Soldiers in Aprons: The Housewives Who Changed America

100 Years ago this month… something happened in Ohio. Something that would have a huge impact on life as we know it and will likely       continue to affect life for a very long time.  No, it didn’t involve the construction of new buildings, or the fighting of a great war, or the brilliant oratory of a long-winded speaker or even the breakthrough of a dazzling new invention. For this event was as quiet and simple as the passage a new law. A new set of laws that would for the first time ever in Ohio,  create meaningful food purity standards. These were passed by the state legislature in May of 1913,  in concert with the new federal standards created to protect consumers from unhealthy and dangerous foods, and/or unscrupulous vendors and retailers.  Some might call it the birth of the nanny state.  If so, we can thank our grandmothers for its conception and delivery, for much of the labor to create these regulatory bureaucracies were driven by the determination of housewives, the everyday homemakers who were fed up with spoiled food, tainted products and the callous indifference of the retail food industry to sanitation issues.   This was 1913 America. When government regulation and oversight of such home and hearth  matters were few and far between.  After, all this was women’s work.  It was Mom’s job to run the house and to make sure that she got what she paid for. And that’s just what she did.  Until the early part of the 20th century,  it was largely believed that food safety and inspection should be up to the shopper and not the government. Caveat Emptor as they say. Sounds good in the abstract, but the women were not pleased with the daily reality of being ripped off or sickened from adulterated and poisoned food and drugs they bought at the local stores.  Food borne illnesses were commonplace, and sadly many would result in death.  As mass production of food products became even more pervasive in this new industrial age of the 20th century, the worries about what was in the packaged and prepared food increased.  With few laws or regulations, and without the right to vote, the women of America didn’t let that deter them from their desire to buy food and drugs they could trust. What they lacked in political power they made up for in sheer numbers and their determination to get the job done.  If the food industry couldn’t regulate itself, the women will find ways to get it done,  and, at the same time pressure the government to join them in their fight.  Thus, by 1910, was born the movement to create and nurture a network of women’s groups across the country giving rise to consumer advocacy. First started in New York,  new chapters of the “Housewives League” began springing up in just about every corner of the country with local groups of women and wives ready to do battle in the marketplace to force the stores and food producers to clean up their act.   They also lobbied hard for more government involvement so that basic standards could be expected for food purity and measurements.  These women’s groups, especially the Housewives League, were not to be ridiculed or taken lightly. The voice of the women, throughout the country, became loud and powerful.  A dynamic force for change in the way stores and retailers did business. By 1913, the New York Times wrote of how these women, 750,000 strong, were not just complaining but effectively organizing and setting up local chapters which would often rate stores on four main criteria, namely, fair prices, clean shops, pure products, and efficiency.  Each store was rated by the women of the league. A bad rating could be a business killer. (move over Angies’ list!) While a 75% might be considered an “acceptable” score, the Housewives League continued to lobby those stores for improvements. Stores that didn’t comply or allow the League to rate them, were blacklisted.  Many soon came to their senses and complied with the demands of the housewives whose tenacity was rivaled only by their sheer power in the marketplace.

Toledo Housewives Were Leaders in Movement

Toledo had its Housewives League, as well, when it was formed in 1914 with 85 local women.  One of their first successes was to force what we now call the downtown “farmer’s market” to allow the general public to buy merchandise and products there on an equal footing with the local grocers and merchants, so they couldn’t monopolize the popular city food market which was located at that time on Superior Street. This victory opened the gates to the potential that housewives could bypass

One of Toledo's Early Farm Markets on Spielbusch Ave.

One of Toledo’s Early Farm Markets on Spielbusch Ave.

the stores altogether and go directly to the farmers for their foods, increasing the odds for fresher and safer products, putting even more pressure on the food retailers to make changes. The Housewives League, however, continued its crusade to apply more leverage on the industry itself and on state lawmakers to pass legislation that would have the power of the government behind it.

