Hearth to Hearth: Cottolene and the Mysterious Disappearance of Lard

Hearth to Hearth: Cottolene (Lard) – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – February 2002

The disappearance of lard from our diets has been a major puzzle for me. For centuries of food history, lard has been considered as unexcelled for deep frying and pie crusts. But ask anyone today about lard and the response you can expect will involve screeching noises and facial grimaces.

Certainly health and heart issues are involved, but the connection is not that simple. Butter, after all, is an equally dangerous animal fat, but it does not seem to have the same negative aura. Why then has lard really fallen from favor?

The mystery may be somewhat resolved by an examination of one product, Cottolene, a cooking fat from the turn of the last century, that was produced and promoted as a lard substitute. It looked like lard – it was an opaque white solid at room temperature, and was sold in labeled buckets just as lard was, but was, in fact, a manufactured combination of cottonseed oil and beef tallow. Today its promotional ephemera is highly collectable and may be found in assorted forms – labeled tin cans, biscuit and doughnut cutters, decorated trays, advertising posters, recipe booklets, cook books and pamphlets, trade cards and posters, to name a few. Everything bears the name and logo – the head and shoulders of a steer in a bed of cotton bolls. The large numbers and varieties of Cottolene artifacts, and the many decades during which it was marketed, suggests its great acceptance by American consumers.

My tentative theories about the demise of lard have to do in part with the way in which many of the native-born Americans denigrated the cultures and cookery of rural and immigrant groups, finding them ignorant, backward, unsophisticated, and “primitive.” Their foods were often, by extension, considered coarse and unhealthy, particularly when seen against the then-current fad for “delicate” and “dainty” dishes. One has only to look at the often misguided attempts of early social workers to Americanize and modernize newcomers to major cities by trying to change their diets. The comments of leading cooking authorities to the effect that pork products were always unhealthy may have been, in actuality, just such a prejudice, particularly if you keep in mind that the English and English-American tradition favored beef. Or, as the less-expensive meat, it may have become associated with “the poorer classes.”

A second factor appears to have been connected to great numbers of new food products on the shelves of urban and small-town groceries. The growing late nineteenth century urban culture, with its great emphasis on commercially manufactured and nicely-packaged “genteel” foods, was changing the cuisine. American business, increasingly mindful of invention and new marketable foods for those no longer tied to subsistence economics, fed the shift to ready-made and convenience foods. For many accustomed to home production, there had to be a certain thrill in using the first packaged, labor-saving products sold in tins, packets, cartons, regardless of their cost or quality.

And then there was the new advertising industry developing persuasive promotions to enhance one’s sense of fashion, to assure a homemaker that she was fulfilling her responsibility to her family’s health, dining sophistication, and budget.

And the incoming cuisine itself, rebelling against the hearty farmhouse style of tradition, now sought the image and prestige of a fancier more delicate style of cooking. For such dishes, the lighter flavor of cottonseed oil, as well as its white color, must have been most attractive.

It was in just this climate that Cottolene made its appearance.

Mention the name Cottolene today, however, and the reaction is apt to be puzzlement. Few today are aware of this early substitute for animal fats, of the cooking product that claimed to be better than butter or lard for frying because of its high smoke point or of its “desirable” odorless flavor. It is little wonder that it was accepted widely for its amalgamation of only two natural ingredients-“carefully selected cotton oil refined by our own exclusive process, and the choicest beef suet.” From the days of its first invention (late 1800s) and throughout its subsequent decades of popularity, authorities announced its healthful qualities, particularly in comparison with lard.

A Cottolene advertising poster read, “Are You a Lard Eater? Half the time when a person feels blue and out of sorts you make take it for granted that he is a victim of the “lard habit.” Lard-cooked food and good stomachs are never friends.” Needless to say, this was in the early days of scientific nutritional research, long before our current concern with animal fats and heart disease [but how ironic that cottonseed oil and tallow are now considered unhealthy]. In its time the promoters of Cottolene claimed that it was a more easily digested and pure cooking fat, a claim that hardly seems to have been disputed by the public.

Cottolene entered the kitchen at a time when a good many middle- and upper-class Americans were suffering from neuresthenia (depression) and dyspepsia (indigestion), the common, “fashionable” diseases of the nineteenth century. Although Sylvester Graham, an early nutritionist-of the early decades of the century, had recommended a return to “non-inflammatory, non-stimulating” foods (a vegetarian diet without caffeine, sugar, or spirits), relatively few followed his practice and continued to suffer from urban anxieties translated into physical maladies. Cottolene addressed this to a degree with its high vegetable oil content (90%), and claimed to be better than either lard or butter. One ad read, “Physicians know that refined vegetable oil must be more wholesome than hog fat – they endorse Cottolene.”

If nothing else, Cottolene probably had a long shelf-life, did not need refrigeration, and was fairly inexpensive. And it apparently worked well in cooking. It was accorded the Grand Prize at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition (1904), as were cakes and pies in which it was used. Gold medals were also taken at the Chicago World’s Fair (1983), the Paris Exposition (1900), and the Charleston Exposition (1902).

