Accounting for Historic MSU Foodways

Last semester I focused much of my attention on the account books from the boarding halls (i.e, dining halls) during the Early Period of MSU history. The books cover a period from 1866 to 1874, during which the school was known as the State Agricultural College. While I have written about some of the information gleaned from these books (check them out here and here), below are some final themes and observations:

Food Logistics and Transportation

Example of A Boarding Hall Accounting Book (this is Vol. 108 listed in my references - says it goes until 1869 but actually goes to 1871). Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Example of A Boarding Hall Accounting Book (this is Vol. 108 listed in my references – says it goes until 1869 but actually goes to 1871). Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Today, MSU faces the challenge of keeping its many cafeterias and coffee shops stocked with enough food to feed 40,000 students on a daily basis. While this is quite a feat, they have the advantage of modern transportation and bulk food suppliers to make the task a bit easier. Although the student population was much smaller in the nineteenth century, it must have been a great challenge for the State Agricultural College to acquire the amount of food needed to feed the students and faculty, considering the limited amount of transportation available in and out of East Lansing at the time. Railroads reached Lansing by at least the 1860s, but all roads leading into campus/East Lansing were reportedly very poor, making the delivery of goods from town an unsavory task for horses and wagons (UA.17.107 F10 B2410). However, certain items were ordered via mail or train, such as teas and extracts, which are always noted to have the added expense of “express”. The first direct railroad line between Detroit and Lansing opened up in August of 1871 (MDOT 2014), and the first mention of food items being purchased occurred in April of 1872, when “express on extracts from Detroit” was paid. By early 1873, “freight from Detroit” was a very common listing amongst provisions purchases, indicating a change in the ways in which food was being procured and perhaps even influencing the types of foods being selected. “Fresh fish from Detroit” became increasingly more common after this time as well.

Fry Me an Egg and Butter My Biscuit:

Much of what is listed in the account books is eggs and butter. Eggs and butter. Butter and eggs. Over and over again. It’s obvious that these items were important ingredients for the boarding hall cooks. Sometimes the accountant listed the people from whom butter and eggs were purchased, usually the names of individuals. The college therefore had to coordinate with various local farmers and producers to procure enough eggs and butter to feed hundreds of students and faculty. In May of 1871, one account book (UA 107.17 Vol. 32) lists payments for 273 pounds of butter and for 246 dozen eggs! Can you feel your arteries clogging?

Self-Sustainability at the Agricultural College

While it might be assumed that an agricultural college would produce a lot of its own food, evidence of this in the account books is sparse. Not until 1871 does one account book specifically list vegetables purchased from the “garden” (and later the Horticulture Department). Garden purchases include items such beets, parsnips, salsify, pickles, onions, cabbage, and carrots (UA 17.107, Vol. 32). In 1872 they begin listing purchases of meat and milk from the Farm Department. The boarding hall bought 6838 lbs. (795 gallons) of milk from the MAC farm in June of 1872 alone! It must be assumed that the boarding hall was acquiring food from the Horticulture and Farm Departments prior to this date, but did not record these as monetary transactions prior to the school’s expansion post-1870. Therefore, while food needed to be purchased from sources outside of the college, it was partially self-sustaining. In 1872, Beal himself mentions that crops in garden did well and were used in the boarding halls, but that the “orchards and fruit gardens are a disgrace to the Agricultural College” (UA 17.4, B891, F16). Records we found from 1863 indicated plans for a pear orchard on campus (UA 17.107, F2412,) – this was evidently not very successful.

So…What Else Were They Buying?

1867 Ad for Andrew Bertch Meats, Lansing Michigan. Image Source

1867 Ad for Andrew Bertch Meats, Lansing Michigan. Image Source

While the account books give us good information about the types of raw foods being purchased, there are a lot of specifics that get left out because of the nature of the account book listings. Meat was purchased almost exclusively from a butcher named A. Bertch – he was billed monthly but the types of meats purchased are usually not listed. Some individual meat purchases were recorded – veal, beef, mutton, and pork were all offered on the boarding hall menu at some point or another. Flour was purchased in bulk from vendors like Thoman & Co. and Reitz & Beiderslatt. “Groceries” were obtained from the grocers E.B. Miller and J. Esselstyne & Son, and the details of the items within those bulk purchases are lost to time.

