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Ketchups of Yesteryear

Madison Daily Courier, February 20, 1850

While browsing through an old issue of the Madison Daily Courier (February 20, 1850), we stumbled across this eye-catching inventory from James Roberts’ store in the antebellum river town of Madison, Indiana.  Two unusual items stood out: mushroom catsup and walnut catsup.  What on earth was the history of these things?

In the days before H.J. Heinz, a former horseradish salesman, muscled in and mastered the art of making a pure, healthy tomato ketchup, Americans enjoyed an amazing variety of ketchups or “catsups.”  Many antebellum Hoosiers could have bought these at the store.  Others would have been able to make them from scratch using ingredients often available in Hoosier fields and forests.

Like many American families, the ketchup family isn’t native to the New World.  Both the word and the condiment likely came from China or Malaysia, where ke-chap referred to a brine of pickled fish or shellfish.  East Asian ketchups were salty or soy-based and had a liquid consistency, unlike often-stubborn tomato ketchup, a “non-Newtonian” fluid that needs a thump to get moving.

The first known mention of the word ketchup in English comes from a dictionary of slang from 1690, where it’s defined as a “high East-India sauce.”  In fact, British East India traders are credited for bringing the sauce back from Asia.  Word-sleuths, however, think that ketchup might have come from an Arabic word, kabees, also referring to a pickling sauce.

One Englishman, Charles Lockyer, gave advice to other traders in the Orient on how to get the best deals on lucrative soy sauce and ketchup — in 1711.


Charles Lockyer, An Account of Trade in India (1711)

Charles Lockyer, An Account of Trade in India (1711) 2

(Charles Lockyer, An Account of Trade in India, 1711.)


It’s hard to believe anyone would sail all the way to Asia and back in a wooden boat just for ketchup — or that King George and George Washington were throwing ketchup on their food.  But eighteenth-century Britain and America were definitely familiar with the ketchup “family.”  In fact, catsup, once thought to be an Americanized version of the word, was actually a misspelling by the Irish satirist and Anglican priest Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who used it in a comic poem in 1730.

Eliza Smith, one of the bestselling English cookbook writers, describes how to make ketchup in her book The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion. Smith died around 1732, but her cookbook came out in many editions and was the first one ever printed in the American colonies.  In 1742, a year before Thomas Jefferson’s birth, the cookbook was reprinted in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Yet Smith’s recipe for “English Katchup” didn’t call for a single tomato. Instead, you needed mushrooms, anchovies and horseradish.  The vinegary result tasted and looked something like Worcestershire sauce.  It took a week to make.


The compleat housewife

(Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife, London, 1727.  The book was re-printed in Williamsburg by William Parks, who ran one of the first paper mills and thus helped turn out some of the earliest American newspapers, including Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. This instructional video on 18th-century cooking will tell you how to put together a mushroom ketchup that would have been familiar to Americans almost 300 years ago.)


Ketchup’s historic association with pickling sauces and fish was still strong in the mid-1800s, when grocery stores like James Roberts’ just downstream from Cincinnati were advertising the arrival of seafood and condiments from the East Coast.  Much of that food came aboard steamboats floating down from Pittsburgh — future ketchup capital of the world (but not yet…)

For generations, many Europeans and Americans were literally scared of tomatoes and tomato-loving worms, believing both to be the source of a deadly poison.  Part of the reason why the tomato was once considered a “poison apple” was that wealthy Europeans ate it off pewter plates high in lead content.  Botanists and cultivators slowly dispelled these myths.  By the 1870s, doctors and plant-growers had sparked a craze for the tomato as a medical cure-all.  Before the 1830s, though, that lingering fear of the tomato was one reason why it was slow to be accepted into the family of ketchups.


Evansville Daily Journal, December 4, 1848

(Evansville Daily Journal, December 4, 1848.  Incidentally, the cans that lobsters, fish and catsups were packed in might have caused health problems.  Cans sealed with lead have been considered a possible cause of the medical disaster that led to the death of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic in 1845, just three years before this ad came out.  Post-mortem tests on 138-year-old bodies of crewmen, mummified in the Canadian permafrost, gave evidence of lead poisoning when they were exhumed, amazingly intact, in 1984.)


What were some of the other varieties of ketchup?

Walnut ketchup still occasionally makes it onto the table and usually tastes something like A-1 Steak Sauce.  Charlotte Mason, a Revolutionary-era chef in England,  promoted fermented varieties of walnut ketchup in The Lady’s Assistant, a cookbook published in London in 1787 and available in the U.S.  You’d have to plan your dinners well in advance, though.  Like distilled liquor, some fermented ketchups take several months to make.  Fortunately, Charlotte Mason definitely believed in bulk cooking — and some varieties would “keep for years.”


Charlotte Mason, The Lady's Assistant (1787)

(Charlotte Mason, The Lady’s Assistant, for Regulating & Supplying the Table, London, 1787.  “Eschalot” was an old word for shallots. Harvesting green walnuts is tough due to the time-frame — a small window in late June and early July, another reason to make it in bulk.)


Just as beer- and whiskey-lovers have been rediscovering all the varieties of alcohol that Americans enjoyed before Prohibition put the nix on brewers and distillers, foodies are unearthing some of the ketchup varieties that once existed in Old American cooking.

These included concord grape ketchup (including this recipe from western New York for grape catsup applied to sweet potato fries and/or Greek yogurt) and lemon ketchup.  An unusual historic recipe from 19th-century New Hampshire tells how to make cucumber ketchup.  One chef touts a tangy peach ketchup calling for ingredients as diverse as cinnamon, sugar, chili, molasses and vinegar.  Oyster ketchup was often made directly from oysters, but other oyster ketchups were made from tomatoes and meant to be put on oysters.  Van Camp Packing Company in Indianapolis and the Loudon Packing Company in Terre Haute were once major producers of oyster ketchup.


