Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Top of the Pops, 1917

Popular Mechanics, December 1917 [big version]
In the winter of 1917, W.Z. Long, a Teddy Roosevelt lookalike, was inviting people to come over to his house (in the ad on your right). And there you would learn how to make a new-fangled popcorn confection called the Crispette.

Crispettes were similar to modern rice cakes or popcorn cakes. Andrew F. Smith writes in Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America (1999, p. 64) that W.Z. Long  has been making Crispettes since the 1890s.* They were made by mixing popcorn and corn syrup (plus a bit of baking soda) and rolling this out into thin sheets. The sheets were then cut into squares or other shapes. And they were selling like - well, hotcakes. Hot popcorn cakes, that is.

W.Z. wasn't the only one making popcorn crisp confections. Other entrepreneurial confectioners were busy mixing popcorn with syrup and flavorings like chocolate, maple and vanilla. I remember going to a candy store on Cape Cod in the 1960s and getting bars of popcorn flavored with chocolate, vanilla or strawberry. My favorite was the chocolate one. They were subtly sweet, and quite delicious.

Anyway, suppose you wanted to take Mr. Long up on his offer to set you up in the Crispette business. You could take the more reserved route of writing a note to him. But he actually preferred you to just, well - pop in:

Come to See Me at My Expense

Don't say you're coming. Just drop in quietly. Call on any banker or merchant. ..See if folks think I'll make you a square deal. Then come and see my store...Up to a distance of 300 miles I'll pay all your traveling expenses, if you buy a machine.

So if you ended up hating Crispettes and didn't buy a machine, you'd have to shell out for that first class train ticket, right? And no doubt Mr. Long would make you sleep in an old popcorn bin. But since "everybody likes Crispettes - children - parents- old folks"- you'd probably want to know more.  And Mr. Long would give you all the equipment, and some recipes too. Well, not give, exactly. You'd be paying him later, after you'd made your millions - everything was on credit.

This was not a bit unusual in 1917. Credit back in the early 20th century was an everyday matter. My great grandmother had credit at the grocer's in Brooklyn in the 1920s and 30s; I'll bet yours did, too.  People simply ran up a tab, and the grocer - or Mr. Long of the Crispette machines, or whoever - trusted you to pay later on.

But now credit is a lot more complicated. Which means that it's a really good idea to keep track of your credit score. A service that can give you a free credit report -  and even help you find some pre-approved loans - is a nice thing to know about. Another nice thing to know? A vintage popcorn cake recipe  from the 1921 edition of Skuse's Complete Confectioner. And you don't even need a machine to make them - except for the caramel cutter - which looks, from the illustration in the Caramel chapter, like a printing-press with a wheel. Just use a knife instead, it's easier that way. The proportions are immense, since this is a commercial cookbook:


5 lb. sugar
2 1/2 lb. glucose
1 1/2 pints water
6 oz. treacle
6 oz butter or margarine
1 Tb salt

Pop 5 lb. of corn, then place it in a bowl and chop up small with a large knife. In the meantime, place the sugar and water with the glucose in a pan on the fire and boil to 270 degrees F. Add the treacle and butter or margarine, previously broken into small pieces. Continue to cook to 290 degrees F. Remove the pan from the fire and stir in the salt and popped corn. Stir until the corn is well covered with the sugar. Replace the pan on the fire to heat it a little, then empty the batch on an oiled slab. Flatten out with a rolling-pin. Roll into a  sheet, about a third of an inch thick; mark with a caramel cutter and cut into suitable pieces.

*Here is an item, in the August 1917 Popular Mechanics (p. 276) showing Mr. Long's machine.


Katrina said...

This sounds fun to make. (Did the original recipe call for "margarine", or did you add that?)

LadyLindy said...

just discovered your fab blog and fell in love with it :)

BrSpiritus said...

I dislike commenting on older posts but since we were talking about this on Facebook I just had to find it. I bow down to you, I am truly a neophyte in your presence because you found out more about this machine than I did and then included the recipe, UN. FREAKIN. BELIEVABLE!

Lidian said...

Katrina - I believe the original recipe called for margarine. They were not fancy, these popcorn people.

LadyLindy - Thank you! That is so nice to hear. I must go check out your blog too (I'm sorry this is so late, sometimes I am terribly bad at answering comments)

BrSpiritus - Thank you, too :) It helped to have the confectioners' handbook, thanks to my parents having bought it in the 70s at some secondhand book store or other. And GoogleBooks is great, too.

BrSpiritus said...

About the margarine thing, I pretty much figured out Margarine was the new "toy" at the turn of century. I suppose they hocked it as being healthy, an ad campaign that persisted until the early 2000's when we suddenly "discovered" trans fats and found out they were not good. I've captured quite a few ads from the 1920's featuring the "Fat Wars" as I call it; Butter trying to maintain market share over that young upstart margarine. By the 1930's people could no longer afford butter so margarine became king.