It’s clear from these books that some foods were reserved for special occasions or came at too high a price to buy in bulk for students. President Abbot purchased beef steak, veal, and oysters through the college account (UA 17.107, Vol. 32), all items that do not frequently appear in the books otherwise. Canned oysters were purchased for students only occasionally: “oysters and jelly for commencement” and “18 cans of oysters, supper for students, Week of Fires” both show up in 1871 (UA 17.107, Vol. 32). Who knew canned oysters were such a special treat?

Canned Oysters - mmmm!!! Image source

Canned Oysters – mmmm!!! Image source

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the account books have given us a good idea of the types of foods being purchased and consumed. While the types of food chosen for consumption are strongly tied to culture, so too are methods of food preparation and dishes/recipes – all of it is part of cuisine, or food culture. In the coming weeks I will be exploring what dishes were prepared from the ingredients that were purchased—as well as how these dishes were received by the students.



Madison Kuhn Collection, Folder 11, Box 2533, Vol. 108, Collection UA17.107, “Boarding Hall Account Book, 1866-1871”.

Madison Kuhn Collection, Folder 11, Box 2531, Vol. 82, Collection UA17.107, “Cash Account with Boarding Hall 1869-1874”.

Madison Kuhn Collection, UA 17.107, Vol. 32, “Accounts 1867-1873”.

Madison Kuhn Collection, UA.17.107 Folder 10, Box 2410, “Student Life at MAC 1871-1874” by Henry Haigh.

Madison Kuhn Collection, UA 17.107, Folder 52, Box 2412, “Pear Orchard Report,” 16 June, 1863.

Beal Papers, UA 17.4, Box 891, Folder 16, “Reports to the President of MAC”, 11 Nov. 1872.

Michigan’s Railroad History 1825-2014. Michigan Department of Transportation, Lansing, 2014. Accessed online at

Transportation in and around campus during its early years: a brief look

The discovery of several horseshoes in Munn Field a couple of weeks ago (near the location of the old horse arena),

One of the horseshoes found at Munn Field

One of the horseshoes found at Munn Field

coupled with the CAP team’s ongoing archival research on the origins of the Grand River corridor, got me thinking about the importance of transportation during the early days of the university.
It comes as no surprise that travel by horseback or horse-drawn vehicles would have featured as a regular part of life for both students and professors in the pre-motor-vehicle days of 19th-century campus.
It also stands to reason that shipments of supplies or mail, or the arrival of visitors, to M.A.C. by wagonload or railroad would have been a noteworthy event at a time when even a place like Grand Ledge was far enough away to which to send a postcard (The cost per ounce of postage in 1885: 2 cents, the 2013 equivalent of which is 51 cents).

MAC students walking near MAC campus early 1900

MAC students walking near MAC campus early 1900

The M.A.C. Board of Trustees’ meeting minutes from the late 19th century regularly mention reimbursing members of the college for transportation costs, or votes to allow the payment of transportation for building supplies, new farm animals, or faculty trips.
For example, in 1876: “Resolved that the Farm Dep’t be instructed to accept the offer of a Harvester from the College to pay the cost of transportation.” (By comparison today, transportation costs with large purchases today are often covered by the seller).

In 1877: “Resolved: That Prof. Gulley be allowed Five dollars each for the fifty pigs furnished by him to the Farm Department.
Resolved that the pair of Poland China pigs purchased by Prof. Gulley for the Farm Department be returned and the bill for their cost including transportation amounting to $52.95 be paid” (the 2013 equivalent would be $1141.88).