Greencastle Herald, July 27, 1911

(Recipe for a fermented version of lemon catsup, Greencastle Herald, Greencastle, Indiana, July 27, 1911.)


Since fermentation was often involved, ketchup sometimes began to be treated like wine.  The Indiana Palladium in Lawrenceburg (future home of Seagram’s Distillery) reprinted a clip from an article in the United States Gazette of Philadelphia about the tomato and its use in regulating digestion.  This was around the time that the health benefits of the once-misunderstood “poison apple” were finally being promoted. The author praises a “very choice bottle” of fermented tomato ketchup, bottled by his family six years earlier — in 1827.


Indiana Palladium, October 18, 1834

(Indiana Palladium, Lawrenceburg, October 18, 1834.  Castor was a common purgative used to open up the bowels.  Ketchup, especially ketchup compounds sold as medicine, was also thought to cure both constipation and diarrhea.)


The tomato’s fortunes were on the rise.  But until Henry Heinz came along, eating tomato ketchup could still put your life in jeopardy.  The problem lay in poor sanitation at factories and bottling plants — and the issue of how to keep tomato ketchup red.

Writers around the time of the Civil War described the disgusting horror show that sometimes came pouring out of ketchup bottles:  yeasty, moldy, bacteria-laden filth.  Food poisoning and even death weren’t an uncommon fate after consumption of “putrid, decomposed” tomato ketchup.  Amazingly, manufacturers — including Charles Loudon in Terre Haute — often used coal-tar dye, an ingredient in road construction, to preserve the tomato’s bright red appearance.   It was only in 1882 that writers began to point out the dangers of coal tar.  Aware of ketchup nightmares, Gardener’s Monthly that year encouraged American families to steer clear of industrial ketchup and keep on making their own.  A further danger came from boric acid, once used as a food preservative and now used in athlete’s foot medication and insecticide.


H.J. Heinz

(H.J. Heinz around the time he moved beyond the horseradish business and forever changed the ketchup industry.)


By the 1870s, Henry Heinz of Pittsburgh was sparking a revolution in the ketchup, sauerkraut, and pickle business.  Heinz’s family had emigrated from Kallstadt, Bavaria, hometown of Donald Drumpf’s ancestors.  Unlike many Gilded Age business moguls, Heinz was a political progressive and took great strides to improve life for workers at his plants — and to keep bacteria out of his customers’ food.

With a good knowledge of advances in chemistry and public health, by 1906 Heinz was turning out a preservative-free ketchup (i.e., no coal tar!) and used transparent jars so his customers could see exactly what they were buying.  Heinz was proud of his factories: even in notoriously polluted Pittsburgh, his employees had access to showers, swimming pools, gardens, medical stations, fresh laundry, free manicures and lunchtime open-air concerts.  He offered free life and health insurance to workers and free tours to the public because — like his bottles — he felt he had nothing to fear from transparency.  The Heinz Company hired thousands of women, and Heinz raised their wages against the advice of his business committee.  He also took out ads in women’s magazines to warn the public about the dangers of certain food preservatives.


Heinz factory

(Women at the Heinz Factory in Pittsburgh, circa 1901.)


Knowing that quality food and happy workers meant bigger profits, the ketchup mogul was a major force behind getting the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906, a year after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, an exposé of meatpackers, came out in a Socialist newspaper in Kansas, Appeal to Reason.  (That paper’s editor, by the way, was Julius Wayland, a native Hoosier who once nearly got lynched in Versailles, Indiana, for his Socialist views.)

Heinz’s revolution — a “red” one, indeed — soon spread to the Midwest. Today, Red Gold in Elwood, Indiana, is the top ketchup producer in the U.S., beating out even Heinz.  And the Hoosier State itself ranks second only to California in tomato processing.  To think that it all began with a 17th-century Asian fish sauce…


Tomato farmers, Loudon Packing Company

(Laborers pick tomatoes for the Loudon Packing Company of Terre Haute.  Loudon had hometown competition in the ketchup business from Hulman & Company — whose owner, Tony Hulman, later bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.   By World War II, however, Loudon’s company had won minor fame itself by becoming the first major producer of V8, once made in Terre Haute.)


It Helps to Squash 'Em, Karl Kae Knecht, August 10, 1942

(Evansville cartoonist Karl Kae Knecht helped enlist tomatoes during World War II.  Indiana tomato production “splatters” Hitler, Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito, Evansville Courier, August 10, 1942.)


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When Jails Were Shaped Like Pies

The World (New York), October 3, 1897 (2)Crawfordsville, Indiana, has several claims to fame, most of them literary.  Once hailed as “The Athens of the Midwest,” the town was home to Ben-Hur’s author, the novelist and Civil War hero Lew Wallace.  For a few months in 1907 and 1908, it was also, briefly, home to the unconventional American poet Ezra Pound.

Born in Idaho, Pound was a flamboyant genius who later dabbled in Fascist politics in Mussolini’s Italy.  At the end of World War II, he was imprisoned by the U.S. Army, prosecuted for treason, and spent most of the 1950s confined at a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., where the Federal government kept him up under watch.  Yet Pound might have considered Crawfordsville as the site of his first “incarceration.”

While still in his twenties, Ezra Pound taught Romance languages at Wabash College but found the school too conservative for his liking.  After the professor invited a stranded prostitute or traveling entertainer to sleep in his room one winter night — later insisting that he slept on the floor while she took over the bed — the 22-year-old Pound got the axe from the college president, just into his second semester as a language professor at Wabash in February 1908.  He immediately moved to Europe, going into poetry and the Modernist art world, describing Crawfordsville as “The sixth circle of hell.”


Ezra Pound 2
Ezra Pound not long after abandoning the Hoosier State with $80 in his pocket.

