The Rise of Chemical Leavenings.
By: Linda Trent
Copyright held by Linda Trent and the Citizens' Companion magazine
Vol. IV - Number 1. April/May 1997
Before chemical leavenings became household items, making cakes and breads required a lady to spend more time in the kitchen. The leavenings prior to the 1830s were primarily yeast (which needed time to rise) and eggs (which needed to be beaten to a froth). Despite the fact that chemical leavening reduced preparation time, there wre those, like Miss Beecher, who looked upon it as “good as an occasional resort, in emergencies, when good yeast cannot be preserved, or when there is not time to wait for yeast rising. But as the ordinary bread for continued daily use, it is expensive, and not healthful or good like yeast bread.”1 (It is interesting to note that Miss Beecher went on to include 23 receipts using chemical leavenings.)
Cookbooks published in the decade before the Civil War mention soda, saleratus, cream of tartar, pearlash and baking powder. One might assume these were all used concurrently (and no doubt they were, to some degree), but after closer examination, it appears that there is, indeed, a sequence of popularity from pearlash to saleratus to soda to soda with tartar to baking powder. In older cookbooks, pearlash predominates, when any chemical leavening is used at all. By the 1850s, saleratus moved to the forefront, but by 1861, soda, or soda and tartar is most common. Even as late as the 1880s, receipts still often called for combining tartar and soda individually, rather than using them pre-mixed in baking powder.
Following are some excerpts from a few 19th century experts regarding the composition and uses of pearlash, saleratus, soda, tartar, and baking powder.
Pearlash apparently was purchased in solid form from an apothecary.2 Prior to the 1830s, it was most frequently used in gingerbread, but by 1833 was found in many different receipts.
"Pearlash… A somewhat impure carbonate of potassa, obtained by calcining potashes upon a reverberatory hearth." 3
"Pearlash… is prepared from the ashes of land plants by calcination, solution in water, filtration, and evaporation. It usually consists of subcarbonate of potassa, sulfate of potassa, chloride of potassium, silex oxide of iron, &c." 4
"This is crude potassium carbonate, called, when purified by recrystalization, pearlash." 5
"Pearlash… refined potash." 6
"It is a rule never to use pearlash for Indian [cornmeal], unless to correct the sourness of milk; it injures the flavor of the meal." 7
"If there are any lumps [of pearlash], your bread will be full of bitter spots." 8
"When pearlash or saleratus becomes damp, dissolve it in as much water as will just entirely dissolve it, and no more. A tablespoon of this equals a teaspoon of the solid. Keep it corked in a junk bottle." 9
Saleratus was originally potassium bicarbonate, and began to replace pearlash in cookbooks in the early 1850s. As sodium bicarbonate (soda) became more common and the use of potassium becarbonate was discontinued, a few people continued to call soda “saleratus.” By 1878. the saleratus “now generally sold is bicarbonate of soda.”10
"Sal aeratus … see Bicarbonate of Potash." 11
"Saleratus … A carbonate of potash, containing a greater quantity of carbonic acid than pearlash, used in cookery." 12
"Saleratus … A bi-carbonate of potash, used in cookery." 13
"Saleratus (Potassa Bicaronas)" 14
"Saleratus should be bought in small quantities, then powdered, sifted, and kept tight corked in a large mouth glass bottle." 15
Soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is available today as baking soda. It was the only chemical leavening sold at a store in our county (Gallia County, Ohio) in 1862, according to the store's day-book, and it seems to be frequently used in Civil War era receipts.
