In discussions of the fight for the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, Harvey Washington Wiley is usually portrayed as the consumers' champion, the Whiskey Trust as their adversary. Messrs. High and Coppin argue otherwise Wiley's correspondence from 1904 to 1906 reveals a deep split between whiskey producers, with the makers of straight whiskey fining up behind Wiley's purefood bill and the rectified whiskey producers fighting against it. The authors argue that both sides used the consumer only as a convenient focus for their rhetoric; their activities thus provide another example of regulatory legislation passed to further the goals of private interests rather than to protect the public interest.
Harvey Washington Wiley's resignation as chief of the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Chemistry in 1912 aroused national attention. The father and chief enforcement officer of the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, Wiley was widely regarded as the enemy of adulterated, poisonous, and mislabeled products. To many his resignation signaled the triumph of unscrupulous business interests over the forces of consumer protection.
This attitude reflects a point of view that has been prevalent not only in popular accounts, but also in earlier historical interpretations of the Pure Food and Drugs Act. Donna Wood notes that the act has been seen "almost universally as a measure exclusively for consumer protection."' According to this view, the act was promoted by Wiley, the American Medical Association, various women's groups and other publicspirited organizations, legitimate businesses, and a majority of Congress. The leaders of the pure food movement, and Wiley in particular, have been portrayed as morally upright, solicitous of the health and welfare of the consumer, and opposed on principle to inferior products and fraudulent labeling. The act was opposed, according to the public interest view, by corrupt businesspeople and politicians, including Nelson Aldrich and other Old Guard senators. Chief among the culprits who defrauded the public and opposed the legislation was the Whiskey Trust.
The public interest interpretation of "DE Wiley's Law" has survived despite an impressive literature on the Progressive Era that has doubted the adequacy of the public interest theory as an explanation for regulation in other areas, in part because general histories of the Progressive Era have paid little attention to the details of the pure food movement.' The Pure Food Act of 1906 has usually been considered with the Meat Inspection Act of the same year as one of the early triumphs of the Progressive period. Richard Hofstadter viewed the Pure Food Act as an example of the shift from concern for the producer to concern for the consumer by the new middle class, Robert Wiebe saw it as an example of experiment in bureaucratic reform.
Histories of regulation in the Progressive Era have focused primarily on large enterprises in the industrial and transportation sectors of the economy Since the provocative writings of Gabriel Kolko, debate has centered on the extent to which regulators were captured" by large business interests. Historians have argued that, as Kolko wrote., from 1898 onward, "the food reform movement was essentially supported by the food industry itself directed by Wiley, and represented a desire of major food interests to set their own house in order and protect themselves from more unscrupulous associates'" The capture thesis, though it emphasizes the degree to which reformers' plans were turned to private interests, nevertheless takes as its starting point the view that the Pure Food and Drugs Act was originally intended to promote honest business and to protect the consumer Wiley himself after his resignation, argued that a public interest law had been captured and subverted by th "fake" whiskey and other industries.
In contrast, the work of Peter Temin and Donna Wood emphasizes the primacy of narrow business and bureaucratic self-interest in shaping, as well as in passing, food and drug legislation. Temin especially questioned whether consumer protection was involved at all. He argued that "pressure from interested businesses and the organizational needs of Wiley's Division of Chemistry" shaped the provisions and passage of tbe bill. Although she is not as willing as Temin to dismiss public interest as a force, Wood, after a thorough investigation into the passage of the Pure Food Act, concludes th"addressed the needs of businesses suffering from nothing more than competition itself." Thus dairy farmers supported the requirement that margarine be labeled "imitation:' and baking powder manufacturers who did not use alum wanted those makers who did to be forbidden to us"pure" in descriptions of their products. Wood and others have documented the Pure Food Act's discriminatory treatment of margarine, baking powder, and other products, but the similar treatment of the whiskey industry has been overlooked.
At the turn of the century, most of the population of the United States had been raised on farms and were accustomed to eating fresh food, but urbanization was changing that. The food industries serving the urban population used preservatives, flavoring, and dyes, and city dwellers were understandably concerned about the contents of their food. Part of the "pure" food movement, and the part with which Wiley aligned himself was a reaction not only against unsanitary processes and fake products, but also against the new food processing practices in general. Baking powder with alum was in fact not harmful; oleomargarine was simply a less expensive alternative to butter But these products were not pure in the sense of being the same as the traditional products, and this fact alone disturbed many consumers, That confusion created opportunities for fraudulent claims,which then increased consumer frustration. Even those who did not oppose the existence and sale of margarine, for example,, wanted precise labeling and punishments for malefactors, so that oleo could not be sold as butter.
The food industry did not represent one unified force in the battle over the Pure Food Act; on the contrary several interest groups formed. To continue the butter example: some dairy farmers were opposed to the very existence of oleo, perceiving it as a competitor in their market. They would advocate declaring mar"imitation:' if not actually illegal. Others, more confident perhaps of the intrinsic worth of butter over margarine, were convinced that most consumers would continue to purchase butte ,r so that only "truth in labeling" laws were required to prevent unscrupulous people from selling oleo …