Ironically, both Lew Wallace and Ezra Pound had some unusual connections to incarceration — as did Crawfordsville itself.  In 1865, Wallace had headed the commission that investigated Henry Wirz, the infamous Swiss-born Confederate commandant of Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, where Union soldiers were starved during the Civil War and some were allegedly killed by Wirz’s bloodhounds.  (Wirz was executed following Wallace’s investigation.)  As for Pound’s own experience with jails, after the Allies and the Italian resistance toppled Benito Mussolini in 1944, the former Wabash College professor-turned-Fascist, who had done radio broadcasts in support of Il Duce, was shut up in one of the U.S. Army’s outdoor steel cages in Pisa, Italy.


Ezra Pound
Pound’s mugshot after turning himself in to the U.S. Army in Italy, May 1945.

Pisa jail
U.S. forces imprisoned the expatriate American poet in a special outdoor “security cage” in Pisa. Pound was soon transferred to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a mental facility in Washington, D.C., under charges of being an “intellectual crackpot.” He spent over a decade there, refusing to talk to doctors with Jewish-sounding names. Pound wasn’t released until 1958, when he returned to Italy.

Like the army’s open-air “security cages” in Pisa, “benighted” Crawfordsville once experimented with ventilation.  The Indiana town actually helped pioneer a new type of jail in the 1880s, when “The Athens of the Midwest” became home to one of today’s few surviving “rotary jails.”  This was an architectural twist on the traditional one-room slammer that turned frontier clinkers into revolving, newfangled structures that looked something like a fresh-baked pie — at least on paper.  (Ezra Pound might have compared them to an Italian pizza pie.)


W.H. Brown Jail Door Patent 4


In 1881, two men from Indianapolis — architect William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh, owner of the Haugh Iron Works on Indy’s West Side — filed a patent for an ingenious invention.  They later filed several variations on this patent, but the 1881 original begins:

The object of our invention is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard, and incidentally to provide it with sundry conveniences and advantages not usually found in prisons; and it consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison-building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated, and surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of the prisoners; second, in the combination, with said cell structure, of a system of shafts and gears, or their equivalents, for the purpose of rotating the same;  third, in constructing within said circular cell structure a central space for the purposes of ventilation and the disposition of offal, &c.;  fourth, in constructing niches in the side of the cells next said central opening to serve as water-closets, and arranging underneath said niches a continuous trough to contain water, to receive and convey away into a sewer with which it is connected all the offal deposited therein by the prisoners in all the cells. . . .

In other words, one of the primary goals of the revolving jail was to facilitate the disposal of human waste without having to ever release the prisoner from his cell or even to come into any contact with him at all.  The other goal was to render escapes and prison riots virtually impossible.


The World (New York), October 3, 1897
The World, New York City, October 3, 1897.

Operating a hand crank, a guard could literally spin an entire block of wedge-shaped cells.  Prisoners would be moved around without ever exiting through the block’s one access point.  In addition to improving ventilation and drainage — the system involved an advanced “soil-pipe” or sewer — Brown and Haugh’s patent explained that one of the real safety feature of the rotary jail was for the sheriff or guard himself:

The prisoners are handled without any possible chance for personal contact with any except the one desired, as the cell structure is rotated until the door-opening of the cell desired is brought opposite the general door opening in the outside grating, and while one cell occupies this position the rest must of necessity be securely closed. This arrangement makes the whole prison as convenient to the keeper as though it consisted of but a single cell, and as safe as if it contained but a single prisoner.


Crawfordsville Rotary Jail -- Library of Congress Photographs Division
Double-tiered rotary cell block, Montgomery County jail, 1970s. Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey.

Crawfordsville Rotary Jail -- Library of Congress Photographs Division (3)
“General View of Circular Room in Cellar Showing Steel Support Structure for Rotating Cell Blocks,” 1970s. Montgomery County Jail. Library of Congress.

Crawfordsville Rotary Jail -- Library of Congress Photographs Division (5)
Exterior view of the old Montgomery County Jail, built in 1882. If the jail looks like a residence, it is: the county sheriff and his family lived in the front part of this building. The impressive architecture of these old-time slammers, including one in Council Bluffs, Iowa, belies their popular name, “squirrel cages.” Other nicknames included “lazy Susans” and “human rotaries.”

Plans for a “rat trap” or “steel trap” prison were being considered by the New York Penological Society in 1897.  A syndicated news story incorrectly states that “It is an English idea.”  It was a Hoosier one.


Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1897 (1)

Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1897 (2)
Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1897.

Columbus Journal (Columbus, Nebraska), January 19, 1898
Columbus Journal, Columbus, Nebraska, January 19, 1898.

San Francisco Call, October 12, 1897
San Francisco Call, October 12, 1897.

Constructed in 1882, the Montgomery County Jail was one of at least eight rotary jails built in the U.S., though by some accounts there were around eighteen total, spread between Kentucky and Utah.  Salt Lake City was the only large city that seems to have had one, and the plan was considered best for small-town jails.   Only four of them survive today, with none still operating as a jail.  The Pottawattamie County Jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was the last rotary jail to still be in use.  It was discontinued in 1969.

Although the website for Crawfordsville’s Rotary Jail Museum claims that the real motivation behind Brown and Haugh’s patent was “to help maintain strict Victorian social order,” revolving cell blocks were almost definitely an improvement on the pits that 19th-century prisoners were frequently chucked into.

Yet as these new jails were built, their advantages were soon shown to be mostly theoretical.  By the 1930s, in fact, the Montgomery County Jail came under criticism for poor ventilation, bad natural lighting, unsanitary conditions, and an “old, insecure, unsafe” structure — all problems that its designers had meant to resolve.  Over the years, too, the limbs of inmates in American rotary jails occasionally got caught in the rotating bars, crushing or maiming them.

A critic in Wichita, Kansas, in 1917 called the rotating cages a “medieval relic of barbarism.”


Wichita Beacon, October 9, 1917 (2)
Wichita Beacon, Wichita, Kansas, October 9, 1917. Kansas reformers should probably not have imitated Indiana’s experiment with a penal farm.

