Dakota Datebook

White Bread Blues

Monday, December 12, 2005

Owners of North Dakota’s grain milling businesses were in an uproar during this period in 1908. Bleached flour had just been outlawed through the efforts of Professor E. F. Ladd. As you may recall from earlier Datebooks, Ladd was a scientist at the North Dakota Agricultural College who became one of the Nation’s foremost crusaders for the pure food and drug laws.

In November, 1908, the Bismarck Daily Tribune reported: “At 10 o’clock Monday evening the case of the Russell-Miller Milling Company [and others] vs. E. F. Ladd, as food commissioner of North Dakota, was submitted to [District Judge Charles Pollock], after arguments covering 12 hours… [The plaintiffs] summed up, making a strong plea for their petition to throttle Commissioner Ladd in opposing the bleached flour process.”

“[The defendant held] that the bleaching process is a fraud in that the consuming public is not aware of what has been done to the flour and that it is injurious to the public health, the court was asked to place its official ban on the process.

“The outcome of this action will decide the fate of the Alsop process for bleaching” the story read. “At the present time there is not a mill in the country that is without one of these devices, and it is the Alsop people who are fighting for their existence.”

The story also revealed the millers were paying their expert witnesses from between $50 a day to a lump sum of $1,000 to testify for them. On Ladd’s side, however, no witnesses were paid.
The article stated: “…the testimony of Professor E. F. Ladd was by far the most striking, impressive and sensational in the case. The results he has accomplished in his experiments has not been approached by the experts on the opposing side… Arrayed as he is against the millers of the entire country, it is conceded that he has put up a good fight.”

To understand why the case was so dramatic, we remember the American homemaker of the day. White bread was still relatively new. As a paper from Fort Wayne, IN, put it, “…the market will hardly buy anything but “bleached” flour because the housewife will have nothing else.”

But, Professor Ladd warned, live animals exposed to the nitrites in bleached flour died sudden and violent deaths. On November 7, 1908, a story from the Fargo Forum read, “That an alcohol made from bleached flour contains a poison that was strong enough to kill rabbits, and did kill a number of them that were used in a series of experiments, was the startling testimony that was given by [Professor Ladd today]. On the other hand, that it was not the alcohol that killed, but was a poison left in the flour by the bleaching process, was also proved by the professor…

“Professor Ladd did not make these experiments himself,” the story read, “as he did not want it said that he had mixed up some sort of dope…”

Indeed, the experiments were carried out by two professors from the NDAC – a Professor Smith and Dr. Van Es, who did post mortem exams. Their test results showed rabbits injected with the alcohol from bleached flour quickly collapsed or went into convulsions. Five of the six subjects died within hours – the sixth was given a second dose the next day and died within 15 minutes. On the other hand, three rabbits injected with alcohol from non-bleached flour had no trouble.

Meanwhile, the brouhaha was also taking place before the Dept of Agriculture in Washington. On December 10th, Secretary Wilson sustained Professor Ladd’s findings that “flour beached with nitrogen peroxide is an adulterated product under the law and it cannot legally be sold…”

Bismarck Daily Tribune. Nov 6, 7, 13; Dec 10, 1908.
Fargo Forum. Nov 7, 1908.
Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. Nov 20, 1908.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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