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Pan-American Exposition of 1901

Food and Health

Thumbnail image of Soda Water stand on the Midway

With regard to food and health at the Pan-American Exposition, scientists and "cranks" worked side-by-side. Two major reports described food-related health and medical concerns of the Exposition. In the first report, Dr. Roswell Park, Medical Director of the Pan-American Exposition, describes the results of inspections of the numerous restaurants and eating establishments on the Exposition grounds. Excerpts from the second, "Some Medical Aspects of the Pan-American Exposition" describe two exhibits related to food safety and health practices, specifically, food preservation and meat examination. Indeed, as the production of processed foods and the use of food additives became more commonplace in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, there began a movement among those in the scientific community to study and regulate food safety. At the same time, health food "con-artists" took advantage of a naive public's belief in the benefits of healthful foods and "cure all diets" and used venues like the Pan-American Exposition to peddle their wares.

Exposition Restaurant Inspection

Nebraska Sod House

The Nebraska Sod House. Photo credit: C. D. Arnold. Source: C. D. Arnold. The Pan-American Exposition, Illustrated. Buffalo, N.Y.: C. D. Arnold, 1901, p. 69.

From Roswell Park, "Report of the Medical Department of the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, 1901," Buffalo Medical Journal (December 1901).

By the end of July there were 36 restaurants and eating places, 14 kitchens on concessions and villages, and 57 soft drink stands, and the resident population had increased to 1652. . . Alter a while, the regular hours of inspection were abandoned and the inspections were made at irregular and intentionally unexpected intervals in order that no preparation for them could be made. The results of this change were an evident improvement in all sanitary conditions. In no case during August was it necessary to condemn milk or cream, and only one eating place gave any serious trouble. This was the Nebraska Sod house, which was all almost constant source of bother and which later had to be closed. Night inspections revealed the fact that many people were in the habit of sleeping beneath the counters in booths in various streets. The practice was stopped, for instance, of making of candy in a booth in which a family of four lived, cooked, ate and slept.

Food Preservation

The exhibit described below reveals some of the dangers of poisoning resulting from the adulteration of food with certain chemical preservatives and colors. The timeliness of this exhibit was significant in that in less than one year, Congress would appropriate $5,000 to Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, an advocate of food safety regulations and chief chemist of the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Chemistry, to study the effects of food additives on health.1 His studies drew widespread attention to the dangers associated with food adulteration and contributed significantly to the original Food and Drugs Act in 1906.

[From "Some Medical Aspects of the Pan-American Exposition," Buffalo Medical Journal (18 and 25 July 1901).]

Ad for Heinz's Cherries

…An interesting exhibit in connection with the artificial preservation of food is seen in a collection of tubes displaying quantities of salicylic acid and other substances recovered from small quantities of food staffs preserved by their agency. Half a test tubeful of salicylic acid is shown as having been recovered from a single tin of canned soup—and one is moved to marvel that cases of poisoning from preserved food staffs are not more common than they are. "Preservative,"—combination of boric acid and salt, colored with cochineal,— made famous in the army beef controversy2, is here given a prominent place. One of the exhibits among the jams and preserves is labelled: "Strawberry Jam." Sweetened with glucose, stiffened with starch, colored with an aniline dye, preserved with benzoic acid and artificially flavored. The strawberry part of this delectable compound apparently exists in the imagination alone. It is highly unfortunate that the exhibit does not specify the particular brands and give the manufacturers' names of the articles whose analysis are displayed, so that the observer might not only appreciate the extent to which food adulteration is practised, but might know what brands to avoide in making future purchases. Those whose greed is such as to render them willing to injure the public health to more quickly fill their purses should be publicly pilloried and made to suffer the financial loss which would follow exposure of their nefarious practises.

Meat Examination

In 1901, meatpacking was one of the nation's most profitable industries, in part because consumers concluded that "dressed beef" was as good as or better than that of the local butcher/slaughterhouse, was wholesome, and was safe.3 The exhibit described below was certainly of interest to Exposition visitors, who could see the application of medical techniques and practices to ensure food safety with regard to meat. Consider that the concept of enforcing of such practices may not have been part of such public exhibits. Despite the popularity of dressed meat, the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and the passage of the Meat Inspection Act would not occur for 5 more years.

[From "Some Medical Aspects of the Pan-American Exposition," Buffalo Medical Journal (18 and 25 July 1901).]

"…In the Bureau of Animal Industry, a feature which attracts the attention of crowds, is the microscopic examination of pork for trichinae and other parasites, as carried out by the Department of Agriculture at the large packing houses. A small laboratory is here fitted up, in which three young women make these microscopic examinations in the presence of the visitors, and exhibit samples of infected meat. Nearby an interesting series of pathological specimens, both wet and artificial, showing various types and lesions of disease in the animals used as food, will prove interesting to all medical men, and is well worthy of careful study by health officers and those who have to do with food inspection. This exhibit is supplemented by a large series of lantern slides, showing bacteria, pathogenic lesions, etc."

"Special" Foods and Cure All Diets Were Hot Topics at the Turn of the Century

The turn of the century was rich with food "reformers" and those who thought that dietary change could save the world. It is not at all surprising that a gathering the size and magnitude of the Pan-American Exposition was considered by many of these food reformers to be the perfect venue through which to educate and expose the public to their "beneficial" products and services. Unfortunately, scientist and crank were hard to distinguish, as this excerpt from a story in the Enquirer of 2 April 1901 suggests.

