I feel like I probably spend too much time blogging about Civil War history on this site, when we have so many collections here at Special Collections and University Archives. But, what can I say? I’m not-so-secretly intrigued by reading dead people’s mail (it’s part of why I like working in archives) and Civil War letters are some of my favorites. I’m always surprised by what soldiers or families on the home front were writing to each other, what tidbits seemed of most value at the time, and how those pieces of information can be of interest to people today. I’m always excited to find food references (since my other love is food and drink history) and on more rare occasions, references to alcohol and spirits. This letter, for me, hits the trifecta.
Written from a camp near Petersburg, Virginia on December 15 1864, from Joseph Rule to his “Friend Silas.” Rule was part of Company B, 50th New York Engineers and his letter, among other things, talks about the regiment’s raid on Weldon Railroad, which was a significant supply line for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Like I said, though, I fixate on the stranger stuff. On page two, Rule writes, “we had chickens Turkeys geese Pigs Beef milk Preserves & in fact there was nothing that could be thought at but we had Apple jack there was by the barrel there could hardly be a cavalryman be found sober and there was some foot Soldiers drunk enough.” The fact that this amount and variation of food was available is a testament of sorts, to the success of the raid. As someone who actively goes looking for food and drink references, as I said, spirits and alcohol can be rare. A specific reference to applejack is exciting to see. It is no wonder that Rule reports on the drunkenness of soldiers–the barrel probably wouldn’t have lasted long to begin with and it was likely celebratory consumption, too.
Rule goes on, after his food talk, to detail a bit about the raid and the immediate aftermath–it involved not only destroying railroad tracks, but burning of houses and barns, seemingly in retaliation for the loss of lives in the regiment. Like many letters of the time, he talks about things he misses, has questions about issues at home, and contemplates a future furlough.
The finding aid for the collection has a little bit more detail and you can view it online. If Rule’s handwriting isn’t your thing (it’s not awful, but his punctuation is lacking!), we have digitized this letter. It’s online with the original envelope and a transcription, for your reading pleasure. Our digital site is full of Civil War letters and diaries, offering us tiny looks into the lives of people from 150+ years ago. There doesn’t need to be a lesson in there, but sometimes there can be. I guess, in this case: Don’t dive into your applejack barrels–Make them last a while, instead? (Cheers?)
About two months ago, while staffing the front desk at Special Collections, I took an interesting phone call. A woman called to ask if we really had copies of Ragsdale’s Original Scientific Course of Candy Manufacturing Instructions and, if we did, could she get copies. If I remember correctly, she said that she had found out that Virginia Tech was one of only two libraries that held these materials. The catalog showed that we did, indeed, have it, but since she was interested in obtaining copies, I asked if she would hold the line while I went to retrieve it. “It” turned out to be ten sets of mimeographed sheets, each with a well-designed heavy paper cover and held together by two grommets at its top. “It” also turned out to be something I’d never seen while working here (therein lies the fun, as I have often said before).
I got back to the phone and described what I had in my hands. She was overjoyed. I said that we were talking about approximately 90 scans—not a problem—but that the grommets could be a problem. It would be impossible to scan the sheets without unbinding each set of instructions. Typically, we would want to “remove the metal,” but I would have to see if the grommets could be safely removed without damaging the documents. Ten years as an archivist and I’d never removed grommets. Surprise, surprise!
“I hope you’ll see what you can do,” she said.
I saw no copyright notice, but each of the folders/volumes carried a big WARNING:
I was not too worried about the threat of prosecution from Mr. Ragsdale, and even though the item’s cataloging gave its pub date as 1930 (Worldcat says, “approximately 1930?”), I was more than willing to scan the entire set for our patron . . . if I got past the grommets. That was before I heard the story behind the request.
She was calling from Nebraska. It was the end of March. Her house had been completely flooded in the history-making flood that had occurred about 2 weeks before. These booklets had been in her family for a couple of generations and were cherished. More than that, they were part of her family’s story. And, they were gone. She specifically mentioned the recipe for fruit cake fudge—a great favorite.
That was more than enough for me, and I told her I would get back in touch with her when I knew more. A couple of days later, I reported that the grommets were out and the scanning had begun. I thought I had heard there was a specialty tool for removing grommets, but, in the end, a small pair of wire cutters (used primarily not to cut, but to bend the metal) and an equally small needle-nosed pliers did the trick.