"When soda or saleratus are used, work it in thoroughly, or you will have those yellow spots and streaks, which look so disgusting, and show a slovenly negligence."16 
Cream of tartar, Citric and Tartaric Acids, Bicarbonate of Soda, and Essences, should be kept in corked glass jars. 17 
Cream of Tartar
Cream of tartar was sometimes used as an acid to react with soda when another acid like sour milk wasn't called for in a receipt. Catharine Beecher in 1855 spoke of "bread made of sour milk, or buttermilk and an alkali, or made by mixing cream of tartar in the flour, and an alkali in the wetting..." 18
Cream of tartar, was, however, expensive and often adulterated.19
Commerial baking powder, rarely mentioned in period receipts, was the combination of soda and cream of tartar or similar acids and alkalis, usually with a filler added. Without a filler, the combined ingredients had to be kept perfectly dry as "dampness of the air would make them combine and neutralize them."20
The acid and alkali were sometimes sold separately, one in a blue paper and one in a white paper, expecially for making effervescing draughts" (carbonated water).21 Period baking powder, was not the same as modern double acting baking powder, which is formulated not to react completely until heated. The older baking powder began working immediately upon use and required the cook to hurry the batter into the oven.22
Pearlash is potassium carbonate, saleratus is potassium bicarbonate, and baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. Just exactly when saleratus became sodium bicarbonate is unclear, but it appears to have been in the later part of the 1870s. How quickly cooks switched from pearlash to saleratus, saleratus to soda, and soda to baking powder depended upon the individual cook, the availability of the item, and the preferred flavor.
For instance, my mother-in-law recalls her grandmother still favoring soda and clabber (sour milk) into the 1940s. A 19th century doctor was discussing potassium carbonate and bicarbonate (pearlash and saleratus) when he wrote "The bicarbonate is still milder, and more pleasant to the taste."23
Regardless of the reasons that these changes occurred, it appears as though the Civil War-era lady more than likely used bicarbonate of soda in baking, but she would remember using saleratus only a few years before. Pearlash was probably something her mother or grandmother used.
1 Beecher, Catharine, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1855), 228.
2 Oliver, Sandra L., ed., “Joy of Historical Cooking,” Food History News, Vol. IV #2 (Autumn, 1992), 3.
3 Webster, Noah, LL.D, An American Dictionary of the English Language (Springfield, MA: George and Charles Merriam, 1853).
4 Dunglison, Robley, MD, A Dictionary of Medical Science (Philadelphia, Blanchard and Lea, 1854), 704-705.
5 The Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition. Vol. XIV. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
6 Webster, Noah, LL.D, A High-School Dictionary of the English Language (Springfield, MA: G & C Merriam & Co., 1868).
7 Child, Lydia, The American Frugal Housewife (Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co., 1833), 76. Reprinted by Applewood Books.
8 Ibid., 77.
9 Beecher, 287.
10 Oliver, “Joy of Historical Cooking,” (Part 2), Food History News, Vol. IV, #3 (Winter, 1992), 2.
11 Imray, Keith, MD. A Popular Cyclopedia of Modern Domestic Medicine. (NY: Gates, Stedman and Company, 1850), 839.
12 Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language.
13 Webster, A High-School Diciontary of the English Language.
14 Pierce, R.V., MD. The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser (Buffalo” The World’s Dispensary Printing Office and Bindery, 1895), 302. Originally published in 1875.
15 Beecher, 221.
16 Ibid., 231.
17 Ibid., 222.
18 Ibid., 228.
19 Oliver, "Joy of Historical Cooking" (Part 2), 3.
20 Beecher, 233.
21 Bryan, Lettice, The Kentucky Housewife (Cincinnati: Shepard & Sterns, 1839), 401-402. Reprinted by University of South Carolina Press, 1991; Imray, 402; Leslie, Eliza, New Receipts for Cooking (Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson, 1854), 395, as quoted in Oliver, "Joy of Historical Cooking" (Part 2), 3.
22 Cunningham, Marion, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (Bantam Book, 1979), 11.
23 Beasley, Henry, The Book of Prescriptions (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1857), 275.
[All in all, I searched every receipt that would call for the use of leavenings in 13 -- 19th century cookbooks ranging from 1796-1861. I also used the Buckeye Cookery, dated 1880, to draw my conclusions. Along with these cookbooks, I searched all our medical books and found information on the chemicals in 4 of them ranging in years from 1850-1875. I also used The Joy of Historical Cooking and Fanny Farmer.]
This information is under copyright by the author and by the Citizens' Companion. For more information please contact Linda Trent or the Citizens' Companion