Crawfordsville jailers tried to make improvements, but the town’s old rotary jail was finally abandoned in 1967.  Montgomery County officially took it out of use in 1973.  Like a couple of its historic kindred in Missouri and Iowa, it survives as a museum known as the Rotary Jail Museum.


Moberly Monitor-Index, Moberly, Missouri, July 6, 1960
Moberly Monitor-Index, Moberly, Missouri, July 6, 1960.

W.H. Brown Illuminated Anti-Slipping Walkway 1899
Hoosier architect William H. Brown tried out various other designs for safety, both inside and outside jails. This 1899 patent is for an “illuminated anti-slipping walkway.”

Ironically, the iron that went into Indiana’s lone rotary jail came from Haughville on Indianapolis’ West Side.

Haugh, Ketchum & Co. Iron Works had moved from downtown west of the White River in 1880, just a year before owner Benjamin F. Haugh filed his patent with William Brown for a revolving cell block. Haughville or “Haughsville” in the 1880’s soon became known for its busy foundries, which included the rival National Malleable Castings Company, and it was considered a prosperous town when Indianapolis annexed it in 1897.  Local industries attracted thousands of German, Irish, and Slovene immigrants to the area.


Benjamin F. Haugh
Indianapolis iron industrialist Benjamin Franklin Haugh, 1830-1912.

Hendricks County Union (Danville), January 4, 1871 (2)
Hendricks County Union, Danville, Indiana, January 4, 1871. This clip advertised the Haugh Iron Works’ old location on South Pennsylvania Street downtown. The foundry moved west nine years later. A decade before the rotary jail patent, the company was already turning out jail doors.

Haugh -- Indianapolis News April 6 1882
The new Haughville iron foundry created the material for many major government buildings around the U.S., including the old Marion County Courthouse, demolished in 1963 to make way for the City-County Building, one of the city’s worst eye-sores. Indianapolis News, April 6, 1882.

By the early 1900s, Haughville had become the center of Indianapolis’ Eastern European population, including Slovenes, Croats, Macedonians, and Hungarians.  A wave of Southerners, both black and white, moved in after World War I.  Haughville’s industries, however, slowly declined.  When its two major employers, Link-Belt and National Casting, shut down in 1959 and 1962, the neighborhood slipped into serious decline and has never recovered.  The closing of Washington High School and the old Central State Hospital (a huge mental institution which probably incorporated a lot of locally-produced iron) also hurt the area.

Efforts have been made to revitalize Haughville, but this part of Indianapolis that once created iron for jails remains a feared part of the city, suffering from serious gang violence, drug addiction, and one of the highest rates of poverty and crime in the Midwest.


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That Foulsome Air May Do No Harm

vajen mask

An entry in Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis recently caught my eye.  A strange masked man stalks this great guide to the old and now mostly vanished architecture of the city in 1909.

My thoughts raced to Jules Verne’s deep-sea divers, Renaissance plague doctors dressed like bizarre birds, steampunk fashion designers, and of course the epic villain, Darth Vader. Even the name of the company that once manufactured this pioneer fireman’s oxygen mask in the Hoosier State had a science-fiction ring to it: the Vajen-Bader Company.

Smoke, sulfur, and ammonia pose problems similar to those faced by divers and even doctors wading into disease-ridden “miasmas” (the “bad air” mentioned in old medical manuals).  So it should come as no surprise that the invention of smoke helmets is part of a much bigger history.  The tragedy is that the protective devices used by groundbreaking medical men, underwater explorers, and firefighters evolved into the gas masks used in the chemical warfare that made World War I so uniquely terrifying at the time.

In 1893, Indianapolis hardware salesman and inventor Willis C. Vajen earned his place in the history of masks and life-saving.


Salt Lake Herald August 10 1896 (2)
Salt Lake Herald, Salt Lake City, Utah, August 10, 1896.

Vajen (whose name, I believe, is pronounced “Vie-en”) came from one of the capitol city’s most prominent and wealthy families.  His father, John Henry Vajen, emigrated from Bremen, Germany, to Baltimore with his parents in 1836, then moved west with them to Cincinnati, Ohio, and eventually Jackson County, Indiana.  (John Vajen, Sr., had been a professor in Germany, a talented organist, and a Lutheran minister, and served as pastor of a large log church near Seymour.)  Vajen, Jr., went into the hardware business and made a small fortune in trading and banking.  During the Civil War, J.H. Vajen became the thrifty Quartermaster General of Indiana and was known as Governor Oliver P. Morton’s right-hand man.  He died in 1917.

Willis Vajen ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps.  After attending a seminary in Hamburg, Germany, Earlham College in Richmond, and Wittenburg College in Ohio, he, too, went into the hardware business.  His sales knack probably had something to do with his skill in design.  (Vajen filed patents for tools and machinery, like this plumb bob and a rein support for horses.)  “Vajen & New” was located at 64 E. Washington St., offering Indianapolitans the best selection of lawn mowers, saw vises, rubber hoses, fishing tackle, fly-screen doors, White Mountain Ice Cream freezers, garden rakes, rubber hoses, and roller skates.


indianapolis news april 13 1886
Indianapolis News, April 13, 1886.
Indianapolis Journal October 9 1884
Indianapolis Journal, October 9, 1884.

No mere humble merchants of garden tools and sporting goods, the Vajens married into great families.  Willis Vajen was wed to Anna Claypool, daughter of the wealthy Connersville businessman Edward F. Claypool.  (Ironically, the majestic Claypool Hotel, named for the inventor’s father-in-law and once one of the great landmarks of the city, was destroyed by arson in 1967.)  Vajen’s sister Fannie Belle married Charles Stewart Voorhees, son of Senator Daniel Voorhees.  (Charles Voorhees represented Washington Territory in Congress.)  The Vajens often vacationed at their summer cottage on Lake Maxincuckee in northern Indiana, loaning it to the Hoosier novelist Booth Tarkington and his wife Laurel Fletcher in 1902.

