Big Business:
Food Production, Processing & Distribution in the North 1850-1900

This online exhibition features lithographs, chromolithographs, trade catalogues, trade cards, and product labels from the American Antiquarian Society’s collection that help shed light on major changes in the way Americans in the North produced and sold their food in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Enormous shifts in agricultural practices and in the manufacturing, marketing, and delivery of food occurred during the Industrial Revolution in the United States. Technological developments that made these changes possible included innovations in farming machinery, the building of railroads, improvements in refrigeration, the mechanization of food processing, and the invention of new packing materials and promotional techniques.

The structure of the modern food system took shape during this time as farming conglomerates raised fresh foods in large quantities far from consumers and made them available for longer periods during the year, large corporations developed and marketed processed products that became dietary staples, grocery stores became the main site of food distribution, and Northerners looked to home gardening as a source of pleasure rather than as a necessity.

An examination of the ways in which food was produced and sold during the second half of the nineteenth century is a relevant endeavor at the beginning of the twenty-first. Many of the negative aspects of our present food system, including the effects of fast food and processed food on Americans’ health and the increasingly prohibitive costs of transporting foods grown and manipulated far from the marketplace, originated in the nineteenth century. Current movements to buy locally can be viewed as a reaction to trends that actually began 150 years ago.