The common acceptance of Cottolene is revealed to us in its regular appearances in a variety of non-promotional genres throughout the culture. Apart from its own advertising, it was represented in scientific analysis and compared with other fats in early nutrition journals. Fannie Farmer, director of the Boston Cooking School, discussed it in a lengthy discourse on nutrients in her work, The Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1918 edition). The novelist Geraldine Bonner, writing about the Klondike in 1897, included it in her standard list of provisions carried by prospective gold miners: “flour, candles, kerosene, cottolene, canned goods, and wooden square boxes which bore the names of grocery firms.” It was included in an economic report on grocery prices in the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona (1917), and it earned a listing in Artemas Ward’s voluminous work for the trade, The Grocer’s Encyclopedia (1911).

Cottolene evolved as an offshoot of two industries. Cotton growing produced the boll, sold for spinning into cloth; its left-over waste included oil-rich seeds which could be pressed to release an edible oil. Mixed with ten percent beef tallow (another end-product, this one from the Chicago stockyards and slaughter houses), it made capital of otherwise useless materials. N.K. Fairbank Company, Chicago, the firm that produced it, boasted sites in St. Louis, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Montreal by 1895. This northern firm’s connection to southern “king cotton” typified the nation’s agricultural-manufacturing division; the Tuskegee Institute newsletter, The Negro Farmer (1914), exemplified Hillard Taylor, a cotton dealer from Oklahoma, as a successful businessman who had efficiently used his by-cotton products, or “leavings,” and thereby earned at least as much profit as he had from his primary material. Incidentally, he sold his cotton seeds to the extractors of cotton seed oil, among them the American Cotton Oil Company, whose products oiled machinery and constituted Cottolene.

The ephemera you may find sometimes reflects this connection to South. For example, one series of motifs depicts Black women in cotton fields, (see illustration #5) reflecting stereotypes typical of the period. Others have more to do with cookery directly, and run the gamut from a recipe on the back of a trade card to full cookbooks: Home Helps in different editions, Cooks of All Nations, 600 Selected Recipes, Fifty Popular Recipes, etc. Cottolene was involved in the tin industry, employing the lidded and decorated buckets that held the product, as well as promotional trays and signs doughnut cutters, and measuring cups depicting its familiar themes. High-status kitchen scenes were also popular in advertisements, their messages aimed at both homemakers and hired housekeepers (who may have done the marketing). There was also an effort to impress young educated housewives (was it the authority of modern nutrition and its endorsements?) with an ad showing a young girl in cap and gown, and carrying the message “Rx ‘Shorten your Food and lengthen your Life’ with Cottolene.” (see illustration #2 previous page) And there was a series of “selected stories ” intended for younger readers, presumably read under mother’s eye and laden with promotions. One of my favorite trade cards is just pure eye-catching gimmickry: a well-dressed, portly gentleman with top hat and cigar sports a large belly that is actually a see-through. When it is held to the light you can see in the area of his middle (miraculously!) the image of a labeled tub of Cottolene. (see illustration #6)

Perhaps the most ambitious and long-lasting bit of ephemera was the cook book Home Helps. (see illustration #4) The first edition I have seen (1898) was edited by Mrs. Sarah Tyson Rorer, then principal of the Philadelphia Cooking School and something of a cook book super-star in her own right. She exemplified the period’s modernity, the up and coming group of home economists who, so often denied authoritative roles in the male public sector, took on comparable work in the women’s world of kitchens. Mrs. Rorer lent her name, talents, and prestige to Cottolene (presumably for a fee). Her seventy-five page booklet leaned heavily on recipes gleaned from other contemporary cook book notables, among them Juliet Corson, Mrs. Lincoln, and Miss Parloa. Some twelve years later (1910) a hardback revision was published under the same title but with a completely different format and recipe organization, and without Mrs. Rorer’s name. Both books were “published in the interests of Cottolene, the perfect shortening which has been aptly termed Nature’s Gift from The Sunny South.” (see illustration #1) In an apparent attempt to make the recipe books of general interest and competitive, recipes were included that did not require any fat. The pages were sprinkled with advertisements-endorsements of physicians and cooking experts regarding the quality of the food, flavor, health, and economy, as well as testimonials on the extensive kitchen testing of each Cottolene-recipe.

These long-lasting relics of an earlier life-style remind us of how far we have come and seem to engender a kind of nostalgia for the past. Cottolene ephemera in its myriad forms reveals an early step away from the traditional farm sources of ingredients to manufactured ones, to the “progress” from lard to “perfection.” Despite its claims for purity-“two ingredients only”-one must wonder about truth in advertising in the era before government regulation. Efforts were made to improve the shortening (note testimonial by Dr. Mary E. Green below) without any clues to the new manufacturing method. And then, there is the issue of just how impartial the testimonials of these paid home economists (and “unpaid” volunteers) really were.

We have since seen Cottolene overtaken by other manufactured shortenings-Crisco, margerines, and “unbutters,”for example-each of which have carried their own fashion-infused claims and imperfections. Perhaps it really was a great product; it’s hard to believe that so many noted cooks would have claimed to prefer it otherwise. But even here we must use the questioner’s grain of salt, and take into account that to some degree the culinary trends, social fashion, “nutritional” pressures, and economics of the period had a hand in directing preferences. Were lard’s perceived inadequacies the push and the new dainty cuisine the pull? Regardless, Cottolene’s fit the times. Its wealth of advertising played an active role in the shifts from farm to factory, and is a part of the growth of the consumer world we now inhabit.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is aross@binome.com. Her web site is www.aliceross.com

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