Yet Willis Vajen’s claim to fame is the “smoke protector” that he perfected with William Bader in 1893.  Apparently one or both of these men had witnessed a tragic hotel fire where rescuers were unable to reach the fourth floor due to smoke, the inspiration for their efforts at invention.  A German immigrant, Bader was a piano maker by profession and may have come up with the idea first.  Testimony from a lawsuit filed in U.S. Court in 1899 has it that Vajen first saw a photograph of the device in the music store where Bader worked, and the  two worked together to improve efficacy of the mask, meanwhile helped along by Dennis Swenie, Chicago’s fire chief.  A clip in the Los Angeles Herald suggests that “William Baders” was the real genius, Vajen only “furnishing the capital for the enterprise.”  The court’s verdict, however, was that Vajen deserved most of the credit.


hyman's handbook 2
Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis, 1909.

The struggle to perfect a mask that can ward off the assault of smoke, water, noxious fumes, and even the plague goes back centuries.  News articles heralding the Vajen-Bader Patent Smoke Protector often remarked that it looked like a sea-diver’s helmet.  This, too, was a new invention.  English brothers Charles and John Deane had been inspired to invent their famous copper diving helmet in the 1820s after witnessing a fire at a smoke-filled horse stable.  When the Deanes attached a leather hose to pump fresh oxygen into their firefighting helmet, scuba-diving took a great leap forward.  (While wearing such an outfit in 1836, John Deane discovered Henry VIII’s long-lost warship Mary Rose, sunk off the Isle of Wight three-hundred years before.)


Deane Helmet
English underwater explorers John and Charles Deane invented the diver’s helmet in 1823 while figuring out a better way to fight fires. In 1893, French marine scientist Louis Boutan wore a similar diver’s suit and became the world’s first underwater photographer.

Another fascinating European forerunner of the Vajen-Bader mask was the plague doctor’s costume.  While these seem like creatures of the fantastic imagination to us today, in the 17th century doctors venturing into epidemic-ridden cities sported masks resembling bird beaks, along with heavy protective suits that they believed gave protection from “miasmatic air.”  Filled with scented herbs and spices like ambergris, myrrh, mint, cloves, and rose petals, the doctor’s elongated “beak” was designed as a kind of air filter.   Credited to the Parisian doctor Charles de l’Orme, these ornithologically-inspired plague garments were in use as early as 1619 and later became a feature in the Venetian carnival.


plague doctors mask 2
The crystal eyeballs and Moroccan leather in this 17th-century doctor’s get-up were oddly echoed by Hoosier innovator Willis C. Vajen, who outfitted his smoke helmets with delicate mica ear pieces to allow firefighters to hear and used sturdy leather that protected the neck and head against falling incendiary debris.

plague doctors mask
Doktor Schnabel von Rom, a.k.a. “Doctor Beak of Rome,” wears Kleidung wider den Tod — “clothing against death” — in this 1656 broadside. The engraving is written in “macaronic language,” a mix of German and Latin. Bilingualism was also common in Hoosier newspapers.

When Willis Vajen and William Bader undertook work on their smoke helmet, other innovators had already tried out an array of devices, ranging from primitive sponges and lightweight “respiratory veils” to more sophisticated contraptions, like the one invented in the 1870’s by Irish physicist John Tyndall, who incorporated a cotton filter saturated with lime, charcoal,  and glycerin.  A different device was the respirator pioneered by Bernhard Loeb, who attached metal air canisters to the mask’s mouth.

Chicago’s Fire Chief Dennis J. Swenie endorsed Vajen and Bader’s invention early on — although as he wrote in a letter reprinted in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette in May 1897, a few technical snags stood in the way:

Some two years ago Willis C. Vajen, an Indianapolis inventor, brought me a smoke helmet or protector and asked me what I thought of it.  He will himself, no doubt, admit that it was a crude and cumbersome affair.  The principle material in its construction was sole leather, and its window was of a single thickness or pane of glass.  It did not have facilities for enabling the wearer to hear, and the tank for the compressed air was fully six times larger than was necessary.

However, it was clear that the inventor was on the right track. . .  As it stands now, the weight of the helmet is practically nothing, resting upon the shoulders.  The protector is made of asbestus tanned horsehide and is securely fastened by means of two straps which pass from the back under the arms and snap into rings in front.  Its top is padded and is also re-enforced with transverse seams of the hard leather, which stand up to the height of about an inch.  This makes it capable of withstanding a very heavy blow and forms an almost perfect protection against falling bricks and small stones.

Directly at the back of the neck is a small air tank, which can be filled by means of an ordinary force pump such as the bicyclists use for inflating their pneumatic tires.  It will hold 100 pounds of compressed air and has a tiny gauge attached which registers the pressure of air within.  The first five or ten minutes at a fire generally determines the result, and the total capacity of the air tank is sufficient to last a man for 40 minutes.

“Delicate mica diaphragms” for the ears and eyes helped with vision and hearing, as a did a double-paned window.  “Both eye and ear pieces are protected by strong wire guards. . .  On the front exterior, where it may be easily reached, is a signal whistle, which does not consume any of the pure air from the reservoir.  The operation of the signal, which is loud and sharp, makes no drain upon the breathing resources of the fireman.”

An article in Fire & Water Engineering in 1906 adds:  “It is neat; it weighs only six pounds; it can be put on as easily as a coat. . . There is no hose attachment which is liable to kink or break and thus impede the movements of the wearer.”


vajen mask 3


patent-vajen1


The Vajen-Bader Company’s life-saving invention caught on fast.  Praise came not only from American fire chiefs, but from international clients.  Operating out of a space on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library a block north of Monument Circle (and later at a factory in Richmond, Indiana), the company filled orders from customers as diverse as meatpackers, mining and gas companies, breweries, and the British and Chilean navies.  Overseas agents in Johannesburg, London, and Yokohama marketed the smoke protector around the globe.  In 1897, fire fighters from Dublin, Ireland, to Wellington, New Zealand were “using them with entire satisfaction.”

