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The Baking Powder War


On this date in 1899, the Oakes Republican ran an advertisement for Calumet Baking Powder, touting it as “the only high quality baking powder at a moderate price.” But from the 1880s to the 1920s, there was a vicious feud between two different schools of thought in the baking powder business. The established manufacturers utilized cream of tartar. But the young upstarts created the alum-phosphate formula. Everyone had an opinion from commercial bakers to chemists to ordinary housewives.

The Calumet Company of Chicago was one of the first manufacturers to embrace the new formula. Calumet touted superior results in the kitchen. The company highlighted the product’s “double-leavening action” and promised perfect results. Interestingly enough, the founder of Calumet was William Monroe Wright of Dayton, Ohio, an older cousin of the famous Wright Brothers. At one time, he had worked for the Royal Company, a producer of cream of tartar.

The Royal Company represented the old guard. Their product was more expensive, but instead of yielding to the new upstart, the company engaged in a relentless campaign against Calumet’s new product. The Royal Company bribed state legislators to pass anti-alum legislation. Royal also put out news stories citing false health studies that warned of risks of using Calumet’s baking powder. Media outlets picked up these stories and presented them as fact. The public was soon convinced that the use of the product could result in hospitalization and even death. One of Royal’s advertisements was titled “Is it Malaria or Is It Alum?” It asserted that Calumet’s baking powder was “highly injurious” and “should be prohibited by law.”

By the turn of the century, however, Calumet was beginning to win the Baking Powder War. People liked a bargain and weren’t put off by Royal’s fearful claims, which Calumet countered by making a public offer of one thousand dollars for anyone able to find “any substance injurious to health” in Calumet baking powder.

But the flap over baking powders continued. In 1913, the North Dakota Food Commissioner took exception to alum added to baking powders, calling the inclusion of egg albumen a fraud that made the product perform better in tests while having no real benefit when it came to cooking. Consequently, the state’s food commissioner issued new rules and regulations for baking powder that prohibited albumen.

In the end, Calumet survived the baking powder wars, and the product advertised in the Oakes Republican in 1899 can still be found on shelves today, but with some revisions. It doesn’t contain albumen, but it is part of a newer dispute over sodium aluminum sulfate. Concern over aluminum has led some competitors to tout themselves as aluminum-free.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Made in Chicago Museum. “Calumet Baking Powder.” "" Accessed 4 August, 2017

Oakes Republican. Calumet Baking Powder Ad. 1 September, 1899.