The Great Cranberry Scare of 1959

Most of us boomers can’t imagine what a Thanksgiving dinner would be like without cranberries. The ubiquitous holiday sweet treat figures greatly in memories of our youth. Some families preferred the whole-berry sauce, but Mister Boomer’s family would never think of varying from the jellied variety in a can. Chances are, a can of jellied cranberry sauce was one of your first solo encounters with a hand can opener. If your household was anything like Mister B’s, opening a can of cranberry sauce was an annual event filled with entertainment value and sweet anticipation. The kids would vie for which one would get the honors of opening the can. They’d gather around as the appointed one methodically slipped the can opener onto the lid, squeezed the handles together and twisted the butterfly-shaped metal knob to slowly cut around the lid edge, until the top was free. Flipping the can over on a plate, the can opener was employed again to pierce the bottom, thereby releasing the vacuum. With a couple of shakes, the sweet stuff would at first slither with an amusing low, slurping sound, then eventually plop from its metallic cylinder to the plate below. How could you not love a food that displayed the ridge shapes of the can in which it was stored? Besides, the ridges could also be used as a handy guide for slicing.

For millions of American families, there was no cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving in 1959. That year, a food scare prompted many families to avoid cranberries altogether for their holiday meal. The story actually begins in 1958, when Congress passed an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 that banned from food any substance that could be shown to cause cancer in test animals. Fast forward to November of 1959, and a group of farmers in Oregon and Washington treated their cranberry crop with a weed killer called aminotriazole. Since the crop was ready to harvest, it was the wrong time to spray the chemical because it left a residue on the harvested crop. Aminotriazole had been known to cause cancerous tumors in laboratory rats.

On November 9, 1959, Arthur Sherman Flemming, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare — the parent agency to the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — issued this statement:

The Food and Drug Administration today urged that no further sales be made of cranberries and cranberry products produced in Washington and Oregon in 1958 and 1959 because of their possible contamination by a chemical weed killer, aminotriazole, which causes cancer in the thyroids of rats when it is contained in their diet, until the cranberry industry has submitted a workable plan to separate the contaminated berries from those that are not contaminated.

 A reporter asked Secretary Flemming whether a housewife should buy cranberries for her family; his response set off a national panic. Flemming said that if a housewife wasn’t sure of the origin of the product, then “to be on the safe side, she doesn’t buy.” That was enough for millions of Americans to stop purchasing cranberries or cranberry sauce that year. Cranberry farmers across the country were devastated as even the White House chef chose not to serve cranberries to President Eisenhower, giving the Commander in Chief apple sauce instead. Several politicians and scientists tried to calm the panic. Vice President Richard Nixon was a candidate for President, stumping for votes in Wisconsin. He ate several bowls of cranberry sauce to prove its safety. Senator John Kennedy was in his home state of Massachusetts, the largest cranberry-producing state. He drank two glasses of cranberry juice for the press, but the damage for the holiday had been done, even though there had been no ban on the sale of cranberries.

In January of 1960, a study conducted on the crops in question showed that less than one percent of the crop, and only in those two states, had been contaminated by aminotriazole. In retrospect, many historians agree that Flemming overreacted and presented too literal an interpretation of the Delaney Clause. Tests showed that even in the contaminated crop, huge doses would be needed to reproduce the cancer results previously found in the lab.

Congress allotted $10 million in damages to farmers for their loss, but it was too late to save their 1959 holiday season. It has been said that one positive thing that came out of the situation was that farmers tended to follow pesticide instructions more carefully. The Great Cranberry Scare of 1959 may have been an overreaction, but it acted as the harbinger of what was to come in the 1960s with pesticides such as DDT, which spawned Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and subsequently the environmental movement many boomers embraced into the 1970s.

As you feast on the traditional fixings this Thanksgiving, think about how boomers have played an important role in the government policing of our food supply — and yet how constant vigilance is the name of the food safety game.

What holiday memories of cranberry sauce come to mind for you, boomers?

Boomers Got Mischievous

The night before Halloween has been called by different names in different regions: Mischief Night, Hell Night and Devil’s Night, among them. It marks the time when (mostly) young boys, usually teen or pre-teen in age, would carry out pranks such as soaping windows, the toilet-papering of trees and homes or setting bags of feces on fire in front of a homeowner’s door — the “trick” in “trick or treat” — along with other acts of minor vandalism such as egging or smashing jack-o-lanterns.

