People did a lot of crazy shit 100 years ago. But volunteering to eat poison has to top the list. It sounds like a Quentin Tarantino film, but back in 1902, a thing called the Poison Squad existed; a 12-man group whose sole purpose was to consume poisonous preservatives in food. You know, just your common pantry staples, like borax, formaldehyde and salicylic acid.
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Atlas Obscura details the coveted job of this short-lived (no pun intended) society. It started in 1902, when a chemist named Harvey Wiley offered members free rent and prestige to live out his twisted experiments:
As the Poison Squad ate meats and consumed drinks laced with increasing amounts of suspected poisons at their fine dining table, the public fell in love with their cause. Journalists breathlessly reported on their trials of these “young men of perfect physique and health.” Offensive yet popular minstrel shows added poison squad songs to their repertoire. Consumers across the country suddenly grew concerned about the safety of what they’d been eating.
It took five years and the death of one of the members before Wiley concluded that the scary food additives were hurting people.
In 1905, he teamed up with a woman named Alice Lakey to form the Pure Food Committee. Together, they helped pass the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, which paved the way for today’s Food and Drug Administration.
Under the Pure Food and Drug Act, “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs or medicines, and liquors” was prohibited.
Any food or drug product sold in the United States now had to include all its ingredients, including a percentage of narcotics if relevant, on the label for the consumer.
Atlas Obscura notes that between 1912 and 1930, Wiley lead the household and food product testing labs at the Good Housekeeping Institute, which still exist today.
Next time you enjoy a Twinkie, you know who to thank.