The First American Baking Powder

…was developed in 1856 by a fellow by the name of Eben Norton Horsford. Horsford’s baking powder used calcium phosphate as the acid. That made it not only far less expensive than Alfred Bird’s cream of tartar version, it made it much more dependable. The product was called Horsford’s Cream of Tartar Substitute. Why “substitute”? Because there was something of a “frankenfoods” scare at the time and cream of tartar was thought to be bad for you (nice to know some things never change). Eventually the panic over tartaric acid died down and Horsford renamed the product for an obscure character from American history: one Benjamin Thompson from Woburn, Massachusetts.

Thompson is notable for several reasons. First, he was a loyalist during the American Revolution, which meant he sided with the British on the question of independence. As a result he was forced to flee America in 1776. A science and language prodigy, Thompson had no trouble earning a living in England and in fact accepted a position working for the Crown as a chemist. His successes with an improved version of gunpowder earned him an appointment to the Royal Society at the tender age of 26.

Not long afterward Thompson relocated to Bavaria where took a job for the government. There, in addition to his scientific work, he became something of a statesman, putting the unemployed to work and instigating various public works projects. For this Thompson was eventually awarded the title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire. Nice as that was, he felt that “Count Thompson” didn’t have a whole lot of pizzazz. So he adopted the name of the town in New Hampshire where he was first employed as a schoolteacher: Concord, previously known as Rumford.

But why did Eben Horsford end up naming his baking powder for such an esoteric character? It may because Rumford was semi-famous in his day for inventing the “Rumford” fireplace, the percolating coffee pot and thermal underwear. More likely it was because Horsford held the Rumford Chair of the Application of Science to the Useful Arts at Harvard (which Rumford himself had endowed) the year his baking powder went to market.

3 thoughts on “The First American Baking Powder”

  1. I have been using that baking powder for years, but if you asked me I would have sworn up and down that it was called Rumsford. Ah, the mind just goes.

  2. This would be a fun historical nugget to toss out conversationally in the things to be thankful for category at the Thanksgiving table. The ingenuity of both men amazes me.

    1. They were pretty amazing, Cath. Count Rumford was quite a character…a very unusual man with wide ranging interests, like a lot of scientists of his day. Have a great Thanksgiving!


      – Joe

Leave a Reply

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