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Why Early America Was Obsessed With Wooden Nutmegs

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Although today we’re primarily familiar with nutmeg as a powder that comes in little plastic bottles, it’s actually the pit of the fruit of a tree native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia. Throughout the 18th century, the Dutch controlled the Banda Islands, keeping nutmeg scarce and prices high in international markets. In America, where nutmeg was a popular flavor in 18th and early 19th century cooking, the spice was extraordinarily expensive—so expensive, unscrupulous vendors allegedly tried to replicate nutmegs in wood.

At the time, America’s rural communities were connected by a network of itinerant peddlers, or “hucksters,” who sold household goods. The peddlers were often associated with dishonest dealings (part of the definition of a “huckster” today), and the original “wooden nutmeg” was a euphemism for a general mistrust of such people. Thomas Hamilton, a British traveler who toured America and documented his findings in Men and Manners of America in 1833, said of peddlers in New England: “They warrant broken watches to be the best time-keepers in the world; sell pinchbeck trinkets for gold; and have always a large assortment of wooden nutmegs and stagnant barometers.” In The Clockmaker: Or, The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville, published in 1839, the main character is called “a Yankee pedlar, a cheatin vagabond, a wooden nutmeg” by an incensed rival.

But were wooden nutmegs real, or a myth used to villainize merchants? In appearance, weight, and texture, nutmegs are very similar to wood. Curious about the practicalities of carving one, I commissioned an artist to make me a wooden nutmeg to see if the time and craftsmanship involved were worth the monetary gain and risk of getting caught. He produced a convincing nutmeg in 30 minutes, which would have been especially realistic if it had been lightly colored with a natural stain. The artist estimated it would have taken him an hour if he eliminated the use of a bandsaw and belt sander for the earliest steps in shaping the nutmeg, and relied only on hand tools available in the 19th century. Although it's difficult to estimate early-19th-century work weeks and salaries with precision, a laborer in the early 19th century might have made about $.08 an hour (based on an average daily salary of about $1 and a 12-hour workday) [PDF]. I’ve estimated that a nutmeg would sell for about the same amount as that hourly wage, based on references I’ve found to British prices at the same time and American prices later in the century. That means the labor may have been worth it.

A newly made wooden nutmeg. Image credit: Douglas Strich

 
However, as a consumer it would have been easy to foil a fake nutmeg vendor: A purchaser could take a small nutmeg grater with them and grate a little of the nutmeg before buying. Either the grated nutmeg would release its signature spicy smell, or the wood would be largely odorless—a clear sign of a fake. But perhaps if the fake nutmegs were mixed in with real ones (as one early reference to the story suggests), the scheme could work—especially if the seller wouldn’t be passing that way again.

In the decade before the Civil War, the wooden nutmeg also became symbolic of the heightening tensions between the urban, liberal North and the rural, conservative South. In the Southern version of the story, Northerners are painted as devious fraudsters. For example, an algebra textbook published by a North Carolinian in 1857 offers this problem: “A Yankee mixes a certain number of wooden nutmegs, which cost him 1/4 cent apiece, with a quantity of real nutmegs, worth 4 cents apiece, and sells the whole assortment for $44 and gains $3.75 by the fraud. How many wooden nutmegs were there?” The same year, The National Magazine quoted a Northerner who said, “I would rather come from that part of the country where the people make wooden nutmegs than to come from that part of the country where the people are fools enough to buy them.”

Although all the wooden nutmeg stories refer to the peddlers as simply “Yankees,” it was in this era that Connecticut unofficially took on the moniker of the Nutmeg State. According to an 1859 source, the nickname was adopted because of the stories that wooden nutmegs “are manufactured there.” It Happened in Connecticut author Diana McCain posits the nickname was adopted much like Yankee Doodle—transformed from an insult into a proud rallying cry.

Soon after the Civil War, stories of wooden nutmegs passed into history and legend. In 1801, the British invaded and temporarily gained control of the Banda Islands. One of their first actions was to remove nutmeg trees and transplant them to other British colonies, including Grenada in the Caribbean—where much of the world’s nutmeg comes from today. Nutmeg prices dropped dramatically by the middle of the 19th century, and dominated the flavors of American food in the 1840s to 1860s. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, 17 mechanical nutmeg graters were patented between 1854 and 1868, an example of nutmeg’s immense popularity and availability.

Now that nutmegs were cheap and plentiful, the era of the wooden nutmeg was over—if it had ever existed at all. An edition of the magazine The Ladies Repository published in 1865 tells one more version of the origin of the story: A fool from South Carolina bought real nutmegs, and upon trying to crack them with a nutcracker, found there was no meat inside. He then accused the seller of selling him fake nuts made from wood. In this case, the magazine framed the narrative as a Northerner versus a Southerner, but the story feels like one that predates Civil War politics, retold and reframed many times. Perhaps all the cautionary tales, insults, and rivalries were spawned not by actual wooden nutmeg trickery, but simply by an oft-repeated joke.

