies could bathe in modest privacy. His wedding present to his wife was his homemade revolving dining table, with a fixed rim the width of a dining plate, and a revolving center on which the dishes to be served could be rotated to each person. Noting that yellow fever was conquered by the first frost, he devised his own public-health program; by using ether, “to freeze you down to, say, 30° or 40°—I mean, to keep you for a week as if under a white frost…. lock up every soul in a temporary winter.” Then there was his own design for a steamboat propelled not by a screw or a paddle wheel, but by a moving belt the full length of the keel mounted with paddle boards. More remarkable still was his “Terraqueous Machine”—a sail-driven prairie schooner for land and sea. When he demonstrated the machine to a crowd of his fellow townsmen at the beach, his passengers sailed into the Gulf, and so proved that his boat was really amphibious; but unfortunately the boat capsized and dumped the passengers into the water.
“I never drop an idea,” boasted Borden, “except for a better one.” The “better idea” to which he turned from his Terraqueous Machine would lead him to fame and fortune. When he tried to concoct a new kind of portable food for his friends who were traveling to California in July 1849, he made an “important discovery … an improved process of preserving the nutritious properties of meat, or animal flesh, of any kind, by obtaining the concentrated extract of it, and combining it with flour or vegetable meal, and drying or baking the mixture in an oven, in the form of a biscuit or cracker.”
This was Borden’s first application of the creed which would guide him in business for a lifetime. “Condense your sermons,” he advised the minister of his Galveston church. “You can do almost any thing with every thing. If you plan and think, and, as fast as you drop one thing, seize upon another…. The world is changing. In the direction of condensing…. Even lovers write no poetry, nor any other stuff and nonsense, now. They condense all they have to say, I suppose, into a kiss… Time was when people would…. spend hours at a meal. Napoleon never took over twenty minutes…. I am through in fifteen. People have almost lost the faculty of fooling away their time.”
Borden spent six years developing his Meat Biscuit. And in his own brochure in 1850 he listed some of those whom his biscuit would benefit: the Navy and all men at sea; travelers “on long journeys, through destitute regions” where, he pointed out, “the fire for cooking is one of the greatest dangers in Indian country, as it betrays the situation of the camp to the hostile Indians”; geologists and surveyors; explorers “in making geological and mineralogical surveys of our newly acquired territories, as well as those running the boundary”; hospitals, where “a patient can, at the shortest notice, have it prepared to any degree of nutrition, from a weak broth to the most nutritious soup”; and all families, “especially in warm weather.” Elisha Kent Kane’s first Arctic expedition carried several canisters of Borden’s meat biscuits. Hoping to secure acceptance of the meat biscuit by physicians and by the United States Army, Borden made a partner of Dr. Ashbel Smith, a Yale graduate and surgeon-general to the Texas Republic. Smith, whose main use was in public relations, wrote an article for De Bow’s Review explaining how the manufacture of meat biscuits would help diversify Southern industry. At the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, in May 1851, Smith exhibited the Meat Biscuit alongside other ingenious American products, including Herring’s Patent Salamander Safe (£500 to anybody who could pick the lock), Colt’s revolver, and McCormick’s Virginia Reaper. When it happened that Dr. Ashbel Smith was the American appointed to the international jury a consequence was that the highest award for contribution to the food industry went to Gail Borden of Texas.
“It appears to be a part of the mission of America,” Dr. Smith boasted, “… not merely to furnish a home to refugees from the oppressions and crowded population of the old world, but also, to feed in part the poor of those countries who never taste good meat: and to whom, even a miserable flesh is a great rarity.” Borden spent six years and $60,000 in promoting his meat biscuit. But the powerful suppliers of fresh meat to the Army made it difficult for Borden’s biscuit to get a fair trial. There were other problems, too. When people complained that Borden’s biscuit was “unsightly” and unpalatable, Borden himself confessed that he alone really knew how to prepare his biscuit. Frederick Law Olmsted on his travels through Texas finally fed his meat biscuit to the birds, declaring that he would “decidedly undergo a very near approach to the traveler’s last bourne, before having recourse to it.” But even before the meat biscuit had plainly failed, Borden had turned to an even better idea which before the end of the century would make the name of Borden a synonym for milk.
ON THE ROUGH OCEAN VOYAGE back from the London exhibition in the fall of 1851, one story goes, Borden learned that the cows in the ship’s hold became so seasick that they could not be milked. When he heard the hungry cries of the immigrant babies, he began to wonder whether he could not somehow use his condensing technique to provide milk for such emergencies. This was a difficult assignment, for milk was the most fragile of foods, which people all over the world had vainly tried to find ways to preserve in fresh and tasty form. To make cheese was, of course, a kind of answer to the problem. But Borden determined to find some way to condense whole milk.
