The Sutler Secret of Erhard Steinbacher

By: Robert C. Reszler

Oatmeal is a staple on tables across America, and Quaker Oats is one of the most recognized brand names in the world. These, however, are relatively recent phenomena. One hundred forty-five years ago, most Americans were unfamiliar with oatmeal as a foodstuff, yet in a matter of only fifteen years it had become integral part of the American cuisine. How this dish went from relatively unknown to standard fare in just a few years is a legitimate, yet perplexing question. Historians have traced the oatmeal industry (and its most famous brand) to Akron, Ohio in the 1860s, but the particulars of its origins and phenomenal growth have never been explained satisfactorily. Local Akron, Ohio, legend states that Ferdinand Schumacher, “Oatmeal King” and founder of Quaker Oats, started his business empire with the help of close friend Erhard Steinbacher. Steinbacher had supposedly managed to get Schumacher a one hundred barrel trial order to supply Union Army troops during the Civil War.[1. Karl M. Grismer, Akron & Summit County (Akron: Summit County Historical Society, 1952), In this historiography, Grismer provided a standard, traditional account of Ferdinand Schumacher’s start in the oatmeal business which has been widely accepted in Akron, Ohio lore. “(Ferdinand Schumacher) was one of the first persons in Akron to prosper because of the Civil War…. in 1861 the thrifty Schumacher got a tremendous break. He got it through one of his best friends, a fellow German who had also fled from oppression in his fatherland. He was Erhard Steinbacher, grocer and druggist. Becoming an ardent Republican, Steinbacher had many influential friends in the party and when the Civil War started was authorized by the quartermaster general to purchase supplies for the army in this territory. He placed huge orders for flour with local mills and before the war was many months old, all were running at peak capacity. In making his purchases, Steinbacher did not forget his good friend Schumacher. He insisted that the army buy oatmeal to serve the soldiers for breakfast – it was much tastier and more nourishing than any other cereal which could be obtained, infinitely better than cornmeal. That stuff, he declared, might be good enough for Southern rebels but certainly not good enough for fighting Yankees. After weeks of arguing, Steinbacher’s German persistence won and the quartermaster’s office reluctantly agreed to take a sample order of a hundred barrels. Just a hundred barrels – from an army standpoint, hardly an order worth mentioning. But for Schumacher, the order was stupendous…. After the oatmeal was shipped, Schumacher anxiously waited to learn how it would be received in the army camps. He knew that few soldiers had ever eaten the cereal and was afraid many would refuse to taste it, just because it was something new. But his fears were unjustified. The soldiers liked it. Army orders for oatmeal began pouring in.”] Until recently, this legend has been accepted as fact, yet research into official government and army records provides no evidence that the Army or the Sanitary Commission ever directly supplied Schumacher’s products to the troops. If Schumacher started the American oatmeal industry through supplying great quantities to Union troops, it had to have been via unofficial channels. The issue of Schumacher’s success is not in dispute: by the mid-1860s he was running several mills and was the wealthiest man in Akron. The issue of where and how the oatmeal was sold, however, is not as clear. This paper will illustrate that the secret to the success of the oatmeal industry in America may lie in a much deeper role for Erhard Steinbacher as a Civil War “sutler,” providing hungry Union soldiers with an introduction and pipeline to Schumacher’s new dish, and thus whetting their appetite for more when the war was over. Continue reading The Sutler Secret of Erhard Steinbacher

To Work and Live: Brickyard Laborers, Immigration and Assimilation in an Ohio Town, 1890-1925

By: Martha I. Pallante

Historians generally agree that at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries immigration to the United States, particularly that from Southern and Eastern Europe, played an important role in reshaping the fabric of America life. These waves of humanity flooded American cities joining the laboring masses, and in the process forever changed the character and the composition of American cities. For the most part, historians and the others who have studied this phenomenon have concentrated on the largest masses of that movement–those who went to large urban areas or to the major industrial complexes that acted as magnets for the many immigrant groups.

This study approaches the problem differently. It focuses on a relatively small group of Italian immigrants from the Italian province of Avelino, who arrived in Niles, Ohio between 1890 and the mid 1920s when changes in immigrations laws stemmed their flow. Their origins did little to distinguish them from more mainstream immigration experiences either to east coast or mid-western metropolitan areas. Continue reading To Work and Live: Brickyard Laborers, Immigration and Assimilation in an Ohio Town, 1890-1925

Academic Regalia at Oberlin: the Establishment and Dissolution of a Tradition

By: S.E. Plank, Oberlin College[1. I am grateful to my colleagues Robert Haslun, Secretary of Oberlin College, and Roland M. Baumann, College Archivist, for their kind assistance and encouragement. I dedicate this essay to the memory of Geoffrey Blodgett, Danforth Professor of History Emeritus at Oberlin and devoted chronicler of Oberlin history.]

