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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Baking Powder Wars

  • Author(s): Civitello, Linda
  • Advisor(s): Yeager, Mary A.
  • et al.

How did a mid-nineteenth century American invention, baking powder, replace yeast as a leavening agent and create a culinary revolution as profound as the use of yeast thousands of years ago?

The approach was two-pronged and gendered: business archives, U.S. government records and lawsuits revealed how baking powder was created, marketed, and regulated. Women’s diaries and cookbooks—personal, corporate, community, ethnic—from the eighteenth century to internet blogs showed the use women made of the new technology of baking powder.

American exceptionalism laid the groundwork for the baking powder revolution. Unlike Europe, with a history of communal ovens and male-dominated bakers’ guilds, in the United States bread baking was the duty of women. In the North, literate women without slave labor to do laborious, day-long yeast bread baking experimented with chemical shortcuts. Beginning in 1856, professional male chemists patented various formulas for baking powder, which were not standardized.

Of the 534 baking powder companies in the U.S., four main companies—Rumford, Royal, Calumet, and Clabber Girl—fought advertising, trade, legislative, scientific, and judicial wars for market primacy, using proprietary cookbooks, lawsuits, trade cards, and bribes. In the process, they altered or created cake, cupcakes, cookies, biscuits, pancakes, quick breads, waffles, doughnuts, and other foods, and forged a distinct American culinary identity. Baking powder made baked goods cheaper to prepare and shortened their cooking time radically. This new American chemical leavening shortcut also changed the breadstuffs of Native Americans, African Americans, and every immigrant group and was a force for assimilation.

The wars continued in spite of scandals exposed by muckraking journalists and investigation by President Theodore Roosevelt, through WWI, the 1920s, the Depression, and WWII in every state and territory in the United States until standardization finally occurred at the end of the twentieth century. Now, baking powder is used by global businesses such as McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin’ Donuts, International House of Pancakes, and in home and commercial kitchens around the world. The legacies left by baking powder fortunes include endowed chairs at Harvard and Yale; and the Indianapolis 500 and Triple Crown horse racing winners.

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