Educational Programs: Not by Food Alone

(An Approach for the Utilization of Government Records)

Hans-J. Finke, Ph.D.

 

The topic of food represents a major challenge for municipal governments. For some odd reason, government records centers are not filled with recipes of delicious  - and not so delicious meals of our ancestors. On the other hand, when you enter the key words of food, recipes and 1900 into your web search engine, you will quickly find what some of our ancestors ate in 1900.

 

Obviously, going to the Web and printing out recipes from 1900 may make you hungry, but that action certainly does nothing to help you publicize your archival records. You need to be innovative to utilize the Food topic.

 

Remember, food, clothing and shelter are the main ingredients for human survival. The early pioneers had to struggle constantly with the reality of these concepts. Before land was cleared for farming, hunting and food gathering had to be the major methods of survival. To be sure, the pioneers had brought some food with them, and if they were lucky, they got additional supplies from the east via waterways or the arduous land transport methods. Two hundred years ago, restocking supplies from the east was dependent upon numerous factors - weather, supply routes, lack of ready cash, etc. The pioneering families had to be essentially self-sufficient to survive.

 

A good argument can be made for food being the driving force for virtually all other endeavors. Transportation - the building of roads, canals and finally railroads - was driven by food, first to get it here, but then also to export it into other areas of the country. The system of building roads and other methods of transportation is thus a legitimate sub-topic of food. The argument can be made that clothing and shelter could be obtained from local resources. There were enough trees to build homes; animal hides could be converted into clothing and sheep would eventually provide wool. Transportation, however, was essential for the continued existence of pioneer families. Seed for the farms carved out of forests, and farm animals for meat and milk, needed to be brought in from the east.

 

Those of you, who work for municipal governments, may want to consider making transportation a part of your food topic. The creation of a transportation system - whether it was roads, canals or railroads - was of such magnitude that individuals were helpless. Here you needed that standard cooperative effort among individuals - the creation of government. Government at its best coordinates the efforts of individuals into a more or less planned development of an infrastructure. (In addition to talking about food, you can toot your own horn and justify the existence of your municipal government!)

 

Once this area became established, food changed from an import to an export commodity. What this meant is that farming became an economically viable industry that would be responsible for associated industries and factories. Food could be exported - not only in its raw format such as grain, but also as processed products.

 

If you are willing to take this type of approach to the Food topic for Archives Week, you suddenly do not have the problem of a dearth of materials, but you may have to make editorial choices because you have too much material.

 

Here is a very broad outline how you might want to approach the topic:

1) Pioneer days circa 200 years ago - subsistence economy, lack of adequate transportation, living of the land, hunting/food-gathering, some imports from east

2) Establishment of viable farms, creation of viable local governments, better and more plentiful diet, establishment of and infrastructure, including transportation - roads, waterways, canals and finally the railroads. (If you happen to have recipes for 1800 and the second half of the 19th century, you could compare a few).

3) Full-fledged and viable economy with good transportation, export of surplus food in both raw and processed form, import of industrial goods for both home and factory, and former luxuries becoming part of daily life.

 

These are just very broad paintbrush strokes of what can be done with the food topic in an exhibit that emphasizes our documentary heritage rather than three-dimensional items.  By the very nature of exhibitions, you will be limited in the amount of information you can impart. Remember that the typical visitor to an exhibit spends only seconds per item.

Consider also, that exhibits work best when you combine them with lectures, or better yet, a series of lectures. You may want to think about cooperative ventures by combining the resources of your local government, your historical society, your municipal historian, teachers, and other individuals who have become experts in local history. If you really want to go all-out with your program, you could combine an exhibit, lecture and a feast with recipes from 1900. However, don't think you have to limit yourself to the year 1900. You may find it advantageous to concentrate on a broader period of history because it gives you more flexibility. Consider also that your interpretation of archival materials can - and should  - be used for the classroom.

 

Another tack you could take is to compare the food of early settlers with what was available in the early twentieth century. Just a look at an early 20th century Canandaigua directory will give you the following advertisements:

 

Kinsella & O'Brien - Fancy and Staple Groceries

Real German Beer at Murphy's Cafe

P. Lemma & Co - Confectionery - Nuts, Foreign and Domestic Fruits at Wholesale and Retail

Star Lunch Room - Open Day and Night

W.P. Lapham - Fruits and Confectionery

Stevens Bros. Bakery and Confectionery

H.J Daffy - Restaurant and Boarding House

Charles J Cornell - Interurban Cafe

W.A. Husbands & Co. - High Grade Meats and Groceries

C.J. Brady - Pure Canandaigua Lake Ice

Thos. E. Murphy - Restaurant

E. Kaufman - Fresh, Salt and Smoked Meats

Niagara Street Restaurant - Thousands of curios, strange animals, freaks - live and mounted.

