Cranberry Sauce, with a Side of Social History

This is a guest post by Rachel Gordon, Visitor Services Specialist at the Library. 

cranberry bog

Freetown Farm Bogs near Freetown, Massachusetts, October 20, 2017; Photographer Carol Highsmith, Prints & Photographs Division

Like many holiday dishes, our family’s version of cranberry sauce is always the same – any alterations would provoke howls of protest. It isn’t a particularly special recipe – just a combination of cranberries, water, sugar and orange zest, but I wouldn’t dare tamper with it. I originally found the recipe for this “exotic preserve” years ago, in a British cookbook. At that time, cranberries were uncommon in Europe; I scoured stores for them every November so I could make the sauce for my American husband. When we moved back to the States, my in-laws adopted it as part of their holiday meal. It’s now back in Europe again – my daughter will be making it for a Thanksgiving meal in Berlin. Luckily for her, cranberries are now much easier to find overseas.

The story of our family recipe bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic made me reflect on how cranberries have come to define more than Thanksgiving. The story of the cranberry mirrors that of the country itself, playing a part in the lives of indigenous inhabitants, European colonists, and subsequent arrivals of all origins. It’s been romanticized for its part in tradition and celebration, but it also played a lesser-known role in the hard lives of those who arrived during the later waves of immigration.

Native to North America, cranberries were called sasemineash by the Narragansett and sassamenesh by the Algonquin and Wampanoag of the Northeast. They were widely used by Native Americans, who introduced them to the early colonists. The early history of the cranberry is fascinating. The Library’s holdings reflect the outsize role this little berry has played in people’s lives and livelihoods throughout American history.

Recipes are an obvious link. In 1796, Amelia Simmons wrote American Cookery, the first cook book written by an American and published in the United States. She provides (very vague) instructions on how to prepare “cramberries” for a pie filling. Eighty years later, the cooking techniques in The Home Cook Book’s (1876) in two recipes for cranberry sauce, are very similar.

recipe for a "delicious jam"

Community cookbooks provide a fascinating look at regional American cooking and many, many uses for cranberries. The Palisades Cook Book (New Jersey, 1910), has recipes for jelly, mock cherry pie, and a helpful hint to “keep cranberries in a cool place in cold water” where “they will keep for weeks.” There’s a spiced cranberry sauce in the Superior Cook Book, (Michigan 1905), and two other versions with and without apples. The Gate City Cookbook, (Georgia, 1911) includes recipes for a pear/cranberry conserve and this “delicious jam.”

Old November newspapers are full of articles about the Thanksgiving holiday. Just two examples from the Library’s vast digitized database include a description of how cranberries came to be commercially cultivated in Thanksgiving and the Cranberry, (Tulsa Daily World, 1921), and an entire page of articles on the cranberry industry, the origin of Thanksgiving and “conceits and favors” for the holiday table. (The Citizen, Berea, Kentucky, 1910).

The American Folklife Center even has a Cranberry Song, recorded in Wisconsin in 1946. It tells of “Bohemians, Irish, Yankees and Dutch” working, living and socializing together as they gather the cranberry crop – which made me curious to learn more about these seasonal workers. The Prints and Photographs Division (P&P) is a treasure trove of images showing how cranberry harvesting has changed; it is now fully mechanized, a far cry from the previous, labor-intensive method of gathering the berries in flooded bogs and sandy fields.

workers in a cranberry bog

Gathering cranberries in a flooded bog. New Jersey, 1938. Photographer Arthur Rothstein, P&P.

There are also hundreds of photographs documenting a troubling story of exploitation, child labor, and unhygienic living conditions. Two collections in particular stand out. Images from 1910-11 by photographer Lewis Hine are part of the National Child Labor Committee collection (NCLC). Arthur Rothstein was part of the federal Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) drive to document American life between 1935 and 1944. Working decades apart, both men tell a similar story of whole families decamping to harvest cranberry crops, living in crowded, unsanitary, housing.

Children missed weeks, even months of school. The “padrone” or male head of the household, received the wages for all the family members’ efforts. After long days of work, women only had the most basic of cooking facilities to prepare meals. Bathrooms were even worse.

Most of these workers were immigrants. In the 105 images he took in New Jersey in the fall of 1938, Rothstein described the pickers as mostly Italian immigrants from Philadelphia, three quarters of them children. In Massachusetts, many of Hine’s subjects were of Portuguese origin, including a large contingent from Portugal’s West African island colony of Cape Verde.

small girl in front of barrels

“Mary Christmas, nearly 4 years old. Picks cranberries sometimes.” Sept. 1911, photographer Lewis Hine, Prints and Photographs Division

Hine focused on child labor. His 125 photographs of the cranberry fields are a moving testament to the hard lives that many youngsters, from toddlers to teens, led in the early 1900s. He shows how children like little Mary Christmas, “almost four” and Salvin Nocito, aged five, (above) worked in the fields, picking and transporting berries or looking after even smaller siblings. His captions range from the briefest of information to describing a mother urging her children to work faster.

This year, as we sit down to scaled-down family gatherings at the end of a particularly difficult year, many of us may be more reflective than usual. I know as I dig into my cranberry sauce I’ll be thinking of my children overseas, a Native American superfood, all the ladies who contributed to community cookbooks and, more soberly, the immigrant families who spent weeks in the cranberry bogs every fall. I will give thanks for Lewis Hine, Arthur Rothstein, and the many others like them who documented child labor and helped to bring an end to it in this country, and for the agricultural workers whose labor makes possible our Thanksgiving meals today.