What do jelly beans, printing presses, sporks, and cowboy hats have in common?
I know it kind of sounds like a joke, but I’m serious! The similarity among the four is that they were all invented or patented during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. It is easy to forget that life went on while the United States was swept up in a horrific war, but weapons were not the only things produced in the 1860s and 1870s.
In 1861, you might have seen advertisements from a Mr. William Schrafft, a Boston candy maker, who advised people to send his jelly beans to Union soldiers. You could send your Billy Yank some delicious jelly beans on the front because there was no better cure for dysentery than the sweet taste of candy from home. Though jelly beans surfaced in America in 1861, their origin is shrouded in a sugar-coated mystery. It is popularly believed that the jelly bean is the result of the tasty union between the centuries old Turkish Delight, a Middle Eastern treat made of soft jelly and confectioner’s powder, and the Jordan Almond, an almond covered in a hard, candy coating.
Where could you read this advertisement for Schrafft’s jelly beans, you might ask? A newspaper would be the most likely place, especially if you do not live in or near Boston. You could pick up a copy of your local newspaper to find an advertisement for Mr. Schrafft’s jelly beans, but then you start to wonder, “Where did this newspaper come from?” How was it printed, and how can there be so many similar papers like it? It seems like everyone has the same exact copy as you on this fine morning.
Perhaps your local newspaper uses a Bullock Press to get the job done. The Bullock Press was developed and invented by William Bullock, a Philadelphia newspaper editor. It was the first printing press to be self-fed by a continuous roll of paper that would simultaneously print the news on both sides of the page, fold the pages, and cut them with a serrated knife. Workers no longer had to feed the presses or fold and cut sheets by hand. The printing press could print about 12,000 sheets an hour in 1865. In a news-hungry society that depended on newspapers for quick information, the Bullock Press took the news industry to a new level. Unfortunately, Bullock was taken to a new level, too, in a morbid way; in 1867, he got his leg caught in one of his presses and developed gangrene a few days later. He died during the operation to amputate his leg.
Once you decide to purchase Schrafft’s jelly beans after reading his convincing advertisement in a newspaper, you think about what else you could put in Billy Yank’s care package. How about sending a convenient tool along with those jelly beans so your far-away soldier does not have to eat with his dirty hands or worry about cumbersome eating utensils on a long march? I’ve got something that will solve your problems! The bad news is that it was not patented until 1874, after the Civil War. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am talking about the mighty spork. The spork was patented by a Dr. Samuel W. Francis, a man as versatile as the utensil he invented. Not much is known about Francis’ process of inventing the spork; in fact, the word “spork” was not coined until the mid-twentieth century. Fork and spoon mash-ups have been around for centuries, but Francis’ patent, “Improvement in Combined Knives, Forks, and Spoons,” is the one of the earliest ancestors of the modern spork that describes his combining “in a convenient manner, in one implement, a knife, fork, and spoon.”
All this talk of handy inventions to improve work place efficiency, the dining experience, and taste buds is all fine and dandy, but what about fashion? Particularly male fashion, because while it is easy to see how much women’s fashion has evolved, it has been a gradual evolution for men. Some of the most essential pieces of clothing for men, especially in the American west, were hats; they could say a lot about the person who wore them. John B. Stetson was a hat maker from New Jersey who had ventured out west after contracting tuberculosis in his twenties. In the west, Stetson noticed the array of hats worn by men: bowlers, top hats, Civil War headgear, etc. None of these were suitable for the frontier, so he created what came to be known as the “Boss of the Plains” hat. Wide-brimmed, light-weight, and made with beaver fur, the hat could take a beating and still remain intact. Stetson was wearing one of these hats when a bullwhacker (the name comes from the action of whacking oxen from behind to keep them moving) saw him and bought the hat off of Stetson’s head for a five dollar gold piece. In that moment, the first Stetson was sold! J.B. Stetson eventually moved to Philadelphia and created his business empire in a factory that produced all styles of hats. In 1869 he recreated the “Boss of the Plains” hat that he sold to the bullwhacker out west, and an American icon was born: the original cowboy hat.
So the next time you kick back and relax as you nonchalantly eat jelly beans with a spork, don your cowboy hat, and read your daily newspaper, stop and think for a second. Besides the fact that what you are doing is pretty goofy, take a moment to appreciate the fine products that emerged from the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. The 1860s and 1870s have left an even more lasting impression on modern society than just the legacy of a bloody war.
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