I could go on with this, but this will give you at least an idea on how food became institutionalized in society.

 

Many of you are associated with government in one way or another. Our celebration of food this year will probably seriously harm your diet, and make you think more of the gourmet food.

 

You may, however, want to consider taking a different tack. With the establishment of the county government in 1789 and the various municipal governments, thought was also given to the less successful citizens. Almost from the very beginning of Ontario County's existence, there was some support of the poor.

 

To be sure, the support of the poor was less than gracious. However, it was recognized that they could not be left to starve. Both county and towns had Overseers for the Poor. Ontario County had its Poor House for the long-term cases. Poverty is never pleasant, but throughout the nineteenth century, it was considered not much better than a disease. The idea of providing support and food without work would never have occurred to our ancestors. Unless the poor person was in the last stages of illness, work was required. The poor farm attached to Ontario County's poorhouse had the double purpose of teaching individuals to become productive members of society and to reduce the tax burden of the County and its municipalities. Nonetheless, the poor farm was not self-supporting, and I recently entertained the Government Operations Committee of the Board of Supervisors with the tax requirements for the year 1903. Leaving aside the fact that the County budget in 1903 was one third of the Records and Archives budget for 2001, there is an interesting consistency in the percentage the county spends on social services. It runs between 40 and 45% of the budget.

 

In 1903, taxes to be collected for

The County General Fund - $28,000

Poor Fund - $28,000 plus

Syracuse State Institute for feeble minded children $200.00

And the Deaf and Dumb Asylum $1,500.00

The total tax base was $94,908.85

 

The 1914 Inspection Report of the New York State Board of Charities, Dept. of State and Alien Poor, has a good description of Poor House Meals:

The Kitchen and Dietary:

The basement of the wing contains the dining rooms and kitchen. Food is prepared by a paid employee. There are separate dining rooms for the men and women although overcrowding in the former necessitates the seating of several male inmates in the women's dining room. Some chairs are provided, but the majority of seats are stools. For the comfort of the inmates chairs should be supplied for all. The tables have recently been recovered with a heavy linoleum securely fastened at the edges by brass bindings and affording attractive, sanitary and durable table covering. The meals served to inmates on the day of inspection were as follows:

Breakfast - Oatflakes, warmed potatoes, bread, coffee, cookies

Dinner - Potatoes, pork, cabbage, bread, tea, milk

Supper - Bread, milk, tea, potatoes.

The dinners are varied throughout the week by pork and beans, soup, fish and fresh meat. Fresh vegetables are furnished in season and throughout the rest of the year vegetables are served daily. Jelly, cookies and apples are frequently added to the menu. Inmates expressed satisfaction with the dietary variety thus afforded. The average cost of maintenance per capita is about $1,80 per week.

 

On the day of inspection there were a total of 80 inmates - 68 male and 12 female. Of these one male was blind, seven male feeble-minded or idiots, 3 females feeble-minded or idiots.

Since the last inspection (Oct 1913), there were 14 deaths and two births.

Total capacity of the Poor House was 90 (70 men, 20 women).

The farm included a hay and grain barn with a cow stable, a horse barn, hog pens, chicken houses and wagon sheds.

 

This gives a pretty good idea what was considered a good and sufficient diet for the poor. By inference you can also include other typical farm products as part of the diet, although much of the Poor House Farm production was sold to reduce overall cost per inmate. In an exhibit, you could compare this diet with middle class diets. You could add the most recent study on ideal diets and, of course the recent revision of the food pyramid.

 

The other population group which may be ignored with a topic such as food is the jail population. Although the least favored of our ancestors, they had to it, too. Again it was government and society as a whole that had to pay the bill.

 

There are some similarities between the Poor House and the Jail. The Commissioner's inspection on July 17, 1900 found twelve prisoners in the jail. However, it was noted that during the cold season, the number of prisoners went up to fifty. It is difficult to believe that there was more crime in cold weather and it can be assumed that at least some of the people misbehaved in order to have a warm roof over their head and a meal in their stomach. Society also expected that the prisoners earned their keep for the privilege of being behind bars.

 

This is just one of numerous approaches in the utilization of government records for educational and program purposes. I believe that educational programs work best when diverse organizations become involved. Try some brain storming sessions with government records managers, teachers, historical society and museum personnel and municipal historians. You will be amazed at what innovative programs will come out of these sessions. And how much fun they can be.