By: Alex Sniffen

Buying in bulk is something that I value quite a bit. It allows me to plan ahead, and not have to shop for non-perishables each week. When I saw this large box – and I call it a box because it is in fact, made of wood – of Cream Tartar, my initial thoughts were about how excessively massive it was. That being said, this will be more about what is contained within the aforementioned box, rather than the box itself. So why, you ask, would a kitchen need this much cream of tartar?

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Bacon, Stickney & Co Cream of Tartar Box, 1850s, Wood. Farmers’ Museum Collection, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Royal Kretzenger, F49.44, Photograph by Alex Sniffen. 

With this tub of tartar, the multi-use of this product is paramount, and no one would possibly buy this product if they were not using it regularly. Crafting an image of efficiency and sustainability, a large tub of cream of tartar would have served many uses in a household kitchen, and as a space that also served many uses, there was no shortage of moments for its use. Cream of tartar, or according to the label here, cream tartar, is primarily used in baking to stabilize egg whites, allowing for fluffiness and more air in something like meringue pies. Used in baking also include bread, cookies, and other various desserts, it has a multitude of abilities.[1] It is also a possibility that this box was utilized by a baker, as they would require a large amount of cream tartar for use in breads or other baked goods like pies to sell in their shop. However, the curious part of this is the large number of decorations that grace the label for the Bacon, Stickney, & Co. on the front of the tub. Based in Albany, Bacon, Stickney, & Co. were large spice dealers that sold product starting in the 1850s.[2] Would this be something that a baker would use because of its decoration, or is it possibly something designed to encourage purchases? The label itself feels exotic and rich, from the Arabian scenes and the smartly dressed women on either side. This, in addition to being something that bakers could show off in the front of their stores, also serves as a draw for those who feel that cream of tartar is a special spice only to be used by the highest quality of bakeries or kitchens.

With such a wide range of use, it’s no wonder tartar would become a household staple. Around the colonial house, objects that took up this much space would need to have some sort of grand purpose. You could not afford to waste room and money on an item that would be used for one thing only throughout the entirety of the year, whereas a baker by trade would be able to use this large amount of tartar readily. Similarly to buying in bulk today, it was likely more efficient and cheaper to procure a product that would last you a large amount of time, with the trade-off for a larger container.

[1] “Cream of Tartar Substitute, Cream of Tartar Shelf Life, Whats Cooking America.” Cream of Tartar Substitute, Cream of Tartar Shelf Life, Whats Cooking America. Accessed October 11, 2015.

[2] Howell, George Rogers, and Jonathan Tenney. Bi-centennial History of Albany History of the County of Albany, N.Y., from 1609 to 1886. New York, New York: W.W. Munsell &, 1886. 564.

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