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.”

The Promise and Perils of Restoring Battlefield Orchards


Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

The new Sherfy orchard at dawn, May 2013

The new Sherfy orchard at dawn, May 2013

It was about six days into my eleven day Civil War study tour that I realized that replanting orchards at historical parks had become something of a movement. It wasn’t that I was completely unaware of this. I had read Susan Dolan’s  excellent Fruitful Legacy: A Historic Context of Orchards in the United States, which catalogues historic orchards at National Parks sites and also offers a nice historical overview of orchard agriculture in America. I was aware that the Gettysburg National Military Park had replanted the historic Sherfy Orchard. But as we visited one Civil War site after another, and my students rolled their eyes each time I asked a ranger or interpreter about orchards at that particular place, I was happily surprised at how many of them were planning or already in the process of restoring historic orchards.

Heritage Apple Orchard at Belle Grove Plantation

Heritage Apple Orchard at Belle Grove Plantation

Gettysburg has replanted dozens of orchards on their historic sites, and now that they have removed the old Cyclorama building, they intend to replant a historic orchard on that site as well. The oldest trees in Antietam’s restored Piper Orchard are now more than ten years old. The privately-run Belle Grove Plantation on the Cedar Creek battlefield now has a small orchard, of heritage apples and is also keeping honeybees.

Young peach tree in front of Grant's Cabin, City Point

Young peach tree in front of Grant’s Cabin, City Point

At Grant’s Headquarters at City Point on the James River, which had been the Richard Eppes plantation before the war, a few fruit trees have been replanted on the grounds. More significantly, the National Parks Service commissioned a study by the Olmsted Foundation which scoured sketches and paintings of the Eppes Plantation, Richard Eppes’ diaries and account books at the Virginia Historical Society, as well as the letters and diaries of other visitors to the plantation just before or during the time it served as Grant’s headquarters to determine what Eppes planted and where.  They are using that study as a blueprint for a gradual restoration of Eppes’ original landscaping, which included a wide range of fruit trees scattered about the property.

Irvin McDowel went 0-2 at Manassas.  But he loved the local apples.

Irvin McDowel went 0-2 at Manassas. But he loved the local apples.

Nonetheless, it is easier to decide to restore orchards on historic sites, than it is to actually succeed in these efforts. Our National Parks have been starved for funding for years, and the current sequester will only make an already tight situation tighter.  Privately funded sites like Belle Grove also struggle to meet their payrolls. While visiting the Manassas National Battlefield Park, I was delighted to learn that at least one orchard was mentioned in the story of the Battle of Second Manassas, and that Park Service staff had made some effort to replant trees on the Brawner Farm. It was under the branches of the Brawner apple orchard that the hapless but always hungry Ohio General Irvin McDowell spread out his maps and ate “apples by the basket” as he tried to figure out what his Confederate foes were up to.

Deer have made quick work of the netting at Manassas

Deer have made quick work of the netting at Manassas

When I arrived at the Brawner Farm, however, I was disappointed with what I found. In the middle of a pasture of waist-high grass resided a motley collection of young apple trees, each surrounded by not-so-sturdy deer fence, many of them collapsed in on the trees.  I strode into the wet grass to get a closer look, and found several trees completely entangled in the collapsed deer netting, some of them having been in that condition long enough that they were now growing sideways.  While I didn’t hold out much hope for these trees, I couldn’t leave without making some effort to rescue them, carefully untangling the netted trees while my bemused but patient students waited along a dry path some yards away.

At the Shirley plantation, staff recently planted one peach, one apple, one plum, and one cherry tree where an orchard once stood. Hope they are self-fertile varieties!

At the Shirley plantation, staff recently planted one peach, one apple, one plum, and one cherry tree where an orchard once stood. Hope they are self-fertile varieties!

In the interpretive center at the Brawner Farm, one ranger expressed skepticism about the whole project. The farmhouse that the interpretive center occupies was itself a post-war construction, albeit on the site of an earlier farmhouse that resided on roughly the same footprint.  If the very farmhouse itself was not the same as the one that was there in the midst of the battle, he asked me, what value was there in trying to replant a historic orchard on the site? Was this taking the desire to restore battlefields to their precise pre-battle condition a bit too far?