[I]f any season is worthy of symbolical expression and emphasis, it is the Commencement season, the initiation of new members into the international fraternity of educated men. . . .Viewed in this light all the formalism of college life assumes significance; it becomes an awe-full thing to wear a cap and gown.
The Oberlin Review (June 21, 1906)

Styles of clothing carry feelings and trusts, investments, faiths and formalized fears. Styles exert a social force, they enroll us in armies–moral armies, political armies, gendered armies, social armies.
John Harvey, Men in Black (1995)


With the adoption of the Intercollegiate Code in 1895, American universities and colleges embraced a uniformity of design in academic costume that has held sway until the relatively recent proliferation of university-specific gowns.[2. For a summary of the Intercollegiate Code, see Hugh Smith, Academic Dress and Insignia of the World (Cape Town, 1970), II, 1527-75. Smith observes that “by far the most interesting feature . . . of United States academic costume in the period from 1960 to date (1970), has been the deliberate attempt of certain of the best-known and most influential Universities to break away from the uniformity of the Intercollegiate Code. The result of this has been the creation of distinctive academic costume for some or all of the Graduates of at least the following Universities: California, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Fairleigh-Dickinson, Fordham, New York, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Tufts, Union Theological Seminary and Yale.” To Smith’s now outdated list may be added Adelphi, Arizona State, Boston College, Brown, DePaul, Illinois, Johns Hopkins, Loyola, Michigan, MIT, New Mexico, Rochester, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rutgers, Stanford, Temple, Washington, and Wayne State Universitites. A significant number retain the basic design of the Intercollegiate Code, though they alter the color scheme of the gown to create a robe of distinction.] Accordingly, studies of American academic costume may find questions of usage a richer inquiry than questions of design and development, questions of social history more compelling than a study of regalia as autonomous objects unto themselves. A particularly interesting example is the usage and social history of regalia at Oberlin College (Ohio), a usage established around the beginning of the twentieth century as the college experienced a burgeoning interest in “collegiateness,” and a usage dramatically altered in the late twentieth century with the politicizing of the campus and its ceremonial events. Continue reading Academic Regalia at Oberlin: the Establishment and Dissolution of a Tradition

Cleveland’s A.B. duPont: Engineer, Reformer, Visionary

By: Arthur E. DeMatteo

Attempting to synthesize the events, agents, and accomplishments of the years spanning the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries into a neat package labeled “The Progressive Era” can prove frustrating for the modern historian. Reformers of the period were a diffuse and diverse group, often more noteworthy for their disunity and incongruities than for coherence to any set of standards; they included pacifists, municipal ownership advocates, feminists, Single Taxers, civil rights crusaders, efficiency experts, and countless others. This lack of commonality led Peter Filene to assert, in a seminal article published over thirty years ago, that progressivism was merely an artificial creation of historians, and that the dynamics of this period were the result of “agents and forces more complex than a progressive movement.”[1. Peter G. Filene, “An Obituary for the ‘Progressive Movement’,” American Quarterly 22 (Spring 1970), 20-34.]

In an essay of later vintage, historian Daniel Rodgers acknowledged the difficulty of defining progressivism, while offering a useful counter-thesis to Filene. Rodgers suggested that Progressive Era reformers shared at least one of three “idea clusters,” or “shared languages of discontent.”[2. Daniel T. Rodgers, “In Search of Progressivism,” Reviews in American History 10 (December 1982), 113-32.] The first of these languages, antimonopolism, was traceable to the Jacksonian era, and had once been the exclusive domain of “outsiders,” such as farmers and Populists; by the turn of the twentieth century, however, the crusade against inequitable taxation and abusive business practices had gained acceptance among “respectable” segments of American society. The second language, that of “social bonds,” was more specific to the Progressive Era, and encompassed an attack on a “set of formal fictions,” including notions of racial, sexual, or ethnic inferiority; it sought to create a “consciously contrived harmony” among societal groups. The third language of discontent was that of “social efficiency,” and could be applied to a broad range of reformers, from those seeking to rationalize and streamline municipal government to engineers designing modern manufacturing plants.

Like so many reformers of his era, Antoine Bidermann duPont, friend and confidant of Cleveland Mayor Tom L. Johnson, was a complex person who defies easy categorization. Continue reading Cleveland’s A.B. duPont: Engineer, Reformer, Visionary