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 Made Black Friday

Now that we are are “officially” in the holiday gift-buying season, let’s examine the effect boomers have had on Black Friday. Before the first boomers were in their teen years, the term “Black Friday” referred to a day in 1869. Two speculators had tried to corner the gold market, which resulted in the collapse of the price of gold. In fact, all events referred to as “black” days of the week had traditionally indicated ominous events, usually with a financial connection. The great Stock Market Crash of 1929 is often referred to as “Black Tuesday.”

It is the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression that lead us into the beginnings of the Black Friday story. In 1939, the Depression still had hold of the country and things remained pretty bleak for the majority of consumers and businesses. Since November contained five Thursdays that year, Thanksgiving would fall on the final day of the month. For businesses, that meant the holiday selling season would only be 24 days long. There had been an unwritten rule among retailers and consumers for many decades that holiday shopping should begin after Thanksgiving. For that reason, many large department stores across the country started to sponsor Thanksgiving Day parades as early as the 1920s as a way to usher in the holiday shopping season.

Boomers may or may not have recognized the alliance between commerce and Thanksgiving during their Wonder Years, but this clip surely shows it was there in 1960.

Business leaders had suggested the holiday be moved before, but with the Depression lingering in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to move Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November, from the last Thursday position it had held since President Lincoln signed the first holiday proclamation in 1863. The thinking was that retailers would be helped out by adding an extra week to the holiday shopping season. It was not an idea that was well received. Only 22 states decided to adopt the new Thanksgiving Day. This prompted humorist Will Rogers to declare that there were two Thanksgivings: one for Democrats and one for Republicans, since Republicans were overwhelmingly against the idea. Congress finally got around to approving the date change in 1941, moving Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November, where we celebrate it today.

Despite the discrepancies in the Thanksgiving holiday celebration date, there still was no mention of Black Friday. That would wait until long after the War. So long after, actually, that the first wave of post-war boomer children had reached their teens and twenties. The first mention of the day after Thanksgiving being called Black Friday dates to 1966. That’s when police officers in Philadelphia referred to the day as being “black” because of the huge problems vehicular and pedestrian traffic caused them. Since many people were home for the holiday weekend, they would flock to see the city dressed in its holiday best. Retailers joined in the “black” foray to lament the onslaught of shoppers that would descend on them the day after Thanksgiving. Many boomers will find it hard to recall a day-after event named Black Friday. It had not really coalesced into a full-blown marketing event during our formative years, though some stores did grab the name for their sale advertisements.

While the parents of boomers helped create the circumstances surrounding Black Friday, it was the Boomer Generation that took it to its next level. By the 1980s, boomers were in charge as store owners, managers, marketers and as parents themselves. We had already become the greatest consumer generation the country had ever seen, and now we were poised to elevate our own paean to shopping. It was about this time that attempts were made in the press to change the ominous “Black Friday” to one that referred to “in the black,” which meant a time when retailers were “out of the red” and into the profit-making zone. It wasn’t necessarily true for many retailers, but sounded like a reasonable explanation for calling the day “black.” In the 1980s, the country was in a recession. As a result, deep discounts began to be advertised for the day after Thanksgiving as a way of luring shoppers to specific stores. Sales usually centered around clearance items, with the occasional “loss leader” (the limited quantity, highly discounted item) tossed in as bait. Therefore, it was the Boomer Generation that set the stage for Black Friday, though it took the children of boomers to take it to the level of insanity that now occurs.

Boomers recall a time in their youth when stores not only didn’t open at 4 a.m., they rarely opened before 9 a.m. It was even rarer for one to stay open past 9 p.m. In most areas, stores were not open on Sundays, even during the holiday season. As the sixties became the seventies, seven-day-a-week retail store hours were becoming accepted as the new norm. It would seem a somewhat logical progression that the next twenty years would see an extension of the hours to earlier and later. This season, however, another milestone has been reached; the first mention Mister Boomer can recall of retail stores staying open 24 hours a day, beginning on Thanksgiving Day. In our younger days, it was a source of pride for stores to post a sign stating they would be closed on the holiday, “So our employees may celebrate with their families.” Now, the new source of pride appears to be the “always open” sign.

What do you think about Black Friday, boomers? Is it a logical extension of our boomer-sixties mantra of, “If it feels good, do it,” or have we become the next generation of carpetbaggers, eager to wring out the last drop of profit from an all-too-willing public?