The masks sold for $100, a large investment for some municipal fire departments, but Hyman’s Handbook claimed that “during the first year an estimated $3,000,000 worth of property was saved by the use of this new device.”


old indianapolis public library 1896
A small team of workers made Vajen-Bader smoke protectors on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library at the corner of Ohio and Meridian streets. Demolished in the 1960s during a period of urban renewal, the library also once housed the Board of Public School Commissioners, at a site now occupied by the downtown Sheraton Hotel.

A contemporary article from the Los Angeles Herald touts the value of the smoke helmet in preventing minor fires from turning into major ones.

Often a fire of insignificant proportions causes such a dense volume of smoke that it is quite impossible for its location to be discovered, and it smoulders thus until it has gained such headway that it is impossible to extinguish it.

When Willis Vajen attended a firefighters’ convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1896, his cutting-edge device was the star of the show.  The Salt Lake Herald reprinted testimony from the fire department in Kansas City, Missouri, which had already put the mask to a rigorous test.  As KC’s Fire Chief George C. Hale (a great innovator himself) wrote, firemen found a house “which had a cellar underneath, with no ventilation whatsoever.”

In the cellar was dug a hole, in which was placed one of the worst smelling conglomerations of combustibles ever heaped together — sulphur, feathers, tar, wooden and cotton rags and burlap sacks.  Hardly had the match been touched to the pile, until a dense volume of smoke began to roll up out of the single trap door that led down into the cellar.  When the penetrating fumes of sulphur set everyone to coughing, there were many who shook their heads and said no one could possibly live five minutes in the cellar.  The smoke pushed its way up the brick wall and was coming out at the crevices.

Second Assistant Chief Henderson was selected to wear the helmet.  The cylinder was filled with air until there was a 100-pound pressure.  The whistle was tested to see if it would sound.  The helmet was dropped over Henderson’s head and strapped around his body.

“If you grow weak or begin to suffocate,” said Chief Hale, “blow your whistle vigorously and we will come after you.”

The rap door was then raised and the fireman disappeared into the sickening, penetrating smoke.  The door was shut tightly.  Not a breath of pure air could reach the man in the helmet.

Then the crowd began to wait.  Watches were looked at and after a couple of minutes had elapsed without hearing any sound from the fireman, several began to grow nervous, thinking that the sulphur fumes might have gotten in quick work and strangled him.  The door was partly raised and Chief Hale called to Henderson to blow his whistle.  A far-off sound came from the cellar, telling that Henderson was in good shape. . .

The smoke continued to grow denser and blacker, and the odor more vile.  Henderson’s whistle sounded frequently and no uneasiness was felt.  Eighteen minutes had elapsed from the time when he had gone into the cellar, when he knocked on the door. . .

“How did you stand it, Alec?” queried everybody.

“Stand it!  Why, I could have stayed down there all day.  It was dark as midnight, but I could breathe as easily as I do now. . .”

When the pressure gauge of the air cylinder was examined it was found that only ten pounds of air had been used, ninety pounds being left.


Squad 52 Cincinnati
Two of this team of firefighters of Squad 52 in Cincinnati, Ohio, wear Vajen-Bader smoke protectors, circa 1920.

Salt Lake Herald August 10 1896
Salt Lake Herald, August 10, 1896.

Indianapolis News October 1 1896

Firemen wearing the novel smoke helmets came to the rescue after an ammonia explosion at Schmidt’s Brewery, a subsidiary of the Indianapolis Brewing Company, nearly killed a number of workers on the night of September 31, 1896.  The Indianapolis News reported:

The fire that started in the second story of the building in the malt mill was subdued by the fire department.  It was a hard fire to reach as the fumes of ammonia were strong, and it was almost impossible for a man to get near the building.  The firemen say that this is the first difficult fire they have had since the Vajen-Bader smoke protector was adopted by the department, and that these helmets made it possible for the men to enter the building and reach the fire with the chemical engines.  They say that although the fumes of ammonia were strong enough to render an unprotected fireman unconscious, the men wearing the helmets suffered no inconvenience from the fumes.


willis c vajen obit 1900


Aged 49, Willis Vajen, who suffered from life-long anemia, died at his home at 23 E. Vermont St. on July 22, 1900 and was buried at Crown Hill.  In one of history’s bizarre twists, all the houses on Vajen’s block were demolished around 1921 to make way for the mammoth Indiana World War Memorial, the city’s enormous Egyptian-inspired temple to the veterans of World War I.

These soldiers, of course, were the first to use the terrifying invention whose evolution was partly due to the Vajen-Bader smoke protector.  Early in the 20th century, the gas mask wove its way into sickening nightmares, both dreamed and awake, as Europe — and then the whole world — caught on fire.


Altoona Tribune March 26 1918
Altoona Tribune, Altoona, Pennsylvania, March 26, 1918.

german soldiers in gas masks
German soldiers and a mule wear gas masks on the Western Front during World War I. Spike-helmeted firemen in Berlin’s Fire Department had already supplanted the mule and the horse with the bicycle as early as 1899, as shown in this issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Victor_Bulla_-_Young_Pioneers_Defence - Leningrad 1937
Young Pioneers Defense, Leningrad, Russia, 1937, by photographer and early filmmaker Viktor Bulla.

tobruk onions
American soldiers peel onions while wearing gas masks in Tobruk, Libya, during World War II.

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com.

Indiana’s Pearl and Button Boom

Today, we drive over rivers and creeks in a few seconds and barely know their names.  But before modern transportation severed so much of our connection to waterways, human contact with rivers practically defined life in water-rich Indiana.

One lost industry that had a brief “boom and bust” over most of the eastern U.S. a century ago was closely tied to the life of the rivers. If you’re keeping a list of industries (like steel and auto manufacturing) that have declined and even vanished from the Midwest, add one more:  pearl button making.