In 1881, a professor’s participation in an agricultural expo was contingent upon the reliability of the rail system:
It was resolved that the Prof. of Agriculture be required to make an exhibition of Cattle at the next State Fair, provided the railroads give the usual facilities for transportation

In 1902, transportation problems prevented the college from receiving shipments of coal necessary for smithing, smelting and coking:
I have thus far been unable to purchase any hard coal though it is greatly needed and some difficulty is being experienced in getting delivery of soft coal under our contract. The following letter from A.B. Knowlson who has our soft coal contracts will show this situation:
” Grand Rapids, Mich. Dec. 5th 1902.
A.M. Brown, Sec’y.
Agricultural College P.O., Mich.
Dear Sir:
Replying to yours of the 4th we have had trouble with the parties whom we had our contract covered with for Hocking coal, and they would not ship us coal, claiming they could not get transportation. We have been forced to go out in order to try and fill the contract, and pick up coal without any profit. We are doing the best we can for you in order to
fill the contract, although our contract with you is made subject to strikes and transportation, etc. We want to fill the order even if we don’t make a cent, and trust you will bear with us, as well as you can under the circumstances. If you think it is necessary we will come down and talk the situation over with you.
Yours respectfully,
A.B. Knowlson

The importance of transportation for the time period (and the awareness of such) is underscored by the copy of the commencement address by E.D. Partridge printed in the September 15, 1896 issue of the M.A.C. Record (the student paper at the time).
Titled ‘Transportation’, Partridge opens the address by commenting that “The growth [of the American transportation system], though slow and almost unnoticeable at times, has resulted in more good to the nation, and greater advantages to the people than any political movement could have brought about…. For, as farming increased, as manufacturing progressed, as the people turned their eyes westward and located at a distance from the center of civilization, as each community became less and less independent, it became plainer and more desirable that some regular means of transportation be established.” In this case, Partridge is speaking primarily of the trans-continental railroad system. He later says, “It is hard to say just what line of development the future will follow; so let us leave the future, and look at few of the needs for, and results of a good transportation system.”
He goes on to discuss the relative costs and benefits of cable cars, electric railroad, and bicycles for both urban and rural areas alike.
It’s interesting to note that, by the time Partridge’s speech was published in 1896, automobiles had been in production for 10 years in Europe (not that they were big sellers). Just a few years after Partridge’s speech, automobiles would go into large-scale production down the road from M.A.C. at the Oldsmobile Plant in Lansing, established in 1902, and a few years later by Ford. Yet it doesn’t appear that Partridge or his contemporaries would have predicted how predominant motor vehicles would become, nor their effect on the infrastructure and even social organization of a place like the M.A.C. Just a few years later, students at the college were apparently part of the growing national discourse passionately arguing over whither the future of American technology.  A printed version of a speech given by one Mr. Geo B. Fuller, M.A.C. 1900, printed in the March 13, 1900 issue of the M.A.C. Record, titled “The Evolution of the Automobile”, demonstrates the underlying optimism many had regarding this new technology and its potential for social and economic progress. Mr. Fuller’s speech talks of the public prejudice against early automobiles and their inventors in Europe. “The Englishman is an admirer of the horse; and those engaged in the horse trade were afraid of the automobiles, and took measures to have laws passed which would render them useless…. It was not until recently that movements might have been seen preparatory to the development and manufacture of automobiles as a new industry.” He furthermore speaks of automobiles as the solution to several extant problems, and predicts a new age of technological equality: “For the future, the automobile promises a city practically free from the rumbling of heavy drays, and the clatter of the horses hoofs which make modern urban life more or less miserable…. Not only will the rumble of heavy trucks disappear, but the removal of the horse from the street will practically solve the problem of street cleaning. The repairing of roads will be reduced to a minimum…. Once the horseless age is in full sway, every man will own his automobile. The bicycle will be put away – except for sport. Even on the farm motor-driven wagons will carry the hay from the field and the grain to the market. The horse will still be harnessed to the plow, furnish sport on the race course, and exercise for the few, but he will no longer be the burden carrier of man.”
It’s clear that the “horseless age” as envisioned by Mr. Fuller isn’t quite what came to pass, and the arrival of personal automobiles on the M.A.C. campus came with its own problems, to judge from further mentions of transportation in early 20th century M.A.C. Record issues and Board of Trustee minutes. By the 1920s automobiles had become common enough for college officials to worry about organizing parking during football games, but also popular enough for the student paper to offer advice on driving routes between cities.
The October 15, 1920 issue of the M.A.C. Record provides advice on automobile routes between East Lansing and Ann Arbor. Navigation by automobile in those days was much like driving off-road today, it seems; the routes between the two cities include dirt and gravel roads linking between the incipient state highway system, which did include Grand River (M-16) by 1918.