Luckily, Borden did not know enough to be confused by the theories of the day, all of which had proved that it couldn’t be done. So Borden simply tried his own hand with a panful of milk. In Europe there had been some success in evaporating milk for preservation, but none of the products had been marketable. And Borden probably did not know of them.
Preserving milk in some form was not too difficult. But preserving quality and taste were quite another matter. First Borden boiled milk in an open pan on a sand bath heated by charcoal, and then he added brown sugar. When the resulting liquid was sealed in glass, it would keep for months, but it had a dark color and smelled like molasses. At the Shaker Colony in New Lebanon, New York, where Borden first saw a vacuum pan, he obtained one, and with it tried condensing milk. But as the milk was heated it stuck to the side of the pan, then foamed and boiled over. Experts advised him to give up, but Borden merely greased the pan, and in that remarkably simple way perfected his technology of condensing milk. Borden’s innovation was in fact so simple that he had trouble convincing the patent commissioners in Washington that he had done anything really new. But with a testimonial from the editor of the Scientific American and with a pile of charts and affidavits, he finally persuaded the patent officials that he had invented an essential new item: evaporating milk in a vacuum.
Borden’s intuitive explanation, though not designed to satisfy a modern organic chemist, showed his talent for going to the heart of the matter. Milk, like blood, he said, was a “living fluid” and “as soon as drawn from the cow begins to die, change, and decompose.” The vacuum would keep the milk from “dying” until it had been sealed. In 1856, Borden received both English and American patents.
Even before his condensed milk had found a market, Borden was trying to condense coffee, tea, and “other useful dietary matters.” Condensing became his obsession. “I mean to put a potato into a pillbox, a pumpkin into a tablespoon, the biggest sort of watermelon into a saucer … The Turks made acres of roses into attar of roses…. I intend to make attar of everything!”
Condensed milk quickly proved to be a commercial success. Enlisting the financial support of a wealthy New York wholesale grocer whom he happened to meet on a train, Borden founded the New York Condensed Milk Company, and in 1858, in a village about a hundred miles north of the city, established his first large-scale milk-condensing plant. Neighboring farmers brought their milk to his factory, where it was condensed before being taken into the city. And in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for May 22, 1858, an advertisement, probably written by Borden himself, announced:
BORDEN’S CONDENSED MILK, Prepared in Litchfield County, Conn., is the only Milk ever concentrated without the admixture of sugar or some other substance, and remaining easily soluble in water. It is simply Fresh Country Milk, from which the water is nearly all evaporated, and nothing added. The Committee of the Academy of Medicine recommend it as “an article that, for purity, durability and economy, is hitherto unequalled in the annals of the Milk Trade.”
One quart, by the addition of water, makes 2½ quarts, equal to cream—5 quarts rich milk, and 7 quarts good milk.
For sale at 173 Canal Street, or delivered at dwellings in New York and Brooklyn, at 25 CENTS per quart.
It was a strategic moment to bring a superior milk product into the New York market. For at the time the city was shaken by scandals of “milk murder.” The same newspaper which carried Borden’s advertisement had been rousing New Yorkers by its exposure of the needlessly high infant mortality rate, caused, it said, by filthy milk. The milk then commonly distributed in the city was called “swill-milk” because it came from city cows fed on distillers’ “swill” or “still-slops,” the residue from the distilleries. Such milk contained almost no butterfat, and to cover up its unsavory blue, it had to be artificially colored. Manure and milk were hauled in the same wagons, and Leslie’s told tales of how sick cows were propped up for a last milking before they expired. The city swill-dairies were a kind of “Vesuvius which belched forth intolerable and stinking stench.” Swill-milk, the leading dairy authority reported, had an effect “on the system of young children … very destructive, causing diseases of various kinds, and, if continued, certain death.”
With Borden’s dairy-fresh sanitary product, the sales of the New York milk routes increased, and more routes were added. Borden set a new standard of cleanliness and quality, sending his inspectors out into the countryside where they instructed the dairy farmers. He took no milk from cows that had calved within twelve days, and he required that udders be washed in warm water before milking, that barns be clean, and that manure be kept away from the milking stalls. He demanded that the wire-cloth strainers be scalded and dried morning and night. Inspectors at the factory rejected milk that arrived with a temperature above 58 degrees. In many ways this complicated the lives of farmers, but it simplified their lives, too. For Borden had turned the dairy farmer into a milk wholesaler, who no longer had to peddle his milk around the countryside, nor did he have to churn butter or mold cheese. The farmer who had made a contract with Borden and continued to meet the Borden standards could deliver his milk to the factory dock and receive a regular check from the company.