Given what I know about the effort and resources it takes to care for an orchard—and to protect them from the ravages of deer, insects, and harmful diseases and fungi—I had to conceded that this might not be the wisest use of scarce park resources. At Gettysburg and elsewhere, success in these efforts came only when the historic site found committed and knowledgeable volunteers willing to take responsibility for the trees. I can’t fault the over-stretched staff of Manassas National Battlefield Park for neglect, and instead I applaud their intention. It is my hope that they can find a group of committed volunteers to take over this project. And they will need to invest in some more substantial deer fence.

Volunteers for the Philly Orchard Project.

Volunteers for the Philly Orchard Project.

These local volunteer organizations might learn a great deal by looking at the efforts of Urban Orchard organizations around the country, which would no doubt be great resources for them. These include groups like the Philadelphia Orchard Project, Seattle’s City Fruit, the Portland Fruit Tree Project, the Boston Tree Party, and Los Angeles’ Fallen Fruit collective. These organizations have learned a great deal about the pitfalls and promise of planting and maintaining public orchards. I hope that efforts to replant orchards on federal, state, and private historic sites continues to grow, and am eager to learn about other efforts out there.  Please let me know about other efforts by contributing a comment below.

Liberty Hyde Bailey


lhb3It was Liberty Hyde Bailey’s birthday last week, and I forgot to send a card, or even wish him Happy Birthday on Facebook.  He would have been 155 years old on March 15.  In case you have not heard of Liberty Hyde Bailey, here’s a brief biography, completed after extensive research on wikipedia:

Born on a fruit farm in South Haven, Michigan, Bailey went on to become one of the nation’s most important horticulturists.  He authored sixty-five books on horticulture, countless essays and articles, and was a leader of the Country Life movement, which sought to preserve rural American values and the family farm in an age of urbanization and industrialization.  In Bailey’s efforts to modernize the family farm reside all the age old tensions which have existed between traditional farmers and the agriculture reformers who believed it was their mission to save them. He was central to the development of the Agricultural Extension system which to this day provides support and resources for farmers in many states.  Bailey’s influence on American agrarianism, on horticultural science, and on American agricultural policy was vast.

Today, Bailey’s boyhood home in South Haven, Michigan has been preserved as a museum.  I have not been there, but hope to make a visit this summer.  The museum also hosts a Liberty Hyde Bailey Blog, which highlights Bailey’s writings on agriculture and nature.  They also have a presence on Facebook.  Cornell University also has an excellent online exhibition, Liberty Hyde Bailey: A Man for All Seasons.

New England’s First Cultivated Apple Variety?


When Puritans landed at present-day Charlestown in Massachusetts Bay they discovered they already had an English neighbor across the Charles River, living on the spit of land which would become Boston. William Blaxton (aka Blackstone) had established himself on Beacon Hill several years before. Blackstone invited the newcomers over across to his side, where he had established a farm and an apple orchard. It was a decision he seems to have eventually regretted, as he soon grew tired of Puritan intolerance, and moved to Rhode Island. The apples Blaxton grew on Beacon Hill were called Yellow Sweeting, and later, after his relocation, became widely known as the Rhode Island Greening. I will step out on an apple-tree limb and declare them to be the oldest apple cultivar to be planted in New England. Please feel free to dissent, and share any information you may have about varieties with a stronger claim to that title. Learn more about the Rhode Island Greening and other varieties on the Orange Pippin blog.  Adam’s Apples also has a nice review of the Greening.  Learn more about how people used it in the past at Susan McLellan Plaisted‘s wonderful Bites of Food History blog.

A Brief History of the Irish Cider Apple


White Moss – cider apple. Photo by Mark Jenkinson

White Moss – cider apple. Photo by Mark Jenkinson

I recently discovered the blog Cider Ireland, which has kept me informed on the past and present story of the cider apple on the Emerald Isle.  Contributor Mark Jenkinson informs us that references to apples go back 5000 years in Ireland, and apple cultivation began more than 1000 years ago.  This tidbit from his essay, “A Brief History of Apples and Cider Making in Ireland,” gives us a clue as to the value of apple trees in Medieval Ireland:

“In the 7th and 8th centuries AD the ancient Irish law tracts or Brehon Laws classed the Apple tree among the ‘seven nobles of the woods’ along with Ash, Oak, Hazel, Holly, Scots pine and Yew and they distinguished between wild and cultivated apple trees indicating that sweeter more palatable apples were already being grown at that time. The fine for cutting down one of these trees was 5 milk cows and double that if the tree belonged to a chieftain……..at that time, a King’s ransom to say the least !”

I plan to make tasting some of the new Irish craft ciders a priority on my next trip to Ireland!