Our Rich History: Pure Food, Temperance and Progressive intersect at ‘Nasty Corner’

By Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD
Special to NKyTribune

Part 9 of an occasional series about fast food restaurants.

In 1888, the centennial year of Cincinnati, a photographer captured a priceless moment. You’ll even find a huge, almost life-size enlargement of this photo at the National Immigration Museum on Ellis Island in New York City. It shows Tedeschi and Pardi’s Saloon on Vine Street — then near Cincinnati’s so-called “nasty corner” at Fifth and Vine Streets. People on the sidewalk outside are talking. And above them reads the saloon’s signboard declaring “A Wienerwurst with Each Drink.” Other competing saloons advertise the same.

Tedeschi and Pardi’s saloon near Fifth and Vine Streets in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1888. (SOURCE: Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library. Digitally restored by Paul A. Tenkotte for this article)

“A wienerwurst [sausage] with each drink” is the heart of our column today. Quite literally, saloons in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky (and many other places in the US such as Chicago) in the late 1800s and early 1900s enticed patrons to visit them during their lunch hours, to buy one or more alcoholic drinks, and to enjoy a “free lunch.” It sounds like a good deal for the individual patrons, but what were the social concerns and costs?

Temperance leaders, that is, those seeking to reduce or eliminate the consumption of alcohol in America, were appalled by these free saloon lunches. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) opposed the abuse of alcohol and the ill effects it had on women and families. At a time when men were the principal “breadwinners” of the family, a husband who imbibed too much alcohol and spent too much of the family’s budget on drinking could lead to serious financial problems. Further, some alcoholics were abusive to their spouses and children. Additionally, employers were not necessarily happy that some of their employees were wandering off to saloons during their lunch hours and returning to work less than capable of performing their jobs. Other people opposed alcohol on moral grounds, and still others felt that the saloons did not practice sanitary food conditions.

Indeed, practicing sanitary food conditions was clearly not a priority of the saloons. In June 1914, the Cincinnati Post playfully satirized the situation. As the Post’s journalist stated wryly, Cincinnati’s “Chief Sanitary Inspector Folsom of the Health Department has seen things as the result of visiting 773 of the Cincinnati’s 802 saloons.”

The reporter continued:

This editorial comic illustrates how saloon owners, charging five cents for each beer, could afford to provide “free lunches,” versus saloon stand operators who charged three cents per beer. (SOURCE: “Only 3-Cent Schooner House Left Has Sold 11,000 Schooners in 24 Years,” Cincinnati Post, August 31, 1909, p. 4. Digitally restored by Paul A. Tenkotte for this article)

“As a result of his inspections one of the oldest institutions of the beverage bazaar is to be ordered abolished, namely, the common lunch counter fork. No longer will it alternate impartially between the pickled herring and the sauerkraut; no longer will you be permitted to spear a steaming sausage with it after it has returned from the active service of shoving beans into a hungry face.

“In its place Folsom recommends a basket of clean, individual forks, to be kept filled by the porter. With the order goes the following instruction in the use of that instrument:

‘Forks are provided to remove food from the plate to the hand, and must not be used to put food into the mouth.’ ” (“Pipe This: City Says We Must Have Own Forks at Free Lunch Counter,” Cincinnati Post, June 17, 1914, p. 1).

The same article underscored that the sanitary inspector found dirty glasses in 151 saloons, and that of the “773 saloons inspected, only 21 met every sanitary requirement.”

Seven years earlier, in 1907, Covington, Kentucky, was stepping up its sanitary inspections of producers and retailers of meats and milk. Dr. W. E. A. Wyman, the city’s “meat and milk inspector,” and his colleagues of the health department staff were pursuing a “vigorous crusade” against impure and adulterated products. A Kentucky Post reporter stated that “Dr. Wyman has been especially fearless in his crusade of inspections. Slaughter houses, meat and milk depots and some few dairies have been visited and rigidly inspected.” Dr. Wyman declared that “‘in a short time, every butcher, meat dealer and dairyman in Covington will be required to have a permit. Those without them will be arrested’” (“Covington’s New Health Officer Really Looks after Public Health,” Kentucky Post, September 30, 1907, p. 2).

