Uncle Sam codfish and star-spangled peas
by Laura Bien
"Freedom fries" are only the latest manifestation of this country's 150-year-old tradition of linking patriotism with food, as documented in the Clements Library's exhibit Patriotic Fare: Abe Lincoln Tomatoes, Washington Crisps, and Uncle Sam Apples.
Starting July 5, hundreds of vintage food product boxes, menus, advertisements, posters, and artifacts will be exhibited in the Clements's four large display cases. Among them is a reproduction of a 1905 tin sign advertising Campbell's soup, showing an American flag made of rows of the red and white soup cans. Predating Warhol's famous soup can prints, the array includes such lost soup varieties as mulligatawny, mock turtle, and mutton broth. Word is that it inspired such outrage from those who felt it defiled the flag that the ad was withdrawn.
The tie between patriotism and product is sometimes tenuous. In addition to Bunker Hill pickles, there's an ad for Plymouth Rock gelatine dainties and a flour named for the famed orator and senator Daniel Webster, whose craggy visage glowers from the bag. One of the ads for White House coffee lauds "the same flavory blend served in President Cleveland's time," unexpectedly spotlighting Cleveland as a connoisseur of the bean.
The artifacts outline the iconic use of the figures of Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty/Miss Columbia. Lady Liberty appears as, originally, a sort of Greek goddess, then a Native American maiden (who perseveres on the Land-O-Lakes butter box), Lady Columbia, and finally, the Statue of Liberty.
Several ads trace the evolution of Uncle Sam from his original incarnation as a homespun feller known as Brother Jonathan. One image portrays Brother Jonathan and Miss Columbia bantering in a kitchen. "Well, neow what on airth are you doin' in the kitchen, Miss Columbia?" asks the man in the star-spangled frock coat. He's tossed his battered hat on the table. Lady Columbia says, perhaps through gritted teeth, "Brother Jonathan, your hat has always been so rough that only Mrs. Potts's Cold Handle Sad
Iron can fix things."
Other anthropomorphized countries appear. A Quaker oats ad from the time of the Spanish-American War shows a Quaker flanked by Uncle Sam and beaming as radiantly as the giant sun behind him. He welcomes four half-nude, slightly scrawny figures labeled Hawaii, Cuba, "Porto Rico," and the "Phillipines." The ad's tagline reads, "My children, this is one of the good things which you receive at my hands: eat it and grow strong and great as I have."
Don't miss the "Washington Crisps" cornflakes, Uncle Sam tucking in to a bowl of Cream of Wheat (above), or the advertisement for Burnham's "sweet mellow peas" bedecked with a somber portrait of Abe Lincoln. The artifacts will remain on display through September 29.
[Review published July 2006]