Of course, as I was scanning the materials, I became more interested in their origin. First, Worldcat does report that only Virginia Tech and Rutgers have these materials. (We acquired them in 2013, not that long ago. One of our major collecting areas is the History of Food and Drink.) But what of these lessons, and what might we find out about W. Hillyer Ragsdale?
The lessons were not written for folks who wanted, occasionally, to make candy, but were for entrepreneurs or established small business folks who wanted to make and sell various kinds of confections. The cover page of the booklet titled, Beginner’s Work Sheets and Special Supplement . . . declares:
On page 2 of the same set, under the subhead, Selling Plans, Ragsdale writes: “As you are perfectly aware, the market for candy is absolutely unlimited. Its sale is no longer confined to the corner confectionery store—but department stores, tea rooms, grocery stores, drug stores, cafeterias, office buildings, road stands, amusement parks, fairs, and hotels all sell tremendous quantities.” Ragsdale includes lots of practical advice for the business of selling confections in this folder, everything from buying attractive boxes (cheaply) for display and packaging, to staying up-to-date by reading the appropriate trade papers. As for the recipes in this lesson, they include Almond Crunch (“a delightful nut piece—very popular everywhere. Usually sells for 80¢ to $1.00 per lb. retail.”); Haystack Goodies; Maple, Mocha, Pistachio Fudge, and the curious Chop Suey Candy (“take a popcorn crispette, but add roasted peanuts and concoanut . . . more corn and cocoanut than peanuts”).
Our patron from Nebraska told me that her family had these in the 1920s, that her grandmother had passed them down to her mother. Certainly, as early as October 1923, Ragsdale’s ads appear in the Newsstand Group advertising supplement to Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness, then edited by H.L. Menken and George Jean Nathan. In fact, In his autobiography, My Life as Author and Editor, Menken writes about the introduction of this kind of advertising to his posh, literary magazine:
“Inasmuch as all the other members of this group [Newsstand Group] were such dubious pulps as Snappy Stories,Breezy Stories, and Young’s Magazine, Nathan and I were perturbed more than gratified, and our doubts were not allayed when we saw the advertisements that began to come in. They included everything in the shabby line save lost manhood and bust developer ads, as we had to take a pretty severe kidding from readers and friends.”
The ads in Smart Set started with a couple of pages, but by December 1922, there were 23 pages of advertisements. Look to the November 1923 set of ads, and there is W. Hillyer Ragsdale at Drawer 400, East Orange, N.J. proclaiming:
“GO INTO BUSINESS FOR YOURSELF,” right there between “Don’t Wear a Truss” and a bust developer ad! Menken, in the same passage quoted above goes on to write of that December 1922 supplement, “There were several ads headed “Send No Money” and half a dozen or more announcing ways to make fortunes by spare-time work at home! Ragsdale was right there.
So, by 1923, Ragsdale was running ads enticing folks to “Establish and operate a “New System Specialty Candy Factory,” using some of the same language that appears in our sets of lessons. Also by 1923, Tools and Machinery for Confectioners by W. Hillyer Ragsdale, The Candy Specialist, becomes available. Here are the first three pages, including a price list (From the Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Culinary Collection, Michigan State University Libraries.)
Tools and Machinery for Confectioners
By W. Hillyer Ragsdale
with April 1923 price list
Here’s his ad from the November 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics, promising enormous profits:
Throughout the 1920s, Ragsdale’s business must have grown. Perhaps the 10 sets of lessons were available at once; perhaps they were developed over a few years. We do know that Ragsdale was born on a farm in Lithonia, DeKalb County, Georgia in 1876. According to census data, in 1900 he was living at home and employed as a clerk in a drugstore in nearby Kirkwood, Georgia. By 1910, he had relocated with his wife, Wilhelmina (Willie) to East Orange, N.J. where he was working as a traveling salesman possibly for a department store. The 1920 US census lists his occupation as “Proprietor,” his status as “Employer,” and the “Industry” in which he was engaged as “Jobber Confectioner Supply House.” At the very least, by 1920 the roots of his candy-making endeavors were firmly in place. A notice on the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association website dates the set of lessons as “ca. 1920s?”