Halloween is thought to have evolved from practices of the Druids thousands of years ago. Their year began on Samhain, which was November 1 and started with a festival the day before. Bonfires were set and crops and animals were sacrificed as a way of honoring the dead, who Druids believed returned to Earth for that night. Animal skins were worn as costumes in celebration of the first day of the new year and the coming of winter. When the Romans conquered the Celts in 43 A.D., the Roman harvest holiday of Feralia and Samhain were combined as a way of honoring the dead and celebrating the harvest. It is thought that apples became associated with Halloween through this connection.

The history of Mischief Night dates back to the late 1700s in England. Then, it was observed on November 4, the day before Guy Fawkes Night. You may recall that Guy Fawkes became involved in a plot to blow up the Parliament House in 1605, but was captured before he could ignite the fuse on the dozens of barrels of gunpowder placed in the basement by the conspirators. In subsequent years on the night before his arrest, citizens would mark the occasion by setting bonfires on what became known as Bonfire Night.

In the U.S. at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, October 31 — Halloween night — was marked by acts of mischief, presumably carried over from traditions practiced by the wave of Scottish and Irish immigrants in the late 1800s. By the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s, relatively harmless pranks had become increasingly violent toward people and damaging to property. In order to reduce the incidences of vandalism, it was suggested that children be “bribed” with candy on that night, thereby adding the “treat” to the “trick or treat” tradition of door-to-door begging in costume. It caught on and has evolved to the Halloween we see today.

In boomer times, practices on Mischief Night, which by then was observed the evening before Halloween, were regional in nature. In some areas, boomers would merely ring doorbells and run away, or toss toilet paper over houses or onto tree branches. In others, egging houses, cars, buses and occasionally, other kids, were popular. Mister Boomer’s neighborhood tended to take a walk on the mild side. On one particular night, a pre-teen Mister B recalls heading out with his brother and the neighborhood boys for an evening of wandering, pretty much like many other nights. Unbeknownst to Mister B, one boy had a couple of firecrackers that he had probably saved from the Fourth of July, and another boy had a bar of soap. As the group walked around, a plot was hatched to have one boy light a firecracker on a house porch and another would ring the doorbell while everyone ran away. Mister B was safely hidden behind a car a few houses away, along with several others. The plot failed as the firecracker went off before the homeowner answered the door. After the bang, a man flipped his porch light on, opened his front door, and, not observing anything, closed the door and shut the light.

As the boys walked, they came upon a group who were toilet-papering a tree. It was a cold, wet night, and the participants were having a hard time tossing the roll just so it would festoon over a branch and drop back down. Instead, the paper tore on the wet branches and shredded in the wind, making a mess of it. A little further on, they encountered a car that had been egged. Mister B was appalled at the scene, since he believed the urban legend that eggs could damage or even remove paint from the vehicle. That just seemed to be a senseless waste and unfair to the car owner. While boys debated whether egg would in fact remove paint, they wandered on through the night.

A few blocks later, one of the boys remarked that the boy with the bar of soap had stopped behind the group. He was diligently marking the windshield of a car. The usual method of soaping was a few scribbles on a house window, or a line drawn on side windows of a car as one walked by. Mister B, though never having participated in the practice himself, thought this one of the more harmless pranks because, unlike wax, the soap could be easily removed with water. In this case, for some reason the boy decided he wanted to completely cover every inch of the windshield. The boys scattered as a tall figure was observed in the dark on the porch of the house where the car was parked. One of the boys tried to warn the soaper with his best “stage whisper,” but he was too absorbed in his work to pay any attention. As he finished, he let out a giggle of glee. It was then the silhouetted figure spoke. “Have you had your fun?” the man said. The boy stood in silence. “Good,” he added, “Now tomorrow you’ll be coming over to clean it.” “Yes, sir,” was the muted response.

Therein lies a difference between young boomers and the generations that followed. The night became quite violent in later years in some parts of the country, escalating to arson in areas such as Detroit, Michigan and Camden, New Jersey. Yet here was a boy in the mid-1960s, caught in the act, who first of all respected his elder in his speech, and secondly, voluntarily returned to the house the next day to wash off the soap he had worked so hard to layer on that windshield.

What memories of Mischief Night do you recall, boomers?