On December 30th, 1910, The United Scratch Manufacturing Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — one of the largest and most beloved companies in the history of the United States — burned to the ground. Miraculously, no lives were lost on that bitterly cold night a century ago, but the nation did lose a product of incalculable value, whose name lingers on in the language and the unfulfilled wishes of every successive generation.
Though there are few living who remember it, ‘United Scratch’ (as it was affectionately known), once employed nearly 15,000 workers and shipped over 780,000 tons per year of Scratch, a product of nearly unlimited utility that was relied upon by everyone from kings to kitchen workers. It may be difficult to imagine now, but making things ‘from Scratch’ was once a commonplace daily activity for millions worldwide. It was, simply, the way things got done.
The details of the early history of Scratch are somewhat sketchy, but it is widely acknowledged to have been invented accidentally by Nikola Tesla at his East Houston Street laboratory in Manhattan around 1893. Tesla was known to have peculiar eating habits, often going for days without food while working intensely on a project. When he finally remembered to eat, he would load up a huge sandwich with wildly disparate ingredients like Italian salami, smoked herring, coddled eggs, and pickled rutabagas.
It was while working on a device called a Simula-chron (which was intended to produce an ersatz ‘time travel’ experience) that Tesla is said to have left a half eaten sandwich on top of the machine. When the switch was thrown during initial testing, the device unexpectedly emitted (according to Tesla’s journal) “a towering greenish flame that neither burned nor gave heat”, after which the machine spontaneously shut down.
The china plate accidentally left atop the machine was found to be intact, but the half eaten sandwich was reduced to a vibrating, multi-colored powder. Tesla described it as “…appearing possessed of all hues and possibilities. The powder seemed to bristle like a racing horse restless in its fetters, the tiny particles anxious with the desire to Become.”
In the spirit of scientific inquiry, Tesla and two of his lab assistants decided to taste the powder and describe their impressions. Tesla was disappointed to find that it tasted like the pumpernickel bread from his neglected sandwich, but the first assistant believed the powder to taste exactly like Viennese almond torte, while the other thought it tasted like the cream-filled Berliner donuts of his hometown.
It was soon discovered through subsequent experimentation that the powder tasted like whatever baked good one was thinking of or desiring at the moment, but after a few days of novelty the accidental discovery was forgotten. No patents were filed, and the Simula-chron was soon afterward deemed a failure and hauled out to the curb.
Whether by coincidence or through the machinations and espionage of Tesla’s rivals, the following year a company was formed to produce a “miraculous new foodstuff, one which bears the flavor of the cook’s wish and which may be employed in the production of all manner of baked goods from workingman’s biscuits to the fanciest of cakes.”
The new product, called Scratch, was an immediate and roaring success. Scratch was used for baking in homes both humble and grand; when the White House chef made a five-tier birthday cake from Scratch for President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, monarchs and prime ministers the world over sent envoys to hand-carry large sacks of this astonishing new American product back to their domains.
In addition to its amazing properties in the kitchen, Scratch’s was found to be surprisingly useful in almost every other room of the house – and outside the home as well. Scratch, it was discovered, could even be used as a building material. And while it did have its limitations (you couldn’t really build a house from Scratch, for instance), you could easily build a chicken coop from it –and feed Scratch to your chickens, too!
(It is also interesting to note that scratching one’s head wasn’t always an expression of confusion. Rather, it referred to a brief and little-known fad in the late 1890’s when balding men began combing Scratch into their remaining hair to make it appear fuller.)
As a result of Scratch’s exponential growth in popularity, myriad small factories were built around the country to keep up with demand. But maintaining the secrecy of the proprietary manufacturing process became increasingly difficult. Hence the consolidation, in 1905, of those numerous small operations under the enormous vaulted roof of that once-great temple of capitalist endeavor, The United Scratch Manufacturing Company of Pittsburgh.
Day and night, the mysterious greenish ‘flames’ rose from giant smokestacks silhouetted against the steely Pittsburgh sky. Profits rose continuously, too, and ‘United Scratch’, which was known as a fair and generous employer for making sure its workers ‘always had a little Scratch in their pockets’, became the envy of the corporate world — an envy, it is speculated, that would become its undoing.
No one knows what started the fire that consumed the United Scratch Manufacturing Company so utterly – faulty wiring, a carelessly tossed cigarette, perhaps an untended oven in the company’s test kitchen. Popular opinion held that the ‘green fire’ of which so many were secretly suspicious had finally gotten out of control – an opinion with decidedly mythological overtones. Subsequent investigations were ultimately inconclusive.
What is known is that the building and every single piece of equipment within were utterly destroyed. Worse, the elaborate cipher by which the manufacturing process was kept secret was also lost to the flames. In the aftermath, the trusted few who knew small parts of the process tried to pool their knowledge, but to no avail. The magical product known as Scratch would never be manufactured again.
It is perhaps a coincidence that the world’s largest baking conglomerates – ones that exist to this day – were formed around the time of the Great Scratch Company Fire. It is perhaps also a coincidence that those companies’ pre-measured, pre-packaged, ‘foolproof’ mixes were soon being advertised as producing baked goods that were “better than those made from Scratch.” The truth, like the mysterious Scratch-making process itself, is probably lost forever.
Today, few have even heard of the once legendary United Scratch Manufacturing Company or remember the sad day of the Great Fire all those many years ago. Still, whenever we yearn wistfully for the days when people baked cookies or made quaint child’s toys or built garden sheds “from scratch”, the legacy of ‘United Scratch’ — in a small way at least — lives on.
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