Friday, October 15, 2010



Politics and government are certainly among the most important of practical human interests. Need it be explained that there is humbug in politics? Does anybody go into a political campaign without it? Are no exaggerations of our candidate’s merits to be allowed? No depreciations of the other candidate? Shall we no longer prove that the success of the party opposed to us will overwhelm the land in ruin?
The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes—or pretends to believe—that everything and everybody are humbugs. We sometimes meet a person who professes that there is no virtue; that every man has his price, and every woman hers; that any statement from anybody is just as likely to be false as true, and that the only way to decide which, is to consider whether truth or a lie was likely to have paid best in that particular case. Honor he thinks is a sham. Honesty he considers a plausible word to flourish in the eyes of the greener portion of our race, as you would hold out a cabbage leaf to coax a donkey. What people want, he thinks, or says he thinks, is something good to eat, something good to drink, fine clothes, luxury, laziness, wealth. If you can imagine a hog’s mind in a man’s body—sensual, greedy, selfish, cruel, cunning, sly, coarse, yet stupid, short-sighted, unreasoning, unable to comprehend anything except what concerns the flesh, you have your man. He thinks himself philosophic and practical, a man of the world; he thinks to show knowledge and wisdom, penetration, deep acquaintance with men and things. Poor fellow! He has exposed his own nakedness. Instead of showing that others are rotten inside, he has proved that he is. He claims that it is not safe to believe others—it is perfectly safe to disbelieve him. He claims that every man will get the better of you if possible—let him alone! Selfishness, he says, is the universal rule—leaves nothing to depend on his generosity or honor; trust him just as far as you can sling an elephant by the tail. A bad world, he sneers, full of deceit and nastiness—it is his own foul breath that he smells; only a thoroughly corrupt heart could suggest such vile thoughts. He sees only what suits him, as turkey-buzzard spies only carrion, though amid the loveliest landscape.
Upon a careful consideration of our undertaking to give an account of the “Humbugs of the World,” We find ourselves somewhat puzzled in regard to the true definition of that word. To be sure, Webster says that humbug, as a noun, is an “imposition under fair pretences;” and as a verb, it is “to deceive; to impose on.” With all due deference to Doctor Webster, we submit that, according to present usage, this is not the only, nor even the generally accepted definition of that term.
We will suppose, for instance, that a man with “fair pretences” applies to a wholesale merchant for credit on a large bill of goods. His “fair pretences” comprehend an assertion that he is a moral and religious man, a member of the religious house, a man of wealth, etc., etc. It turns out that he is not worth a dollar, but is a base, lying wretch, an impostor and a cheat. He is arrested and imprisoned “for obtaining property under false pretences” or, as Webster says, “fair pretences.” He is punished for his villainy. The public do not call him a “humbug;” they very properly term him a swindler.
A man, bearing the appearance of a gentleman in dress and manners, purchases property from you and with “fair pretences” obtains your confidence. You find, when he has left, that he paid you with counterfeit bank-notes, or a forged draft. This man is justly called a “forger,” or “counterfeiter;” and if arrested, he is punished as such; but nobody thinks of calling him a “humbug.”
A respectable-looking man sits by your side in an omnibus or rail-car. He converses fluently, and is evidently a man of intelligence and reading. He attracts your attention by his “fair pretences.” Arriving at your journey’s end, you miss your watch and your pocket-book. Your fellow passenger proves to be the thief. Everybody calls him a “pickpocket,” and not withstanding his “fair pretences,” not a person in the community calls him a “humbug.”
Two actors appear as stars at two rival theatres. They are equally talented, equally pleasing. One advertises himself simply as a tragedian, under his proper name—the other boasts that he is a prince, and wears decorations presented by all the potentates of the world, including the “King of the Cannibal Islands.” He is correctly set down as a “humbug,” while this term is never applied to the other actor. But if the man who boasts of having received a foreign title is a miserable actor, and he gets up gift-enterprises and bogus entertainments, or pretends to devote the proceeds of his tragic efforts to some charitable object, without, in fact, doing so—he is then a humbug in Dr. Webster’s sense of that word, for he is an “impostor under fair pretences.”
