Hard Cider and the Election of 1840

1840 Campaign Almanac

1840 Campaign Almanac

Over the last decade, the United States has experienced a cider renaissance, with new craft cider makers coming on the scene in virtually every region of the nation. Today’s craft cider makers are making extraordinary efforts to produce fine single variety and blended ciders, and their efforts are paying off. As an American historian, and someone who delights in both eating and drinking apples, the rebirth of American cider is an exciting time. From the early colonial period, throughout the first half of the the 19th century, Americans consumed great quantities of cider. But if the truth be told, American cider in these early years was not always top quality. European visitors often wrote disparagingly of America’s early cider makers, claiming that they often pressed half rotten and worm-eaten apples, and were haphazard in the way they monitored the fermentation process. Quantity, not quality, appeared to be the over-riding value for many American cider makers, and most of the cider was consumed at home or bartered locally.  But cider was cheap and widely available, and had earned a reputation as the common man’s drink. It is perhaps no surprise then, that in an age of rising populism in politics, hard cider would emerge as the symbol of a candidate courting the common man’s vote.

The election campaign of 1840 was a watershed moment in American politics.  Voter turnout among eligible voters reached an all-time high, with nearly 80% of those eligible casting their vote.  It also represented an opportunity for the relatively new William_Henry_Harrison_Presidential_$1_Coin_obverseWhig party to finally gain control of the White House.  Since his election to the Presidency in 1828, Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party had  dominated American politics by successfully presenting itself as the party of the common man.   But in 1840, the nation was still plunged in the depression brought on by the financial Panic of 1837 and voters were discontent. The dangers of a unpredictable national market rekindled a bit of nostalgia for the “simpler times” of the frontier, self-provisioning farms, and local trade among many voters, and in 1840 the Whig Party was ready to exploit this nostalgia. After settling on old war hero William Henry Harrison for their presidential candidate, the Whigs were handed an opportunity when a Democratic newspaper, suggesting that Harrison was too old to run for president sneered, “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin by the side of his ‘sea coal’ fire, and study moral philosophy.”

Harrison supporters seized on the log cabin and hard cider elements of the insult to suggest that Democratic President Van Buren and his supporters were elitists who disdained the lifestyle of the simple self-provisioning, cider-making and cider-drinking farmer.

Pull the tab and Van Buren is unhappy to find his fancy champagne replaced with common cider.

Pull the tab and Van Buren is unhappy to find his fancy champagne replaced with common cider.

One Harrison campaign souvenir was a paper card with an image which changed when a tab was pulled on the bottom. The first image the viewer encountered was of an aristocratic-looking Van Buren, smiling as he sipped fancy “White House Champagne” from a goblet.  Once the tab was pulled, the goblet was replaced with “an ugly mug of log cabin hard cider,” Van Buren’s eyes rolled up into his head, as he made the familiar “bitter beer face” expression.  The message was clear: this guy thinks he’s too good to drink what you and I drink. Don’t vote for him!

Harrison's log cabin. Sea coal burning in the fireplace, barrels of hard cider stacked outside.

Harrison’s log cabin in 1840 campaign literature. Sea coal burning in the fireplace, barrels of hard cider stacked outside.

Harrison’s supporters declared their man to be the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate, a perverse political twist on many levels. Far from being born in a log cabin, Harrison was born on a James River plantation, a descendant of one of Virginia’s elite, slaveholding families. Even most of his days as a military officer in the West were spent at Grouseland, a magnificent estate, surrounded by grafted fruit trees and gardens, which he had built in Vincennes during his time as governor of the Indiana territory.  In a more transparently ironical way, Harrison supporters built old fashioned log cabins on the decks of modern steamboats and powered from town to town to win votes for their hard cider drinking hero.

Berkeley Plantation, Harrison's actual birthplace.

Berkeley Plantation, Harrison’s actual birthplace. No cider barrels evident.

While the “hard cider” meme went over quite well with ordinary voters, it threatened to alienate one of the Whig Party’s most loyal interests: the temperance movement. Temperance reformers had been working to eradicate cider orchards since the late 1820s, and they threatened to abandon the party for promoting alcohol consumption.