Today, saffron, vanilla, and cardamom are the most expensive spices on the planet—not nutmeg. Because such spices are often hard to grow and labor-intensive to harvest, it’s not uncommon for them to be replaced by cheaper alternatives, like safflower for saffron and artificially produced vanillin for vanilla. Some spices might also be adulterated with cheaper ingredients—oregano can be bulked up with sumac leaves—while others are dyed to improve their appearance. Both methods increase profit margins. But in the 21st century, it’s rare to find the outright brazen fraud of the wooden nutmeg.

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5 Subtle Cues That Can Tell You About Your Date's Financial Personality
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Being financially compatible with your partner is important, especially as a relationship grows. Fortunately, there are ways you can learn about your partner’s financial personality in a relationship’s early stages without seeing their bank statement or sitting them down for “the money talk.”

Are they a spender or a saver? Are they cautious with money? These habits can be learned through basic observations or casual questions that don’t feel intrusive. Here are some subtle things that can tell you about your date’s financial personality.

1. HOW THEY ANSWER BASIC MONEY QUESTIONS.

Casual conversations about finance-related topics can be very revealing. Does your date know if their employer matches their 401(k) plan contributions? Do you find their answers to any financial questions a bit vague—even the straightforward ones like “What are the rewards like on your credit card?” This could mean that your partner is a little fuzzy on some of the details of their financial situation.

As your connection grows, money talks are only natural. If your date expresses uncertainty about their monthly budget, it may be an indicator that they are still working on the best way to manage their finances or don’t keep close tabs on their spending habits.

2. WHAT THEY’RE WATCHING AND READING.

If you notice your partner is always watching business news channels, thumbing through newspapers, or checking share prices on their phone, they are clearly keeping abreast of what’s going on in the financial world. Ideally, this would lead to a well-informed financial personality that gives way to smart investments and overall monetary responsibility.

If you see that your date has an interest in national and global finances, ask them questions about what they’ve learned. The answers will tell you what type of financial mindset to expect from you partner moving forward. You might also learn something new about the world of finance and business!

3. WHERE THEY GET THEIR FOOD.

You may be able to learn a lot about someone’s financial personality just by asking what they usually do for dinner. If your date dines out a lot, it could be an indication that they are willing to spend money on experiences. On the other hand, if they’re eating most of their meals at home or prepping meals for the entire week to cut their food budget, they might be more of a saver.

4. WHETHER THEY’RE VOICING MONEY CONCERNS.

Money is a source of stress for most people, so it’s important to observe if financial anxiety plays a prominent role in your date’s day-to-day life. There are a number of common financial worries we all share—rising insurance rates, unexpected car repairs, rent increases—but there are also more specific and individualized concerns. Listen to how your date talks about money and pick up on whether their stress is grounded in worries we all have or if they have a more specific reason for concern.

In both instances, it’s important to be supportive and helpful where you can. If your partner is feeling nervous about money, they’ll likely be much more cautious about what they’re spending, which can be a good thing. But it can also stop them from making necessary purchases or looking into investments that might actually benefit them in the future. As a partner, you can help out by minimizing their expenses for things like nights out and gifts in favor of less expensive outings or homemade gifts to leave more of their budget available for necessities.

5. HOW THEY HANDLE THE BILL.

Does your date actually look at how much they’re spending before handing their credit card to the waiter or bartender at the end of the night? It’s a subtle sign, but someone who looks over a bill is likely much more observant about what they spend than someone who just blindly hands cards or cash over once they get the tab.

Knowing what you spend every month—even on smaller purchases like drinks or dinner—is key when you’re staying on a budget. It’s that awareness that allows people to adjust their monthly budget and calculate what their new balance will be once the waiter hands over the check. Someone who knows exactly what they’re spending on the small purchases is probably keeping a close eye on the bigger picture as well.

REMEMBER THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR TALKING.

While these subtle cues can be helpful signposts when you’re trying to get an idea of your date’s financial personality, none are perfect indicators that will be accurate every time. Our financial personalities are rarely cut and dry—most of us probably display some behaviors that would paint us as savers while also showing habits that exclaim “spender!” By relying too heavily on any one indicator, we might not get an accurate impression of our date.

Instead, as you get to know a new partner, the best way to learn about their financial personality is by having a straightforward and honest talk with them. You’ll learn more by listening and asking questions than you ever could by observing small behaviors.

Whatever your financial personality is, it pays to keep an eye on your credit score. Discover offers a Free Credit Scorecard, and checking it won't impact your score. It's totally free, even if you aren't a Discover customer. Check yours in seconds. Terms apply. Visit Discover to learn more.

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Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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