Cuttin’ the mustard: Gulden’s and the American Institute

Detail from Gulden’s letterhead, 1909. MS 314, Hudson-Fulton Celebration Commission Records

Let’s talk mustard. Even if you’ve never actually tried it, it’s unlikely you’d have trouble recognizing a bottle of Gulden’s. Its distinctive gold and crimson label is, at least as far as condiments go, iconic. But have you ever taken a closer look? Like many brands, Gulden’s slapped images of medals  earned in bygone days on packaging to tout the product’s merits. Although the competitions for which they were awarded are largely forgotten, one of Gulden’s medals is particularly relevant to the N-YHS because it was awarded by the American Institute, an interesting and substantial collection of records held here.

First off, Gulden’s roots are solidly New York. Charles Gulden’s first taste of the mustard business, so to speak, came working at the mill of his uncle and German immigrant, George C. Geissen, at 123 Mott Street. While ConAgra’s website (the present owner of the company) and its newest labels sell 1862 as the year Gulden struck out on his own, his 30-day military service in 1863 and his young age (he was only 19 years old in 1862) make that date suspiciously early. On the other hand, the New York City directories and Gulden’s own advertising offer a more likely timeline.  In 1867 Giessen seems to have completely divested himself of mustard, with his business passing on to one-time baker Jacob Stapenhorst. In spite of the sale, Gulden persevered, establishing his own operation at 63 Elizabeth Street. He first appears in the 1868-1869 directory but based on Gulden’s own advertising, which has at times displayed “Established 1867″, it seems the business must have begun the previous year, not 1862!

Either way, Charles Gulden didn’t waste time and his mustard made its competitive debut at the 38th Annual Fair of the American

Catalog of the 38th Annual Fair, 1869. MS 17, American Institute Records

Institute just two years later, in 1869. The American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention, or simply the American Institute, was an organization founded in 1828 devoted to improving and fostering advancements in science, industry and the arts. Towards that end, it operated an Annual Fair at which exhibitors submitted entries in a myriad of categories, including machinery, livestock, food, musical instruments, photographic techniques, and an enormous host of other items, all in the hopes of winning a medal and premium. Despite what entries like artificial flowers might suggest, it was serious business; in the heat of the industrial revolution, some of America’s greatest inventors participated, entering many of the most influential inventions of the nineteenth century — among them were Colt and his revolver, Morse and his telegraph and a grab bag full of other inventors’ historic contraptions. Even arguably America’s most famous inventor, Thomas Edison, won a medal.

Gulden’s section in the fair, the Department of Chemistry and Mineralogy, might sound a little odd for a food entry but it’s a reminder that the American Institute was primarily concerned with ingenuity and technological progress, not gastronomy. Moreover, the judges report offers further revelation, stating “Although conveying the idea of foreign manufacture [Gulden’s mustards]  are really made in this city from American seeds +c., and represent the French and German flavors.” In noting how Gulden’s mustard succeeded in replicating the Old World-style, the judges communicate a fundamental priority of the Institute. Ultimately, Gulden would have to settle for a “second medal” but this was no small achievement for his infant company.

Judges report for Gulden’s entry in the 6th Group, Department of Chemistry and Mineralogy, 1869. MS 17, American Institute Records

This connection between a condiment and an organization at the heart of America’s industrial revolution may seem quirky but it highlights America’s longstanding desire for domestic progress. And while history has consistently acknowledged the industrial revolution’s impact on modern society, the effect of mechanization on the food industry hasn’t been covered all that extensively. Fortunately, times are changing and in light of today’s vigorous discourse on food, its history has gained traction, meaning the records of the American Institute should continue to prove a useful tool for historians.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *