December 24, 2011

Don't Forget the Christmas Tip!

In the 18th century Boston had several newspapers, which were delivered to people's homes by young men who were generally from the lower class. Although Christmas was not widely celebrated in New England at this time, the newspaper boys still relied on ancient traditions of Yuletide charity to get tips from their customers.

Many newspapers provided pre-printed fliers that their newsboys could give to their customers as a reminder about Christmas tips. Here is one example the Boston Evening Post gave out in 1764:

The Boy who Weekly Pads the Streets,
With all the freshest News he meets,
His Mistress and Masters greets.

Christmas and New-Year, Days of Joy,
The Harvest of your Carrier Boy,
He hopes you'll not his Hopes destroy...

That his generous Patrons may inspire,
By filling up his Pockets higher!

Boys who delivered the Massachusetts Spy, another Boston paper, asked this from their customers in 1771:

Kind Sirs! Your gen'rous bounty show
Few shillings on your Lad bestow,
Which will reward his pain,
Who piercing Winter's cold endures,
And to your hands the SPY secures,
And still his task maintains.
Not many people get newspapers delivered these days, but be sure to tip your postman or other service person in your life. Keep up the ancient tradition and have a great Christmas!

(All this information is from Stephen Nissenbaum's excellent book The Battle for Christmas.)

December 18, 2011

Chester Greenwood Day

Chester Greenwood was born in 1858 in Farmington, Maine. An ambitious young lad, when he was 12 years old he dropped out of grammar school to sell eggs from his parents' farm. Rain or shine, summer or winter, he walked about eight miles a day selling eggs.

Chester didn't like how cold his ears got as he walked his route in the winter, so he showed a little Yankee ingenuity. Rather than wrap his head in a scarf like most people did, he created two wire loops that fit over his ears and covered them with beaver fur and velvet.

He called his invention the ear muffler.

At first people laughed at Chester, but they soon saw the value in this new fashion accessory, and he began selling ear mufflers to his Farmington neighbors.

In 1877, the U.S. government issued Chester patent number 188,292 for his invention. Shortly afterward he opened factories in West Farmington and Farmington Village. By 1883 Chester's company was making 30,000 pairs of ear mufflers a year. By 1936, one year before his death, that number had increased to an astounding 400,000.

Copy of patent from Wired.

In 1977 the Maine legislature declared December 21 Chester Greenwood Day:

Chester Greenwood Day shall commemorate and honor Chester Greenwod, whose inventive genius and native ability, which contributed much to the enjoyment of Maine's winter season, marked him as one of Maine's outstanding citizens.

The people of Farmington still celebrate their native son's legacy, but on the first Saturday of December every year. Chester Greenwood Day 2011 took place on December 3. It featured a parade, horse and buggy rides and, of course, an earmuff fashion show.

I found this information about Chester Greenwood in Amy Whorf McGuiggan's Christmas in New England.

December 08, 2011

America's Oldest Fruitcake

A good fruitcake can last a long time. The high sugar content in the cake helps it keep, and if you frequently moisten the cake with liquor it can last a very long time.

A very, very long time. America's oldest documented fruitcake was baked in 1878 by Fidelia Bates, and it is still in her family today. In 2003 her great grandson, Morgan Ford of Tecumseh, Michigan, brought the cake on Jay Leno's talk show. Despite possible health risks Jay ate a very small piece of the cake. He said it smelled good but tasted crystallized. That's pretty good praise for a cake that's 125 years old.

Michigan may have the oldest fruitcake, but the first fruitcake recipe written in the United States was published in Connecticut 1n 1798. It's contained in our country's first cookbook, AMERICAN COOKERY,OR THE ART OF DRESSING VIANDS, FISH, POULTRY, AND VEGETABLES, AND THE BEST MODES OF MAKING PASTES, PUFFS, PIES, TARTS, PUDDINGS, CUSTARDS AND PRESERVES, AND ALL KINDS OF CAKES,FROM THE IMPERIAL PLUMB TO PLAIN CAKE. ADAPTED TO THE COUNTRY, AND ALL GRADES OF LIFE. That's quite a title, but at least buyers knew what they were getting! The author is Amelia Simmons, about whom little is known except she was an orphan, a fact stated on the title page.

Simmons mentions something called plumb cake in the title of the book. Although it has a different name, the ingredients are nearly identical to a modern fruitcake. Here's the recipe:

Mix one pound currants, one drachm nutmeg, mace and cinnamon each, a little salt, one pound of citron, orange peal candied, and almonds bleach'd, 6 pound of flour, (well dry'd) beat 21 eggs, and add with 1 quart new ale yeast, half pint of wine, 3 half pints of cream and raisins...

She doesn't tell us how long to bake it or how many pans to fill, but with 21 eggs and 6 pounds of flour she probably had enough cake for the whole state of Connecticut.

The word "plumb" here is actually an older variant spelling of "plum", which centuries ago in England meant raisins or other fruit. So not only are the ingredients the same as a fruitcake, but the name is equivalent as well.

I'm not sure when fruitcake became associated with Christmas, and when it actually became known as fruitcake. Lots of cakes in America's past were really fruitcakes under another name. For example, election cake was a yeasted fruitcake. Lydia Child's 1833 cookbook The American Frugal Housewife has a recipe called wedding cake, but the ingredients are identical to a modern fruitcake. I personally love fruitcake, but I don't think most modern brides want it at their wedding.

Like Christmas itself fruitcake may have its origins in the ancient Greco-Roman world. A writer named Chrysippus claims the Cretans made cakes with nuts, fruit, spices and honey. I'm sure the Romans enjoyed similar treats as the celebrated Saturnalia, the pagan forerunner to Christmas. If a two-thousand year old fruitcake is unearthed I want to see Jay Leno take a bite!