Consumers today rarely give a thought to where buttons come from.  How synthetic goods are made (i.e., the zippers, plastic buttons, and Velcro that partly replaced shell around 1950) may seem less “romantic” than the work of pearl fishermen hauling shiny treasures out of Midwestern streams in johnboats.  Yet in spite of its nostalgic appeal, the pearl button industry also wreaked havoc on the environment and on workers in factories.


wabash river pearl hunter vincennes indiana circa 1905
(This photo taken on the Wabash River at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1905 shows a pearl fisherman in his boathouse. He kept a “cooker” on hand to steam the mussel shells open. “The meat was fed to hogs or used as bait.” Shells were sent off to button factories.)

rock river clamming near Beloit WI ca 1911 Lloyd Ballard
(Man on a johnboat on the Rock River outside Beloit, Wisconsin, circa 1911. Mussels would clamp down on hooks and not let go until they were cooked off. The rods were often made out of cast-off gas pipes. Photo by Lloyd Ballard. Beloit College Archives.)

At the time of European settlement, midwestern rivers abounded in mussels.  As many as 400 species probably lived in the Ohio Valley in 1800. The Mound Builder cultures that once occupied the American heartland found many ways to use mussels and left behind enormous refuse piles — what archaeologists call “middens” — in their towns, which almost always sat beside creeks and rivers.  They were large towns, too.  In the year 1200, Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the future site of St. Louis, was bigger than medieval London.

Excavations in southwestern Indiana have turned up so many freshwater mussel shells that archaeologists dubbed one early group the “Shell Mound People.”  Often a fertility symbol, shells may have had a deep spiritual meaning for the Mound Builders and played a role in their rituals of life and death.  Pearls — hardened secretions meant to neutralize invading irritants and parasites — were undoubtedly used by Native Americans to decorate their bodies.


CahokiaMound72diskBeads72sm
(Shell disks from a burial mound at Cahokia, Illinois. St. Louis Community College.)

 


Among Indiana’s early settlers, “diving” for pearls hidden in freshwater mussels dates back to at least 1846, when farmers at Winamac founded a small stockholders association to try to market shells taken from the Tippecanoe River.  They sent a man to St. Louis and Cincinnati to ask about the value of freshwater pearls.  Prices were low at the time and the “Pulaski County Pearl Diver Association” went bust.

Though a few button factories existed in Indiana before the Civil War — relying on shell, horn, and bone — the American freshwater pearl boom didn’t really gain momentum until 1900.  In that year, a pearl frenzy erupted along the Black and White Rivers near Newport, Arkansas.  Arkansas’ pearl boom had all the hallmarks of an old-time gold rush.  A writer for the Indianapolis Journal reported in 1903:

Within the past three years more than $3,000,000 worth of pearls have been taken from the Mississippi Valley. . .  The excitement spread from the land to the river steamboats.  Their crews deserted them, and sometimes their captains, and the Black River was the scene of the wildest excitement.  New towns were built and old ones were increased to the size of cities.  Streets were laid out, banks and mercantile establishments were started, mortgages were lifted, money was plenty and times were prosperous. . . New York pearl dealers flocked there in great numbers.

The writer tells a story, perhaps exaggerated like much of his account, that an African American family who had lived in poverty made enough money pearling to build a large house and hire white servants.  He also mentions that New York dealers were often ripped off by sellers masquerading Arkansas pearls as Asian.

Arkansas’ rivers were quickly “pearled out,” but the pearl boom spread and reached its peak around 1905-1910. Southwestern Indiana is almost as close to Arkansas as it is to Cincinnati.  When the Southern boom died down,  the hunt for pearls came north.  The Jasper Weekly Courier reported in October 1903 that pearls had been found in the Wabash River at Maunie, Illinois, just south of New Harmony.  “The river is a veritable bee hive and scores are at work securing mussel shells.  The price of shells has risen from $4 to $15 a ton and an experienced man can secure a ton in a day.  Farmers find it difficult to get farm hands.”

“Musselers” found an estimated $7000 worth of pearls in the Wabash in the first week of June 1909.  Charles Williams, a “poor musseler,” found a “perfect specimen of the lustrous black pearl and has sold it for $1250.  Black pearls are seldom found in freshwater shells.”


black pearl


city of idaho at vincennes - mussel shells
(The steamboat City of Idaho docked at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1907. For a few years, a small button factory on Willow Street produced as many as 3,000 buttons a week from mussel shells harvested along the Wabash. When the factory closed, mussel fishermen sent shells by steamboat and train to the large button manufacturers in Muscatine, Iowa.)

Vincennes experienced an explosion of musseling in 1905, as pearl hunters converged on the Wabash River’s shell banks.  Eastern buyers came out to Indiana and frequently offered $500-$1000 for a pearl, which they polished into jewelry in cities like New York.  A thousand dollars was a lot amount of money at a time when factory workers typically made about $8.00 a week.  But with several hundred people eagerly scouring the riverbanks, the best pearls were quickly snatched up.  For about a decade afterwards, “mussel men” and their families focused on providing shells for button manufacturers.

Interestingly, the shell craze caused a squatters’ village to spring up in Vincennes.  A shanty town called Pearl City, made up of shacks and houseboats, sat along the river from 1907 to 1936, when as part of a WPA deal, its residents were resettled in Sunset Court, Vincennes’ first public housing.

At Logansport on the Wabash, patients from the Northern Indiana Insane Hospital spent part of the summer of 1908 hunting for pearl-bearing mussels.  “One old man has been lucky, finding several pearls valued at $200 each.  Local jewelers have tried to buy them but the old man hoards them like a miser does his gold.  He keeps them in a bottle, and his chief delight is to hold the bottle so that he can see his prizes as the sun strikes the gems.” In and around Indianapolis, hunters discovered pearls in Fall Creek and the White River, especially around Waverly, southwest of the city.

