GUEST CURATOR: Lindsay Hajjar
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“CHOICE FRESH RAISINS.”
Why did William Whitwell emphasize “RAISINS” in his advertisement? In Food in Colonial and Federal America, Sandra Oliver describes how colonists ate and cooked with raisins. Raisins were one the most common dried fruits imported in the colonies. However, the raisins that colonists ate were dried with seeds in them so they were much larger than the ones we have today. When cooking with raisins many recipes called for them to be “stoned” or deseeded meaning the colonists had to rehydrate them. Raisins were baked into cakes, eaten with nuts and other fruits, and even soaked in rum and eaten with a spoon. They had diverse uses to the colonists and they lasted for long periods of time. Raisins were not only something that would keep well in storage, they were also a good source of fiber. They also contained antioxidants that might not have been present in other stored foods.
Colonists in Boston understood how harsh and unpredictable New England winters could be. In October they started preparing for the storms to come. Having the opportunity to buy dried fruit in advance of winter was probably very welcome. New England’s erratic weather patterns called for extra precaution and preparedness. This advertisement provided one way to get ready for the oncoming winter.
Even living in the twenty-first century we can sometimes be ill prepared for what a New England winter might entail, waiting until the last minute to take precautions when we hear that a big storm could be coming. We all know what it is like to go to the grocery story before a big storm, sometimes arriving a little too late. We live with many more amenities, like radars that can tell us a storm is coming or another grocery story a few miles down the road. The colonists, however, did not have these luxuries and had to gear up well in advance if they were going to make it to the spring. Living in colonial Massachusetts meant being as prepared as possible and storing food that would keep well into the winter months. The way raisins could be transformed into many other recipes with a few other ingredients, had a great nutritional value, and kept well made them a hot commodity for the colonists.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
On the whole, raisins have probably received less scholarly attention than other grocery items listed in eighteenth-century advertisements, especially sugar and spices. Still, historians of food, commerce, and consumer culture have not completely ignored the humble raisin. Lindsay consulted Sandra Louise Oliver’s Food in Colonial and Federal America to uncover several aspects of eating and cooking with raisins that differ quite significantly from modern practices. In the process, she offered a helpful reminder that even commodities that might appear familiar have changed over time. Raisins once came with seeds (until the late nineteenth century when seedless grapes were developed). Sugar once came in loafs. Colonists ate foods that modern Americans would consider simultaneously familiar and foreign.
In Consumerism and the Emergence of the Middle Class in Colonial America, Christina J. Hodge elaborates on raisins and their uses in the eighteenth century. “Raisins were used in cooking as a sweetener and, if soaked in water, to produce homemade vinegar (a useful preservative).” How many modern consumers realize that raisins had such versatile uses 250 years ago? Hodge also reports that raisins grown in Spain were considered superior, but “British trade laws made direct importation to America from Spain illegal.” As a result, most raisins consumed by colonists likely came from grapes that had been locally grown. Advertisers were not the only colonists who promoted raisins in colonial newspapers. According to Hodge, in 1728 the Boston News-Letter ran an article of dietary suggestions for “Families of a Middling Figure, who bare the Character of being Genteel.” It listed raisins (along with currants, cranberries, and apples) as an appropriate supplement to be enjoyed as part of the main meal of the day. It seems that raisins truly merited the oversized headline in William Whitwell’s advertisement.
 Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 69-70.
 Christina J. Hodge, Consumerism and the Emergence of the Middle Class in Colonial America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 88-89.
 Hodge, Consumerism, 87.