Calumet advertisement for baking powder (1928-1928). Courtesy Jane E. Boyd.
Somewhere in your kitchen—in the cupboard, under the sink, in the refrigerator—hides a squat little cardboard box surprisingly heavy for its size. A mound of fine white powder sits inside. Soft to the touch, with only the slightest grittiness when rubbed between your fingers, the powder has barely any smell, but tastes salty and a touch bitter. Drop some into a small bowl of white vinegar, and the effect is fast and furious. In seconds the liquid froths up into a mass of tiny, hissing bubbles and then subsides.
This bubbling is the key to the remarkable power of sodium bicarbonate, or bicarbonate of soda, commonly known as baking soda. Alkaline sodium bicarbonate instantly reacts with acids such as vinegar to produce carbon dioxide gas. In cooking, the gas bubbles diffuse throughout dough and batters, transforming wet, sticky mixtures into towering cakes, fluffy pancakes, and flaky biscuits.
For most of human history yeast provided the heavy lifting in baking. Yet yeast, a single-celled fungus, takes hours to raise dough, and wild strains can be unpredictable. In the late 18th century chemistry offered an alternative-potassium carbonate, commonly called pearl ash or potash. Unfortunately, potash gave food a soapy taste. Over the course of the 19th century the production of baking soda moved from small-scale workshops to large-scale industrial facilities, thanks to British industrial pioneers and German chemical processes. Soda ash—used to produce soap, glass, and paper—could also be used to make baking soda. In the 1860s the Belgian Solvay brothers succeeded in producing soda ash cheaply and on an industrial scale.
In the mid-19th century potassium or sodium bicarbonate, sold in paper packets and called saleratus (Latin for “salt” and “aerated”) became popular. Settlers heading west and Civil War soldiers looking for fast food used saleratus to make “lightnin’ bread” or “aerated bread” in skillets over campfires. Sodium bicarbonate soon became known as “baking soda,” and its manufacturers worked to devise even better and easier ways to bake using the powder. Beginning in the 1850s, they combined sodium bicarbonate with cream of tartar (tartaric acid), an acidic, powdery by-product of winemaking. Commercial “baking powder” was born when manufacturers added starch to absorb moisture and prevent the two ingredients from reacting prematurely.
Dozens of companies sprang up to sell these versatile household products. John Dwight & Company, later Church & Dwight, started in a Connecticut home kitchen in 1846, with a physician and his brother-in-law cooking up sodium bicarbonate and filling paper bags by hand. Their Arm & Hammer baking soda became one of America’s best-known brands. American scientist Eben Norton Horsford, who studied with famed German chemist Justus von Liebig in the 1840s, applied his chemical knowledge to an improved baking-powder formula using calcium biphosphate. Since Horsford held a chair at Harvard University named for 18th-century inventor Count Rumford, he dubbed his new enterprise the Rumford Chemical Works.
Manufacturers proclaimed that their baking powders, by creating perfect baked goods with minimal effort, would lead to domestic bliss. “Durkee’s Baking Powder is destined to effect an entire revolution in household affairs, both morally and physically,” trumpeted an 1852 advertisement in the New York Times. Another said that Durkee’s would stop “complaints from husbands and others about sour or heavy bread, biscuits, pastry, &c.” Instead, housewives would hear, “accompanied by smiles, ‘What nice biscuits you have made, my dear.’”
These themes continued as wood and coal stoves gave way to gas and electric ranges with temperature controls, enabling home cooks to create fancy, delicate cakes and pastries. The powders themselves improved as well, with new formulas that combined baking soda with other leaveners (such as sodium aluminum sulfate, sodium aluminum phosphate, calcium phosphate, or calcium sulfate) for a better rise. In these “double-acting” powders the first reaction occurred when the cook added liquid to the mixture, and the second when the dough or batter was heated in the oven.
As competition increased, each company claimed greater purity and effectiveness for its powder. Around 1900 a fierce American “baking powder controversy” erupted. This long and acrimonious trade war pitted manufacturers that relied on expensive cream of tartar, most notably Royal, against those using cheaper alum or alum-phosphate compounds, including Calumet and McCormick. Since they could not compete on price, cream-of-tartar manufacturers tried to quash competition by arguing that alum baking powders left poisonous residues in foods. Alum companies fought back, accusing their rivals of attempted monopoly and price fixing, biased chemical research, misleading advertising and slanted news stories, and bribery and corruption of state and national legislators. Though nearly forgotten today, the controversy was big news at the time. In a 1904 magazine article titled “Enemies of the Republic,” muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens cited Royal’s business practices as prime examples of the corrosive influence of corrupt money on politics.
Throughout the 20th century baking-powder manufacturers battled one another through marketing and advertising. Their many giveaways included recipe booklets and trading cards. Even as convenient mixes and commercially produced baked goods supplanted traditional baking from scratch, magazine advertisements featured tall, multilayered cakes and elaborate pastries, promising that every woman could whip up such marvels with the help of the right baking powder. Today baking soda and baking powder, with their old-fashioned brand names and logos—Arm & Hammer, Calumet, Rumford, Clabber Girl, Davis—evoke stability and reliability, and the bubbles they produce are still helping create tasty treats.
Art historian Jane E. Boyd, Ph.D., studies the history and visual culture of technology, science, and medicine.