When the Civil War broke out, then, Borden was ready to supply the Army. One of his sons, John Gail, was fighting for the Union, while his other son, Lee, had joined the Texas Cavalry on the side of the Confederacy. But the Union Army bought Borden’s condensed milk as a field ration and Borden himself was committed to the Union. Even after his New York plant was turning out sixteen thousand quarts a day, he still could not keep up with the government orders, so he licensed plants in other parts of the country. By the end of 1866 the Elgin, Illinois, plant alone was purchasing from farmers nearly a third of a million gallons of milk each year.
In 1875, a year after Gail Borden’s death, the Borden Company began selling fluid fresh whole milk. Although his company now was stricter than ever in its standards for dairy farmers, there were limits to what it could do. Bacterial count as a test for milk was still unknown, and the only standard of sanitation was how the milk was produced and handled. Milk was still delivered by ladling it out of large cans into the buyer’s container. Until milk was bottled at the dairy and distributed in smaller units in closed containers, it was impossible to insure sanitary fresh milk in the home. By 1885 the Borden Company, under Gail’s elder son, was beginning to sell milk in bottles. But it was another decade before Louis Pasteur’s work made bacterial count a standard for market milk and “pasteurization” became widespread; and still another twenty years before the tuberculin testing of cattle was protecting children against tuberculosis. In one state after another, medical commissions were set up to “certify” milk.
WHILE BORDEN WAS finding ways to condense milk and put it into a can to be kept indefinitely, scores of other enterprising Americans were finding ways to bring everything to everybody year-round. The basic process of canning had been invented by a French wine maker and food supplier, Nicolas Appert, who won a prize from Napoleon in 1809 for finding a new way of supplying fresh provisions for the French navy. Appert had invented the cooking and sealing process which produced a flourishing canning industry in nineteenth-century Europe, and with a few basic improvements, continued in use into the twentieth century.
In the 1840’s the American canning industry gained momentum. Corn, tomatoes, peas, and fish were canned for travelers journeying to California. Baltimore, on Chesapeake Bay, where the oysters, crabs, and fish were plentiful, became the first great American canning center. But canning techniques were still rudimentary, and when they went awry, a whole season’s pack could be spoiled. Since the processing with boiling water took up to six hours for each batch, even the most efficient canners could produce no more than two or three thousand cans a day.
The outbreak of the Civil War gave the great impetus. The Union commandeered Borden’s output of canned milk for the Army, but if the Army’s needs were to be supplied, there would have to be a faster way to process canned goods. The maximum temperature of water boiling in an open container was 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Earlier in the century the English chemist Sir Humphry Davy had found that adding calcium chloride increased the temperature of boiling water to 240 degrees or above. In 1861, when a Baltimore canner, Isaac Solomon, made use of this discovery, he at once cut the average processing time from six hours to a half-hour. During the war many men had their first taste of canned foods, in army camps, on gunboats and in hospitals; and when the armed forces dispersed, they carried the word all over the country. While the demand for canned goods was still small, the canners had remained near the ocean, where they could put up oysters, lobsters, and other seafood for part of the year, and keep their plants at work processing small quantities of fruits and vegetables at other times. Now, with a widespread demand for all sorts of foods in cans, large-scale canneries appeared inland, in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and elsewhere. In the decade after 1860 the number of cans of food put up annually rose from five million to thirty million.
Large-scale canning required containers by the thousands. Appert’s original process for “canning” was actually a scheme for preserving food in glass containers. About the same time an Englishman had patented a technique for preserving food in tin. But cans were still fashioned by hand, and a tinsmith could make only sixty in a whole day. Then during the early nineteenth century, Americans improved tin cans and made machinery to turn them out by the thousands—machines for stamping out the tops and bottoms, for soldering the joint on the side, and for crimping and sealing the top. By 1880 a single machine worked by two men with two boys helping could turn out fifteen hundred cans in one day. Tinsmiths, who saw themselves being displaced, defended their jobs by arguing that machine-made cans were a menace to health. The solder used on the can-manufacturing machines, they said, was poisonous; and for a while some people would not eat food from a machine-made can. But by the 1920’s more than a billion and a half pounds of tin plate was annually being made into cans. The tin can had begun to play its new leading role helping the American housewife—and cluttering the American landscape.