Tracking history via a trail of paper crumbs

You might think "buy fresh, buy local" is a new thing, but William Woys Weaver has proof it's been around a whole lot longer.

At the top of a circa-1880 menu for Vogleson's restaurant, then at the corner of Downtown Pittsburgh's Sixth Street and Liberty Avenue, the proprietor notes that "The Milk and Cream served here is supplied by the Economy Society, Economy, Pa."

"They were sourcing locally" and proud of it, eager to promote the quality ingredients they bought from the Harmonists, Mr. Weaver said over the phone from Roughwood, his rambling log, stone and timber-frame house in Devon, Montgomery County, outside Philadelphia.

Roughwood -- the circa-1805 former Lamb Tavern, listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- has been Mr. Weaver's home base since 1979, the place where he has grown an international reputation as a culinary historian, heirloom gardener, seed-saver extraordinaire and author of 15 books.

The latest, published this month by the University of California Press, is "Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History" of menus, labels, postcards, business cards, valentines and other food-related paper castoffs.

"The discards of our shared culinary history, like the clues in a Sherlock Holmes detective story, whisper to us from long-forgotten meals buried in the graveyards of time," he writes. "I like to think of the rustling of these many bits of paper as a conversation spoken in code, a trail of paper in which each piece carries a story about food history and more broadly about some of the fundamental aspects of American culture."

Mr. Weaver, who studied architecture and historic preservation before earning a Ph.D. in food tourism from University College Dublin, looked for the symbolism and meaning behind each piece of ephemera, digging deep for its original context.

"This stuff has little insights that I find appealing," he said. "It's one way to document art history and social history, particularly."

Far more than the "literary amuse-bouche" Mr. Weaver offers it up as in the preface, "Culinary Ephemera" ($39.95) brings a scholarly and opinionated approach to the subject, leavening it with a gentle, sometimes biting humor.

It is, as you might expect, a very visual book, with faithful, full-color reproductions of 352 vintage graphics, most printed between 1850 and 1950, that Mr. Weaver has collected over the years or tracked down in libraries.

Measuring about 8 inches square, it packs a lot of visual punch in its 300 satiny pages. Chapter organization is alphabetical, beginning with "Almanacs and Calendars" and ending with "Wild Cards" -- things that didn't fall neatly into any category, such as the wreath-shaped 1930s Christmas card from "Your Milkman" at Pottstown's Clover Leaf Dairy.

Part of the die-cut card's appeal, Mr. Weaver writes, is "its nostalgic association with door-to-door deliveries of milk, milk sold in returnable bottles, and a method of food retailing that has largely faded into the shadows of history."

Several themes or threads recur throughout the book, including advertising motivation (often sex appeal and class differentiation), regional foods, racial and sex segregation and word origins.

Along the way we learn about the Cuban namesake of the Sloppy Joe sandwich and the culinary etymology of moxie.

The original "Moxie" was a Massachusetts-based soft drink with a peculiar taste. "The name entered slang usage in the late 1920s: a person with moxie was one who could face difficulty with courage," Mr. Weaver writes, because "if you could stand to drink Moxie, you could face just about anything."

Menus make up one of the largest groups of culinary ephemera and bring some of the highest prices. To the collector, they "are blessed with social significance and full of stories," offering insight into, among other things, travel (steamboat and railroad menus), politics (state banquets) and, of course, food. Menus act as a "road map of the formulation of a distinctly American cuisine" as it travels through foreign and regional influences and products.

Several Pittsburgh items make the book, including the Vogleson's menu, printed on the back of a trade card and featuring ice cream, water ices, cake and fruit.

"It's all sweets," Mr. Weaver said, "light and sweet."

The pretty menu was designed to appeal to women, who had their own entrance through Vogleson's confectionery store and their own lunch room -- men and women dined separately in those days.

Another Pittsburgh item is the 1870s business card of J.F. Hoffman & Co., pie bakers at 128 Third Ave.": "Pic-Nics, Parties & Boarding Houses Supplied at the Shortest Notice."

The card is "interesting for its use of 'O.K,' a purely American colloquial expression, in the firm's advertising logo," Mr. Weaver writes. Then he's off tracking down the origins of "O.K.," a political cry of the 1840s that began with the Old Kinderhook Club, Kinderhook being the Hudson Valley, N.Y., home of Martin Van Buren.

"It joins a long roster of words and catchphrases that food vendors have used over time to give their products a sense of trendiness," he writes.

Ephemera have influenced our cooking, too: A 1946 recipe for fish casserole, printed on the inside of a Hunt's Foods matchbook promoting the company's canned tomato sauce, likely reached more households than any cookbooks printed that year.

Mr. Weaver, who's been collecting "culinary rubbish" since the 1960s at antiques shops, flea markets and auctions, learned that beer ephemera "quickly overtake wine-related collectibles like a moving avalanche of hops," partly because from America's earliest days, wine was suppressed and taxed as "an affectation of the rich or the unduly foreign."

Beer doesn't have to be sold in state stores in Pennsylvania, he notes, because it had the backing of the labor unions, which wine did not -- something the paper trail from all over the country makes clear, he writes.

Also of interest to Pennsylvanians is the author's investigation of the Quaker Oats Co.'s appropriation of William Penn as its advertising icon, an image he believes it lifted from a cough syrup maker, who registered Penn as its trademark in 1846. After the Religious Society of Friends sued the cereal company, the Quaker began looking more like Ben Franklin, "who was neither a Quaker nor one to dress in plain clothes."

In any case, Mr. Weaver writes, the Quaker logo no longer resonates with consumers.

"It has lost its relevance because the public today does not understand the reason for the image. The new Quaker is Amish, a word that is emerging as the term of choice for all things marketed as pure, healthy, farm fresh and traditional."

First Published October 21, 2010 4:00 AM


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