Two physicians reside in one of our fashionable avenues. They were both educated in the best medical colleges; each has passed an examination, received his paper, and been dubbed an M. D. They are equally skilled in the healing art. One rides quietly about the city in his gig or brougham, visiting his patients without noise or clamor—the other sallies out in his coach and four, preceded by a band of music, and his carriage and horses are covered with handbills and placards, announcing his “wonderful cures.” This man is properly called a quack and a humbug. Why? Not because he cheats or imposes upon the public, for he does not, but because, as generally understood, “humbug” consists in putting on glittering appearances—outside show—novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.
Lawyers, or physicians, who should resort to such methods of attracting the public, would not, for obvious reasons, be apt to succeed. Bankers, insurance-agents, and others, who aspire to become the custodians of the money of their fellow-men, would require a different species of advertising from this; but there are various trades and occupations which need only notoriety to insure success, always provided that when customers are once attracted, they never fail to get their money’s worth. An honest man who thus arrests public attention will be called a “humbug,” but he is not a swindler or an impostor. If, however, after attracting crowds of customers by his unique displays, a man foolishly fails to give them a full equivalent for their money, they never patronize him a second time, but they very properly denounce him as a swindler, a cheat, an impostor; they do not, however, call him a “humbug.” He fails, not because he advertises his wares in an outrĂ© manner, but because, after attracting crowds of patrons, he stupidly and wickedly cheats them.
It is not agreeable to find ourselves so thickly beset by humbugs; to find that we are not merely called on to see them, to hear them, to believe them, to invest capital in them, but to eat and drink them. Yet so it is;
We begin with bread. Alum is very commonly put into it by the bakers, to make it white. Flour of inferior quality, “runny” flour, and even that from wormy wheat—ground-up worms, bugs, and all—is often mixed in as much as the case will bear. Potato flour has been known to be mixed with wheat; and so, many years ago, were plaster-of-Paris, bone-dust, white clay, etc. But these are little used now, if at all; and the worst thing in bread, aside from bad flour, which is bad enough, is usually the alum. It is often put in ready mixed with salt, and it accomplishes two things, viz., to make the bread white, and to suck up a good deal of water, and make the bread weigh well. It has been sometimes found that the alum was put in at the mill instead of the bakery.
Milk is most commonly adulterated with cold water; and many are the jokes on the milkmen about their best cow being choked etc., by a turnip in the pump-spout—their “cow with the wooden tail” (i. e., the pump-handle,) and so on. Awful stories are told about the London milkmen, who are said to manufacture a fearful kind of medicine to be sold as milk, the cream being made of a quantity of calf’s brain beaten to slime. Stories are told around New York, too, of a mysterious powder sold by druggists, which with water makes milk; but it is milk that must be used quickly, or it turns into a curious mess. But the worst adulteration of milk is to adulterate the old cow herself; as is done in the swill-milk establishments which received such an exposure years ago in a city paper. This milk is still furnished; and many a poor little baby is daily suffering convulsions from its effects. So difficult is it to find real milk for babies in the city, that physicians often prescribe the use of what is called “condensed” milk instead; which, though very different from milk not evaporated, is at least made of the genuine article. A series of careful experiments to develop the milk-humbug was made by a competent physician in Boston within a few years, but he found the milk there (aside from swill-milk) adulterated with nothing worse than water, salt, and burnt sugar.
Tea is be juggled first by John Chinaman, who is a very cunning rascal; and second, by the seller. Green and black tea are made from the same plant, but by different processes—the green being most expensive. To meet the increased demand for green tea, Master John takes immense quantities of black tea and “paints” it, by stirring into it over a fire a fine powder of plaster Paris and Prussian-blue, at the rate of half a pound to each hundred pounds of tea. John also sometimes takes a very cheap kind, and puts on a nice gloss by stirring it in gum-water, with some stove-polish in it. We may imagine ourselves, after drinking this kind of tea, with a beautiful black gloss on our insides. John moreover, manufactures vast quantities of what he plainly calls “Lie-tea.” This is dust and refuse of tea-leaves and other leaves, made up with dust and starch or gum into little lumps, and used to adulterate better tea. Seven hundred and fifty thousand pounds of this nice stuff were imported into England in one period of eighteen months. It seems to be used in New York only for green tea.
Coffee is adulterated with chicory-root (which costs only about one-third as much)—dandelion-root, peas, beans, mangold-wurzel, wheat, rye, acorns, carrots, parsnips, horse-chestnuts, and sometimes with livers of horses and cattle! All these things are roasted or baked to the proper color and consistency, and then mixed in. No great sympathy need be expended on those who suffer from this particular humbug, however; for when it is so easy to buy the real berry, and roast or at least grind it one’s self, it is our own fault if our laziness leaves us to eat all those sorts of stuff.