Though every fisherman sought to find a high-value pearl and make a tiny fortune, the boom’s more prosaic side — button-making — eventually won out. From the 1890s to the 1940s, hundreds of small factories across the Midwest turned out glossy “mother-of-pearl” buttons.  The industry especially flourished along a stretch of the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, called the “button capital of the world.”  Muscatine’s button industry was founded by John Boepple, a master craftsman from Hamburg, Germany, who immigrated to Iowa around 1887.  Muscatine’s factories turned out a staggering 1.5 billion buttons in 1905 alone.  About 10,000 workers were employed by button factories in the Midwestern states.

John Boepple lived to see the industry’s impact on rivers like the Mississippi.  In 1910, the industrialist turned conservationist began work at a biological station established by Congress at Fairport, Iowa, to help repopulate mussels by reseeding riverbeds.  Congress’ role was simply to preserve the industry, not to save decimated species.   In 1912, the embattled mussels had their revenge:  Boepple cut his foot on a shell and died of a resulting infection.

Although Iowa dominated the American button industry, numerous tiny factories popped up in small Indiana towns, including Mishawaka, Lawrenceburg, Leavenworth, Madison, and Shoals. (Shoals was named for its founder, Frederick Shulz, not for the mussel shoals on the White River.) Taylor Z. Richey, writing from Cannelton, Indiana, described how the work was done along the Ohio River in 1904.  Many factories did not create the actual buttons, merely the “blanks” that were shipped out to Iowa.


Button_cut_shell


leavenworth button works
(In 1910, three buttonworks in Leavenworth, Indiana, employed twenty-four families — most of the population of the town. This two-story Greek Revival building had once been City Hall. Long chutes connected upper windows to wheelbarrows below. Discarded shells were burned to produce lime. “Old” Leavenworth was permanently wiped out by the 1937 Ohio River Flood.)

button factory at st. mary's west virginia
(Workers at a button factory along the Ohio River at St. Mary’s, West Virginia, circa 1910.)

Working in the button industry was far from quaint and actually proved a hazardous job.  Exposure to hydrochloric acid and poor ventilation took a big toll on workers.  Author Jeffrey Copeland notes that there were more cases of pneumonia, typhus and gangrene among button factory laborers than in any other industry.  Children as young as eight worked sixty-hour weeks carrying buckets of shells and acid to soften the material up.  Eye injuries and loss of fingers often occurred as workers “stamped” the buttons out of shells or operated lathes.  Even before the industry reached its turn-of-the-century heyday, gory accidents (such as this one, reported in the Jasper Weekly Courier in 1874) made it into the newspapers:

A French girl, sixteen years old, was caught by her long hair in a revolving shaft at a button factory in Kankakee, Ill., the other day, and the left side of her head was completely scalped.  A severe concussion of the brain was also sustained.  Her condition was considered critical.

Complaints about filth and dust drove Mishawaka’s factory to relocate to St. Joseph, Michigan, in 1917.

Partly under the leadership of a young activist named Pearl McGill, labor unions in Iowa battled it out with factory owners, culminating in Muscatine’s “Button War” of 1911, a fight that involved arson and the killing of police.  (Steve Cable tells the interesting story of labor leader McGill, who was murdered in 1924 at age 29.)

In Vincennes in 1903, however, the usual pattern of Progressive-era labor politics seemed to go the other way around.  The Indianapolis Journal reported that Eugene Aubrey, owner of a pearl-button factory at Vincennes and allegedly a member of the Socialist Party, fired worker Charles Higginbottom for serving in the militia during Evansville’s bloody July 1903 race riot, when many African Americans were gunned down.  The Journal went on to accuse Aubrey of being a secret anarchist.

In his semi-fictional Tales of Leavenworth, Rush Warren Carter described a small-town Indiana button factory in those years.  A boy named Palmer Dotson quits school at 16 and gets a job working under superintendent “Badeye” Williams.  (Factory workers often lost eyes.)  “Cutting buttons was not a business that developed one’s mind or elevated his thoughts,” Carter wrote.  “The cutting process was a dull routine to a background of everything but enlightened conversation.  Talk about your ladies’ sewing circles.  When it came to gossip, [women] were not in the same league with the men in the button factory, who chewed and rechewed every real or imagined bit of gossip until it had been ground to a fine pulp.”  Dotson died of tuberculosis at 21.  A co-worker decided that opening a saloon would be preferable to stamping buttons.

In 1917, a silent movie based on Virginia Brooks’ popular novel “Little Lost Sister” was playing at The Auditorium in South Bend.  The plot begins in a sordid rural button factory in “Millville” (probably in Iowa), where the heroine, Elsie Welcome, has big dreams about getting out and going to Chicago.  A classic stand-off with the foreman ensues:

little lost sister


Although Iowa’s factories were still running in 1946 (the year actor Ronald Reagan chose Muscatine’s Pearl Queen), exhaustion of shell banks all over the Midwest was killing the industry fast.  Japanese innovations increased competition after World War II.  Synthetic plastics — which were cheap and could withstand washing machines better than shell — were pioneered in the 1920s and eventually took over the industry in the mid-1950s.  Instead of smelly buckets of shells, workers handled tubs of polyester syrup.  Then, two snazzy new inventions, zippers and Velcro, even cut into the demand for buttons outright.

Indiana’s factories, which had been shipping blanks to Iowa for years, had all gone out of business by the end of World War II.  The last independent buttonworks in the U.S., the Wilbur E. Boyd Factory at Meredosia  on the Illinois River, closed in 1948.  Iowa’s button industry hung on until the mid-1990s, when Chinese innovations in pearl cultivation finally caused it to collapse.

Wabash Valley Visions & Voices has uploaded a rich oral history interview with Arlow Brazeal of Newport, Indiana.  Brazeal, who died in 2000, recalled the last days of commercial musseling on the Wabash and Vermillion Rivers after he began fishing there in the 1930s.


Contact: staylor336 [AT] gmail.com