The Temperance movement's take on the Hard Cider Campaign

The Temperance movement’s take on the Hard Cider Campaign

Intemperance has become the badge of a political party!” harrumphed the New York Evangelist. “Yes, intelligent men–men who have enjoyed the benefits of Christian teachings–and who live in a land of gospel light–are called upon to exhibit their enthusiasm for political strife, by drinking hard cider, made harder by hard brandy, for the Glory of General Harrison!” The Evangelist predicted that “more than ten thousand men will be made drunkards in one year by this hard cider enthusiasm.” A writer in another New York paper, declaring it “a burning shame that the flag of my country waves over such mockery and abomination, as though her stars and stripes were not insulted by being associated with such iniquity,” issued a warning to the Harrison campaign. Should these grog-dispensing log cabins be opened on “Sunday, either day or night,” the Whigs would lose the votes of so many temperance men that it would negate the effect of this pandering.

Harrison-log-cabin-campaignBut however much the log cabin and hard cider campaign exasperated temperance Whigs, the strategy worked. Americans, troubled by the economic malaise that had fallen upon the country in 1837, embraced a nostalgia for a simpler time when their fates were not tied to mysterious market forces beyond their control. Log cabins and hard cider were a perfect symbol of that lost past. Hard apple cider represented not just a celebration of the disappearing self-provisioning lifestyle, but it was also a protest against do-gooder moral reformers bent on telling ordinary people how to live and what to drink. It did not seem to matter that the Whig Party’s soft money, pro-development economic policy promised to accelerate the market revolution, or that those moral do-gooders were most commonly associated with the Whig party. This was political triangulation at its finest. Voters were won over by the celebration of the seedling apple orchard and its homegrown product. And it worked. Harrison defeated Van Buren handily.

Van Buren being chased by a flying barrel of hard cider.

Van Buren being chased by a flying barrel of hard cider.

The campaign may well have proved to be a curse for hard cider, however.  As the economy improved after 1843, nostalgia for “the olden days” quickly faded, and the 1840 campaign had pretty thoroughly linked cider with those old, primitive ways.  As German immigrants flooded into North America, many established breweries, and beer, not associated with those unrefined frontier days, began to replace cider as the beverage of choice. Today’s craft cideries may finally be undoing the damage done by the Whig Party and their “hard cider campaign.”

An Unnatural History of Orange Juice

McPhee.oranges.1In 1965 John McPhee drove down to Florida during the harvest season, anticipating the opportunity to taste Florida’s famous orange juice at its freshest. When he stopped at a state welcome center promising free Florida orange juice, he was disappointed to be handed a small cup of juice reconstituted from frozen concentrate. Along the highway he noticed a sign for a restaurant which advertised orange juice, the word “fresh” still barely visible after being covered in white paint. And at a motel restaurant surrounded by orange groves, a waitress explained to him that all they offered was reconstituted juice. In 1965, nobody wanted fresh orange juice.  “Fresh is either too sour or too watery or too something,” the waitress explained. “Frozen is the same every day. People want to know what they’re getting.” McPhee wandered through the brave new world of hydroponically grown trees and frozen concentrated orange juice as an outsider—a man from another, much earlier time.  His description of the Florida citrus industry in an earlier stage of its embrace of industrialized processes is a fascinating read today, and it leaves the reader wondering if he had any idea what the next half century would bring. Could he have predicted that in 2013, most Americans would abandon the frozen concentrate, which seemed the height of modern back in the 1960s, and instead embrace something officially called “not-from-concentrate” because they believed–wrongly–it was somehow more authentic and natural, and, well, almost “fresh?”

Graphic from Business Week.

Graphic from Business Week.