In this editorial comic, Cincinnati’s sanitary inspector Folsom chases the common lunch fork from the saloon, along with two little germs. (SOURCE: “Pipe This: City Says We Must Have Own Forks at Free Lunch Counter,” Cincinnati Post, June 17, 1914, p. 1. Digitally restored by Paul A. Tenkotte for this article)

Cincinnati and Covington’s crusades were outgrowths of the Progressive Era, largely associated with President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, and his attempts to require large corporations to play fair and square. This era was, in turn, descended from a decades-long movement in the late 1800s and the early 1900s to inspect and regulate American’s food supply. Called the “Pure Food Movement,” its leaders included two men from our Ohio River region, Dr. Harvey Wiley and Dr. Charles A. L. Reed.

Harvey Wiley (1844–1930) was born in a log house on a farm in Republican Township in Jefferson County, Indiana (along the Ohio River; its county seat is Madison). His parents helped slaves escape on the “Underground Railroad.” He received his MD degree from Indiana Medical College and pursued further studies at Harvard University and abroad in Germany. His teaching career included Indiana Medical College, Butler University in Indianapolis, and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. In 1882, Dr. Wiley became Chief Chemist at the US Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC. There, he spearheaded the national Pure Food Movement, an effort to remove dangerous food and addictive drug additives from the national supply. His efforts resulted in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, sometimes called the Wiley Act or Dr. Wiley’s Law. Facing opposition for additional reform, Dr. Wiley eventually left the agriculture department in 1912, and “took over the laboratories of Good Housekeeping Magazine where he established the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and worked tirelessly on behalf of the consuming public” (“Harvey Washington Wiley, M.D.,” US Food and Drug Administration).

Covington health officials, 1907. Left to right, Sanitary Guard Edward Cook; Health Officer Dr. L. E. Brinker; and Meat and Milk Inspector Dr. W. E. A. Wyman. SOURCE: “Covington’s New Health Officer Really Looks after Public Health” (Kentucky Post, September 30, 1907, p. 2)

Dr. Charles A. L. Reed (1856–1928) was born in Wolf Lake in Noble Township in northeastern Indiana. He received his MA degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and his MD from the Cincinnati College of Medicine and Surgery, where his father was a professor. Later, he served as President of the American Medical Association (AMA) and also as chair of its legislative committee, proving influential in supporting federal legislation regulating adulterated products, including the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Interestingly, he was an opponent of Prohibition.

Temperance leaders succeeded in “securing passage, by three-fourths of the states, of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919.” It established a period in US history known as Prohibition (1920–1933), “whereby the manufacture, importation, sale, and transportation (but not consumption) of liquor was prohibited. The US Congress passed the National Prohibition Act (also known as the Volstead Act) in 1919, clarifying the specifics of Prohibition. Alcohol above 0.5 percent in content was prohibited, except for use in religious services, medicinal purposes, scientific research, or for industrial uses such as for fuels or dyes” (Paul A. Tenkotte, United States History since 1865: Information Literacy and Critical Thinking. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 2022, p. 52).

Dr. Harvey Wiley working in his chemistry laboratory at the US Department of Agriculture. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Prohibition led to the closing of saloons, and hence, to the end of saloon free lunches. Already, for decades, enterprising businessmen and businesswomen had opened successful alternative lunch places, generically called “dairy lunches,” featuring non-alcoholic beverages like milk. These “dairy lunches,” also called “lunch counters” and “lunch rooms,” became associated with “short-order” fast food made quickly and served efficiently. Their menus generally included items such as bowls of milk with crackers, pancakes/hotcakes, bacon and eggs, sandwiches, and soups.

Upholding sanitary conditions and providing consistent quality food became hallmarks of the Prohibition era and beyond. Cafeterias and fast-food restaurants, such as White Castle, were clean, efficient, and proudly displayed their kitchen areas. White porcelain tiles prevailed. Cooks and servers wore white uniforms, often with hats or nets to secure their hair. Public health—and America’s fast-food choices—entered a new era dedicated to quality and to the demands of conscientious consumers.

Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Editor of the “Our Rich History” weekly series and Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He can be contacted at tenkottep@nku.edu. Tenkotte also serves as Co-Director of the ORVILLE Project (Ohio River Valley Innovation Library and Learning Enrichment). For more information see https://orvillelearning.org/

Dr. Charles A. L. Reed. (Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine)

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