Thumbnail image- Armour's extract of beef ad

Advertisement for Armour's Extract of Beef "School children must be well fed. …" Source: This ad appeared in numerous popular magazines in 1901. Digitized from a printed microfilm image.

The crank who depends on cereal for his advancement has a good thing. His is a plausible theory. Not being naturally enthusiastic over a cereal diet, mankind is prone to think it very wholesome because not particularly agreeable. Hence its popularity as a "food for babies." Nothing that a child likes is suppose by the truly orthodox to be good for him.

The cereal crank trespasses on the coffee fiend nowadays.

"There is an idea abroad in the land," says G. Edward Fuller, Pan-American Expert in Foods, "that it is much more wholesome to drink a hot liquid made of barley and wheat and molasses than to imbibe an extract of the pure coffee. It is less injurious for awhile, but my observation leads me to believe that, if cereal coffee is drunk for any length of time, it breaks down the tissues of the stomach and induces a flatulent condition. If a man wants to abandon the coffee habit, he can break himself gradually by the use of cereal coffee. But hot water would do as well."

"It is a curious fact that coffee has no injurious effect on the man who smokes tobacco. The effect of either one, bad in itself, seems to be counteracted by the effects of the other. Better than cereal coffee is a mixture of coffee with chicory root. Statistics show that coffee drunk by the greatest coffee fiends in the world, the Germans and the French, contains from sixty to seventy-five per cent of chicory, in comparison to three or four per cent used in the Americas. If I had s sluggish liver, I'd pour chicory in any coffee then drink any of those cereal combinations. Or if my nerves were too much stimulated by coffee, I'd mix it with cocoa. . ."

Later in the piece:

"One of these staff of life cranks wants the Exposition management to hire him to lecture to the populace this summer. He says that if his ideas about bread are put into practice not only will the citizens be better nourished, both physically and mentally, but the taxation of the city may be greatly lessened through the reduction of pauperism and crime. He goes to the length of saying that if Christ were living today and eating the food of our times, he would be a very different man from the humble Nazarene."

Thumbnail images - Bakers Breakfast cocoa ad

Advertisement for Baker's Breakfast Cocoa. "Preserves Health, Prolongs Life". Source: This ad appeared in numerous popular magazines in 1901. Digitized from a printed microfilm image.

Thumbnail images - Imperial Granum ad

"The Best Food for …". Advertisement for Imperial Granum. Source: This ad appeared in numerous popular magazines in 1901. Digitized from a printed microfilm image.

Thumbnail images - Quaker Oats ad

Advertisement for Quaker Oats "Leads to Health". Source: This ad appeared in numerous popular magazines in 1901. Digitized from a printed microfilm image.

As this Commercial article of 14 January 1901 shows, some people thought they had all the answers. The writer of the letter says his reform begins with the stomach, "the crucible of life.'"

Director of Concessions Taylor has received a communication from a person who wishes to instruct humanity in the matter of baking cake of a wholesome character. He maintains that the physical stamina of men and the moral stature and beauty of women depend upon the adoption of food reforms more than upon other ameliorative agencies put together, not excluding religious influences. The writer says in his letter:

"Every man and woman on the face of the planet . . . would be delighted to learn what I alone am able to reveal, viz., a system of living that not only prevents the possibility of sickness, premature death, but even indigestion . . . imperfect circulation and defective absorption of the system."

"If the exposition promoters would provide a large travelling oven placed in a suitable place, I will take the trouble of management off their hands and produce a large profit, as it would prove the most attractive, not only to women and children, but to most enlightened men, who require all the brain nourishment they can get, and they would like to get it now, and that's no joke."

More of the above is found in this Commercial article of 3 January 1901.

"Director Taylor and other Pan-American officials are now face to face with a proposition received yesterday in the mail which seems to involve the failure or success of the exposition. It provides an opportunity to the Pan-American to regenerate entire mankind, whether mankind wishes to undergo the process or not.

According to the modest confession of the corespondent of Director Taylor, whose name is withheld out of abundant charity, the secret of the future physical and mental stamina of the men and the moral status and beauty of the women of Buffalo is inscrutably locked in his own bread and can only be withdrawn by financial pressure."

Here is the letter, in substance, with the proposition:

"Your name had been given me with reference to my application for a concession to sell a sample of food. As the expense that would be entailed by giving samples of a most palatable, nutritious, digestible and delicious article would be enormous, each person would require from a quarter to half a dollars worth for immediate consumption. As I am engaged in educating the people to a more wholesome and nutritious dietary, with a view to the regeneration of the race in spite of their prejudices, I think it would be well worth the while of the promoters of the Exposition to offer me the most liberal terms."


  1. "Milestones in U.S. Food and Drug Law History." FDA Backgrounder, May 3, 1999. Online.
  2. In the late 1870's meatpackers had introduced canned meats in tin containers with the military being the largest consumer. The U. S. Navy had begun carrying canned meats on its ships as early as the Civil War. However, alleged problems with canned meats and dressed beef during the Spanish-American War prompted further investigations. "Major General Nelson Miles claimed in 1898 that 'embalmed beef' had caused outbreaks of illness among his troops. Subsequent investigations blamed improper distribution and handling of dressed beef and canned products by commissary officers and cleared the meatpacking industry of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the canned meat and foreign dressed beef trade suffered from the scandal for several years." Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Paul Finkelman (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001), vol. 2, p. 276-277.
  3. Ibid.