In CChicago Meat packing Plantolumbus the passage of the new food purity laws in 1913 were just part of a much wider ongoing campaign through the U.S to meet the rising tide of concerns about food safety.  A tide of concern that had been pushed along by the publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, a shocking expose of the filthy and squalid conditions of Chicago’s massive meatpacking houses.  The book served to ramp up the fears and jitters of an American marketplace fraught with mysterious new substances being added to foods for taste or filler.

Chicago Meat Packing House

A  Case in Point:  Prior to the state of Ohio having any enforceable legal standards, the  Ohio Food and Dairy Commission conducted routine tests of certain food products in an effort to find out just what ingredients were actually being used in each brand of food. In one test in 1888, in Ohio, it was found that of 30 different brands of baking powder tested, 20 of them were filled with “alum”. This early expose was shocking to many.  “Alum” it was written,  “was considered by the highest medical authorities to be injurious to health when used in food.” (It still is considered unhealthy to consume alum as a food product, although it is used in a variety of applications.) The Ottawa Illinois Free Trader, then detailed a complete list of each brand and the percentage of alum or other ingredients used in the powders. While we tend these days to take the matter of food purity for granted, our grandparents did not.

Housewives League meeting in Detroit

Housewives League meeting in Detroit

As a result, the purity question became a major sales tool as food companies often touted their brands as the “purest and safest”.  In many cities, including Toledo, so called “pure food” shows became quite popular as housewives could come to the show to see the exhibits that would demonstrate why a particular brand of food product should be considered safer than its competitors.   In January of 1926, A “pure foods” show in Pittsburgh was reported to have  broken all attendance records as people gathered by the thousands to take in the exhibits and to sample everything from milk to tea.

The REAL Housewives of  America  

The Housewives League meanwhile grew in power and influence and busied itself in a wide variety of issues pertaining to food safety and sanitation. In Detroit and Toledo, one area of concern was how bread was sold. The idea of loaves sitting on the shelves and being exposed to indiscriminate handling by many public fingers was looked upon with disgust and prompted a campaign to force bakers and sellers to wrap their loaves of bread. Mary Alice Powell, the long time food reporter at the Toledo Blade wrote in a 1964 Blade article that one Toledo Housewives League member recalls that the “bread was full of germs fingered by consumers try to find the freshest loaf”. The 1964 article goes on to point out that a petition by the women gathered some 15,000 signatures in Toledo, demanding that retail grocers and bakers to wrap their bread when put on the shelves. When no action was taken in Columbus, the women took their case to Washington and soon thereafter, “wrapped bread loaves” became the legal standard in the state and elsewhere.     Mary Alice Powell also writes that it was the Toledo Housewives who also claimed victory in the fight to have milk sold in clean bottles. Prior to 1919 in Ohio, most milk buyers had to take their own milk jugs and containers to a traveling milk wagon in the city to get them filled. The Housewives League thought this was unsanitary and needed to be fixed. Once again, they took their concerns to state lawmakers and got laws passed to require that milk be sold only in sanitized bottles. Ohio was first to require this, soon followed by other states.

You can also thank the Housewives League every time you go to the grocery store and don’t have to pay sales tax on your food items. Yes it was those pesky women from Toledo and elsewhere in the state who thought food shouldn’t be taxed. In 1947, the Housewives League fought for and eventually won the battle to remoHousewives leagueve the taxes from your food.   The Housewives League stayed active in the Toledo area even into the 1960’s and 70’s, but by the mid 1990’s, the League disbanded. Not sure why.  Maybe it was a lack of interest, or a lack of time, but certainly not a lack of issues. While they may be somewhat different than they were back in 1913 when the first food safety laws were enacted, food and consumer issues continue to demand much of our attention. We have just as many concerns about what we eat and put on the dinner table as our grandmothers did 100 years ago  – whether it’s general health and nutrition, genetically modified foods, antibiotics in our meats, or mercury in our fish.  The writer can only wonder how will ours’ and future generation fight for the purity of the food?

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May 16, 2013 · 2:59 pm

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