In David Lawrence Pierson’s History of the Oranges to 1921, Vol. 4 (Orange, NJ: Lewis Historical Publishing Co. 1922), Ragsdale is reported to have come to East Orange in 1908, where he established and built his “ large business as a manufacturer and jobber of confectioners’ supplies.” Pierson also writes that, as of 1922, Ragsdale was a director of the Lackawanna Building and Loan of East Orange. We can assume that his business was quite successful, at least through the early part of the depression. In 1930, Ragsdale is listed in the census as manager of his Confectionary Supply Company. By 1940, however, at age 63, he was employed as an investigator for the New Jersey State Beverage Tax Department. William Hillyer Ragsdale died in East Orange in 1957, but the traces of his candy-making business can still be found quite easily. It is not at all hard to find some of his equipment, for example, especially his candy thermometers, on eBay.
But the sets of instructions in candy-making for profit are the trace that continue to hold significance for our patron in Nebraska. After we’d gotten the scans to her, about three weeks after our phone call, I asked her if she would send me a bit of her family’s story in connection with these sets of instructions; also if I might retell that story in our blog. Here’s what she wrote (copied with permission):
“My grandmother passed them down to my mom. So, since the 1920’s. They were really prized. When my mom’s family was young, her father came down with tuberculosis of the liver. That knocked him out of working. My grandmother, being an excellent cook to seven children, and having a brother that owned an ice cream store in Massachusetts, set out to do the confections. They were sold through the brother’s store and during the holidays, the kids would go door to door. Then the depression happened and finding work was even more hard to do. They kept their business going. They were hard workers. They rallied around my grandfather. There were four boys. When the war broke out, they left to serve their country and of course, they were no longer involved in the candy making business.”
She also wrote this:
“We’re still under water where the farm is. It’s going to take a long time . . . but, we are hardy people and will probably just rebuild. . . . I’m going to be sharing them with Mom on Friday. I haven’t told her that I got them replaced. I know what this means to her.”
A little over a month after the flood, still under water. That made me think about a lot of different things. After considering how horrific it must be, how staggering to have such an event occur and how more common weather events of this historic proportion are becoming, I thought about how short our news cycle is. Perhaps it’s just because we are east-coasters, but we stopped hearing about midwest flood waters about a day or two after they first hit. Every big rain in April added to the disaster. Incredible.
But then, hearing about her plan to surprise her mom with the material Special Collections was able to provide, well, I was glad to have been able to help in a very small way. I’ve probably never felt so good about providing a patron with scans from our collections.
Oh yes, and she again mentioned the fruit cake fudge. If you make it, she says, you have to add some peach Schnapps to it! I’m guessing this is it:
This week, I really wanted to do a post highlighting materials related to the various wintertime holy days and celebrations that happen during December. That didn’t exactly work out. I did find some materials in our rare books collection that were Christmas related but I had trouble finding things for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Yule, and Eid (I would have included it even though it’s not really the same and was in September this year). So, I shelved that post for another year when we’ve made better progress increasing the representation in our collections.
As I searched for something else to post about, I saw them: Wood and Metal book covers. They were just my style and I had to share them. The wood-bound (and metal housed) books I’ve chosen today are from our History of Food and Drink Collection and focus on Southern cuisine, Astrology/Mixology, and general cookery.
First, a little bit about wood book covers in general. If you take a moment and do a quick Internet search (I’ll wait…), you will likely discover that there are hundreds upon hundreds of sites providing instructions on how to make your own wood book cover. Wood has been a popular material for electronics cases and other applications for a few years now (I’ve personally watched as the number of products in this space has increased exponentially). Not surprisingly, this is a phenomenon that falls squarely into the category “everything old is new again”. The covers from our rare books collection are not freshly made. They mostly hail from the late 1930’s (one is on a book from the 1970’s – another period where wood was exceedingly popular on everything from cars to walls). Going back a few centuries further, the Copts of North Africa lent their name to the technique of binding with wooden covers sewn together around pages. So, that hip new trend is actually ancient – – and still amazingly beautiful (if you can get past the problematic racial issues raised by the illustrations).
Our first two examples both focus on Southern style cuisine. They also rely on the Jim Crow mammie caricature. The introduction from the 1930’s volume reads “The very name ‘Southern Cookery’ seems to conjure up the vision of the old mammy, head tied with a red bandanna, a jovial, stoutish, wholesome personage . . .”