Today the biggest American orange juice brands are subsidiaries of the two soda pop giants, Coke and Pepsi. A recent article in Business Week describes the very complex processes employed by soda giants to deliver consistent, “fresh-tasting” orange juice to grocery stores twelve months a year:  “The raw juice is . . . flash-pasteurized and piped to storage tanks as large as 2 million gallons each for up to eight months. Inside the tanks, the juice is slowly agitated at the bottom so it doesn’t settle. A nitrogen gas blanket at the top keeps out rot-inducing oxygen. Batches of juice from various crops and seasons are segregated based on features such as orange type, sweetness, and acidity. In-season juice is typically mixed with off-season juice.” Flavor essences are extracted from rind and pith, then eventually reintroduced into the juice. Coca Cola chemists employ an algorithm they call “Black Book” to ensure that the juices from these older and newer oranges, as well as the flavor essences, are mixed exactly right to achieve perfect consistency in taste.

squeezedThe juices created by these processes appear in the supermarket under brand names like Simply Orange, which touts itself as “honestly simple” and Tropicana Pure Premium, which declares itself to be “100% Pure and Natural.” To be fair, anyone who takes the time to visit Tropicana’s website can watch this video “Grove to Glass: How Tropicana Makes Juice,” and learn how complex the process actually is. But is it deceptive to declare that these juices are “honestly simple,” “fresh-tasting” and “100% Pure and Natural” on their labels? Alissa Hamilton, author of Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice argues that the typical consumer of orange juice believes they are getting something closer to fresh, when they plunk down extra coin for juices that tout themselves as “not from concentrate” and “never frozen.”

Perhaps Americans, caught between the conflicting desires for fresh and natural, on one hand, and convenience, consistency, and “permanent global summertime” on the fresh a perishableother are willingly bamboozled. Or perhaps the very meaning of terms like “natural” and “fresh” are in flux. In her fascinating book Fresh: A Perishable History Susan Freidberg contends that the very meaning of the word “fresh” has changed as we have developed new technologies to keep things from spoiling. Freidberg examines the changing meanings of “fresh” for a range of food products, from fruits and vegetables to milk, fish, and beef. “On the surface, few food qualities seem as unquestionably good as freshness. Dig a little deeper,” Freidberg warns, “and few qualities appear more complex and contested. At bottom, the history of freshness reveals much about our uneasy appetites for modern living, especially in the United States.”

The History of Peanut Butter

creamy and crunchyNow many of you out there are probably assuming that my diet consists almost entirely of apples.  While it is true, in fact, that my diet might make me a suitable resident of many an early 19th century radical utopian community, the truth is that if there is one food I consume more than any other, it is certainly peanut butter.  So I was absolutely delighted to discover this new history of my favorite spreadable legume, Cream and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food.  Among the fascinating things I learned in this book is that southerners tend to prefer their peanut butter a bit sweeter, while midwesterners lean toward the saltier varieties, and New Englanders appear to be somewhere in between.  Being midwestern born and raised, at least in my formative peanut-butter years, this helps to explain my undying loyalty to Skippy and my utter disdain for the sickly sweet Jif.  At one time Skippy dominated the American peanut butter market, but slowly and steadily Jif gained and then surpassed my old standby, until Skippy relented and sweetened their formula to stay in the game.   It appears that sweet peanut butter is just another manifestation of the rising cultural hegemony of the South, along with sweet tea, Nashville Country, and NASCAR.

These days I prefer my peanut butter less processed and more local, and my favorite

No salt, no sugar, no hydrogenated oils. all spanish peanuts!

No salt, no sugar, no hydrogenated oils. all spanish peanuts!

brand is made by the Krema Nut Company of Columbus, Ohio.  But it wasn’t until I read Creamy and Crunchy that I understood why the Krema Nut Company‘s peanut butter tastes so much better than all the rest: it is one of just a few nut butters in the country made from Spanish peanuts. Most brands use a peanut with the unappetizing name “runner,” prized by Big Peanut Butter for its uniform-sized nuts which roast evenly, its rather bland flavor, and it high percentage of shelf-life-extending oleic oils (at the expense of slightly healthier linoleic oils), making it “the very essence of a corporate peanut.”

So if you love peanut butter, and you love history, I recommend you go out and pick up a copy of Creamy and Crunchy.  But remember to wash your hands before reading, as peanut oil will stain the pages.