In the 1830s, tomato “hucksters such as Dr. John Cook Bennett and the Amazing Archibald Miles peddled the tomato’s purported medical benefits. The competition was so fierce that the Tomato Pill War broke out in 1838,” for market dominance (The Tomato, 102). Dr. Bennett was an 18th-century renaissance man; chemist, writer and doctor, Bennett declared early on in his career a love for tomatoes, and authored articles about their manifold health benefits throughout his lifetime.
“In November 1834 Dr. John Cook Bennett declared that tomatoes could be used successfully in the treatment of diarrhea, violent bilious attacks, and dyspepsia (102).”
Bennett’s writings on the tomato circulated widely, and influenced men like Archibald Miles to try their hand at selling the miracle food, partly because of Miles’ own cultural landscape. According to Andrew F. Smith, author of The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery, Bennett’s published articles touting the versatility and benefits of tomatoes were received much more favorably and embraced in the northern states, whereas the South had been eating tomatoes for generations and generally did not consider them magical. The different food cultures of North and South manifested themselves in a more widely held belief in the North that tomatoes, and particularly ketchup, were a miracle product (The Tomato, 104). Creolization of food cultures in the South following from the mixed-race demographics meant that Southerners had been frying up the food for years, while Northerners could be persuaded into awe at the small, red wonder (The Tomato, 104). Predictably, Archibald Miles was a man hailing from an area outside the South, where food cultures and traditions had not yet incorporated the tomato.
In a typical act of industrious American business acumen, Archibald Miles read Bennett’s widely circulated article and decided to employ the newfound knowledge to appeal to the American consumerist mindset. Miles originally began as an agent for the company British Hygiene, selling a different form of miracle pill. However, after meeting Bennett, “who urged him to change the name of his American Hygiene Pills to Extract of Tomato Pills,” he decided to do so and altered his product line (The Saintly Scoundrel, 39). Miles then created his own laboratory to develop his research on tomatoes’ medicinal properties and quickly began hawking his tomato pills to buyers. “According to Miles’s advertisements, his tomato pills cured almost every disease known to humankind and alleviated many unknown ones as well (39).” Miles’s business, and many others like his, was so successful that one “observer maintained that hundreds of thousands of people used tomato pills during the late 1830s (39).” Appealing to an American sensibility for the new and best product, Miles and Bennett exploited American consumerist tendencies for their own benefit, while fully believing in the medicinal properties of the tomato and tomato ketchup.
- Smith, Andrew F. The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina, 1994. Print.
- Smith, Andrew F. The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1997. Print.