Clearly that Jim Crow era attitude was still around in the 1970’s when the mammy image cover was placed around this cookbook with the ’70s dinner party cover.
Our next two offerings both focus on astrology and mixology, or the fine art of combining cocktails with mysterious planetary influences on our destinies. I ask you: What could go wrong?
Well, to start, how about this cover from Zodiac Cocktails (1940). The artwork, while creatively using the tools of the bartender’s trade, manages to evoke racial and religious stereotypes about Caribbean Islanders and Voodoo priestesses. Surprisingly, once past the cover, the illustrations are more referential toward medieval British conceptions of the mystical.
The content of this volume is as it would be with any book of cocktail recipes: useful in making cocktails. Still, it’s hard to take the author seriously in his attempt to “. . . demonstrate that people born under one sign of the zodiac are capable of drinking one or more combinations of liquor without ill-effect, whereas other combinations bring less pleasing results.” He has formulated a cocktail for each sign that he believes is the ideal cocktail for anyone born under that sign. Since we are currently under Sagittarius, I share with you the ideal cocktail for that sign:
1 Lump Sugar
2 Dashes Cocktail Bitters
1 Glass Rye or Whiskey
Crush sugar and bitters together, add lump of ice, decorate with twist of lemon peel and slice of orange, using medium glass, and stir well.
This cocktail can be made with Brandy, Gin, Rum, etc., instead of Rye Whiskey.
The next item from 1939 will tell you your Bar-o-scope. This one is definitely not taking itself too seriously. It is described as:
Spiced with “Astro-illogical” guidance in rhyme + pictures for those REborn under the different signs of the Baroscope.
The cocktails are arranged in chapters by type and each chapter contains a little poem about a zodiacal sign:
Nov. 23 to Dec. 23
Are idealists at heart
And to parties and functions
Good spirits impart.
It’s a fun little book, but it’s actually not bound in wood. It’s really press board (sometimes called particle board). It’s tied with leather thongs and is very similar to the traditional coptic binding style but has a spine added where one would not normally be present in coptic style.
Finally, there is a glorious metal “bound” cookbook from Pillsbury (1933). Right in the heart of the Art Deco period, this book incorporates elements of that iconic style into a housewife’s reference book titled Balanced Recipes.
The book includes sections for bread, cakes, cookies, desserts, luncheon and supper dinners, macaroni and spaghetti, meat and fish, pies, salads, soups and sauces, vegetables, and menus. The recipes included were developed in Pillsbury’s “home-type experimental kitchen” in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Of all these books, this one is by far my favorite. It avoids the caricatures and racial issues of the others while being really cool to look at. It also has a connection to Minneapolis (my favorite big city). Plus, when I was flipping through, it gave me a holiday surprise and landed on a recipe for that perennial holiday favorite: fruit cake. Enjoy!
I’m posting on both Special Collections blogs this week, so I’m all about food! On this blog, we’re looking at the intersection of agriculture experiment stations, recipes, and meal planning. And a work by a man named George Washington Carver. (If you want to see the latest History of Food and Drink post about sandwiches, you can view it here. Either way, you’re going to hear about peanut butter. 🙂 ) Here’s a bit of Three Delicous Meals Every Day for the Farmer from 1916. (And no, that’s not a typo–“Delicous” is how it appears on the title page and throughout the text.)
George Washington Carver served as the director of the Tuskegee Institute’s Agriculture Department from 1896 until the time of his death in 1947. During his tenure, he published numerous bulletins, including this one. Three Delicous Meals Every Day for the Farmer begins with an introduction about the relationship between people and food, including what he saw as some of the issues of the time. The majority of the provides a plan of three meals a day for one week.
What grabbed my attention was the “Explanatory” section at the end, which includes recipes for eight dishes that are among the planned menu. There is a focus on simplicity, economy, and (re)use. “Granulated Toast” is basically breadcrumbs which can be used in a number of other ways and in other recipes. “Bacon Puffs” are made from a piece of the bacon that’s already been used at least once. Carver’s recipe for “Nut Sandwiches” means using whatever kind of nut or nuts you have available, peanut or otherwise. These are easy, satisfying, sustainable (if a bit repetitive) dishes meant to appear over and over again in meal plans and they require (mainly) ingredients that were available on the farm.