It’s not clear how students and faculty at an agricultural school such as M.A.C. would have felt about the changes that came with the transition to “the horseless age.” On the one hand, the presence of motor vehicles may have made certain aspects of campus life easier. On the other hand, some, especially those whose work (or research) depended a horse-based transportation system, may have felt that their future livelihood was at stake. It’s also not clear yet (from what I’ve found) just how quickly horse-based transportation truly disappeared from the landscape in a place as rural as the M.A.C. campus once was.

MAC Farm Lane 1913

MAC Farm Lane 1913

The reports on the first and second annual horse shows at the college in the early 1920s go out of their way both to remark on the presence of numerous automobiles (which underscores how noteworthy they actually were at the time) as well as comment at length on the importance of holding a horse show in the first place:
“The importance of such a contest at M.A.C. is twofold. It inspires interest in well-bred and trained animals and touches also on the preparedness of the military program. As an annual feature the horse show will undoubtedly grow in popularity and in the general interest displayed by the people of the state.” (M.A.C. Record, May 12, 1924). By 1930, however, emphasis on the nature of the horse show in the M.A.C. Record had shifted to its ‘aristocratic’ nature (actual wording used in the article), not its practical one (link). I can’t be sure that this is linked to changes in infrastructure and technological access, but this topic is of continuing interest to me, so I’ll likely be following it up more in the future. Stay tuned.

Update on the Sustainability Project

Throughout the course of this semester, I will be writing up the results of my archival research as they pertain to the archaeological materials recovered by CAP. I expect to revisit the University Archives several more times to read through some older documents, but I plan to partly shift my focus to tracking down theses and dissertations written by past students about the MSU campus. Sylvia Deskaj, a CAP fellow, has started to compile these sources from the library collections. There are a number of detailed studies on topics such as traffic patterns, food consumption, and water management on the MSU campus that I believe could articulate well with my Archives research and the CAP collections. Rather than sharing more details from the Archives in this blog post, I decided to share the introduction for the sustainability paper that I will co-author with Dr. Goldstein and Jennifer Bengtson (former CAP fellow). I have divided the paper into the following sub-topics: transportation, agriculture/food, development of the college, development of East Lansing, war effort and community response, and daily student life/experiences. Below I have posted the introduction to the paper draft:

The goals of the Campus Archaeology Program (CAP) are to protect archaeological resources and disseminate information on cultural heritage at Michigan State University (MSU). Working with departments across the university to ensure proper mitigation and documentation of archaeological features, CAP is actively involved in the maintenance of the historical past on campus. Through the program, undergraduate and graduate students participate in research design, excavation, archival work, and historical research. Engaged scholarship and community interation are the primary foci of CAP, with staff members contributing to digital media accounts, developing public outreach programs, and presenting research in academic journals. For the purposes of research, CAP recognizes four historical periods: Period 1 (1855-1870), Period 2 (1870-1900), Period 3 (1900-1925), and Period 4 (1925-1955).

Long before the concept of sustainability was in vogue, MSU students and faculty regularly engaged in practices that would, by today’s standards and terminology, be considered sustainable. Using archaeological features and recovered material culture, CAP is in a unique position to document the efficacy of these practices by providing time depth and context to the evolution of the sustainability concept. Drawing upon archaeological data and archival documents, CAP presents a history of MSU’s “green” heritage. These sources can provide a culturally and temporally sensitive picture of how sustainable food and transportation practices were implemented and experienced by the campus community.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education defines sustainability as supporting “human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations” ( We take a similarly broad view of the concept and adapt it furhter to account for the ways that attitudes toward food and transportation reflect the socioeconomic concerns of the four specific historical periods in question. For this paper, we define sustainability as the capacity of the University to preserve and optimize food and transportation systems under changing socioeconomic conditions, contextualized through integrating historical perceptions of the urgency of environmental, economic, social, political, and health concerns.