The Wild and Crazy History of Baking Powder
The ongoing war over everyone's favorite leavening agent
Baking powder is an essential ingredient in everything from biscuits to pancakes, but when you’re not baking, it’s overlooked, shoved in the corner of your pantry. “Nobody thinks about baking powder,” said food historian Linda Civitello. “Nobody even knows what it is.” But in the 19th century, things were different. Baking powder was a life-changing product for American women, and its popularity led to a vicious battle for marketplace domination, detailed in Civitello’s new book, Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking.
If you were a woman in early America, your worth was tied to the quality of your bread. “Women had these terrible pressures on them to make bread: you’re not a good woman, not a good mother, not a good wife if you’re not making good bread,” Civitello said. Early Americans ate bread for almost every meal. Because they didn’t use preservatives, it quickly became stale (some families scrubbed the walls with their rock-hard bread crusts at the end of the week). Desperate for a leavening agent less finicky than yeast, these women turned to their medicine cabinets. They added smelling salts to their baked goods, but found them hard to dissolve. They tried ammonia, but it made their food smell like pee. Eventually, in the late 1700s, women discovered that pearlash, made from burned plant material, quickly and consistently leavened their food. So what if it also stripped the paint off their floors?
Pearlash simplified life, and ushered in a new, distinctly American category of baked goods relying on leaveners, such as muffins and cookies. Companies were eager to profit off of its popularity by creating something similar. Harvard professor Eben Horsford developed the first baking powder, using monocalcium phosphate, a compound he patented in 1856, made from powdered mutton and beef bones. He combined it with baking soda, producing the first leavener available in stores.
Horsford went on to start Rumford Baking Powder, but a few years later, he faced competition from newcomer Royal Baking Powder. Other competitors soon sprung up, and Royal was willing to resort to vicious tactics to gain control of the market. Royal took advantage of the fact that there were no regulations governing advertising, producing ads accusing competitors who used alum in their baking powders of poisoning their customers. (In one advertisement, Royal declared alum the reason “Why Women Are Nervous.”) Companies fought back with advertisements of their own. They offered $1,000 rewards to any consumers that could prove their baking powder was adulterated, and produced trading cards referencing the delicious meals made with baking powder and how much time it saved (one particularly racist card compared baking powder’s efficacy to having your own slave.)
By 1896, Americans consumed almost 120 million pounds of baking powder annually. It was such a big part of American culture that when missionaries visited Native American reservations, one of their markers of Native American assimilation was whether they used baking powder in their cooking. Royal was determined to maintain their stronghold. The best way to do so, they concluded, would be to pass a law declaring baking powders with alum illegal.
In 1899, the Missouri State Legislature banned the use of alum in food. Locally, Royal’s role in the law was an open secret: senators went to saloons asking for change for the bills Royal had bribed them with. The law put many of Royal’s competitors out of business, and at least twenty shop owners went to jail for selling alum baking powder. The companies using alum tried to fight back through the USDA, where they testified about the safety of their baking powders, with some chronicling how long they had been eating baking powder biscuits as proof. Thanks to one of the era’s muckraking journalists--and a newly popular national press that didn’t rely on Royal-funded advertisements--the public found out about the bribery, and the Missouri law was repealed in 1905. Yet Royal persisted, fighting new competitors like Calumet (whose baking powder was made up of “ground-up aluminium cooking utensils,” Royal claimed) and Clabber Girl (who the KKK targeted for being owned by a German Catholic family).
The baking powder wars ended in the 1920s, when the companies were folded into large conglomerates. Today, Clabber Girl dominates the market, and the once-powerful Royal a lesser competitor. But the issues the baking powder wars raised—what chemicals belong in our food? How can we make things faster?--are still debated. In the book, Civitello talks about the resurgence of laborious bread baking, and when we talked, she told me about a place near her Los Angeles home that promotes its time-intensive yeasted waffles. “People are thinking, wow this is new. It’s not. This is what women have been trying to get away from for 200 years!” she said. Michael Pollan might urge us all to make bread again, but our desire for quicker recipes hasn’t gone away, Civitello writes, pointing to the popularity of desserts like dump-cakes: “We’re still looking for faster ways.”