Cocoa is “extended” with sugar, starch, flour, iron-rust, Venetian-red, grease, and various earths. But it is believed by pretty good authority that the American-made preparations of cocoa are nearly or quite pure. Even if they are not the whole bean can be used instead.
Butter and lard have one tenth, and sometimes even one-quarter, of water mixed up in them. It is easy to find this out by melting a sample before the fire and putting it away to cool, when the humbug appears by the grease going up, and the water, perhaps turbid with whey, settling below.
Honey is humbugged with sugar or molasses. Sugar is not often sanded as the old stories have it. Fine white sugar is sometimes floured pretty well; and brown sugar is sometimes made of a portion of good sugar with a cheaper kind mixed in. Inferior brown sugars are often full of a certain crab-like animalcule or minute bug, often visible without a microscope, in water where the sugar is dissolved. It is believed that this pleasing insect sometimes gets into the skin, and produces a kind of itch. Do not believe there is much danger of adulteration in good loaf or crushed white sugar, or good granulated or brown sugar.
Pepper is mixed with fine dust, dirt, linseed-meal, ground rice, or mustard and wheat-flour; ginger, with wheat flour colored by turmeric and reinforced by cayenne. Cinnamon is sometimes not present at all in what is so called—the stuff being the inferior and cheaper cassia bark; sometimes it is only part cassia; sometimes the humbug part of it is flour and ochre. Cayenne-pepper is mixed with corn-meal and salt, Venetian-red, mustard, brick dust, fine sawdust, and red-lead, Mustard with flour and turmeric. Confectionery is often poisoned with Prussian-blue, Antwerp-blue, gamboges, ultramarine, chrome yellow, red-lead, white-lead, vermilion, Brunswick-green, and Scheele’s green, or arsenide of copper! Never buy any confectionery that is colored or painted. Vinegar is made of whisky, or of oil of vitriol. Pickles have verdigris in them to make them a pretty green. “Pretty green” he must be who will eat bought pickles! Preserved fruits often have verdigris in them, too.
An awful list! Imagine a meal of such bewitched food, where the actual articles are named. “Take some of the alum bread.” “Have a cup of pea-soup and chicory-coffee?” “I’ll trouble you for the oil-of-vitriol, if you please.” “Have some sawdust on your meat, or do you prefer this flour and turmeric mustard?” “A piece of this verdigris-preserve gooseberry pie, Madam?” “Won’t you put a few more sugar-bugs in your ash-leaf tea?” “Do you prefer black tea, or Prussian-blue tea?” “Do you like your tea with swill-milk, or without?”
There is a much older and better known story about a grocer who was a deacon, and who was heard to call down stairs before breakfast, to his clerk: “John, have you watered the rum?” “Yes Sir.” “And sanded the sugar?” “Yes Sir.” “And dusted the pepper?” “Yes Sir.” “And chicoried the coffee?” “Yes Sir.” “Then come up to prayers.” Let us hope that the grocers of the present day, while they adulterate less, do not pray less.
Perhaps some discouraged reader may ask, What can I eat? Ask your doctor, if you can’t find out. There are a few things that can’t be adulterated. You can’t adulterate an egg, or an oyster, or an apple, or a potato, or a salt codfish; and if they are spoiled they will notify you themselves! And when good, they are all good healthy food. In short, one good safeguard is, to use, as far as you can, things with their life in them when you buy them, whether vegetable or animal. The next best rule against these adulteration-humbugs is, to buy goods crude instead of manufactured; coffee, and pepper, and spices, etc., whole instead of ground, for instance. Thus, though you give more work, you buy purity with it. And lastly, there are various chemical processes, and the microscope, to detect adulterations; and milk, in particular, may always be tested by a lactometer,—a simple little instrument which the milkmen use, which costs little, and which tells the story in an instant. It is a glass bulb, with a stem above and a scale on it, and a weight below. In good average milk, at sixty degrees of heat, the lactometer floats at twenty on its scale; and in poorer milk, at from that figure down. If it floats at fifteen, the milk is one-fourth water; if at ten, one half.
It would be a wonderful thing for mankind if some philosophic man would contrive some kind of “ohmmeter” that would measure the infusion of humbug in anything. A “Humbugohmmeter” he might call it.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Humbugs of the World, by P. T. Barnum)

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