A Brief History of Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate)
There was a day when the health and well-being of people in the western world was regulated by a simple 6 atom compound. This compound was used to clean and maintain the domestic and industrial environments. It was used to keep the human body ticking along nicely and to prevent and treat many diseases and ailments. It was the aggrandizing agent for teatime delights. It was effective, harmless, cheap, available and odorless. That substance was, our everyday, bicarb – bicarbonate of soda.
Tutankhamun’s people knew about it. A linen bag of bicarb was found in his tomb. Netjeri, “the divine substance” was obtained from salt lakes in the desert. They used it extensively as a soap, mouthwash, insecticide, teeth cleaner, antiseptic, drying agent, meat and fish preservative and for mummification. In the late 18 th C France, a crisis in soap manufacturing occurred. A reliable source of sodium carbonate was needed for production. King Louis 16th and the French Scientific Academy, in 1783 offered 2,400 pounds of silver to the man who could figure out a process to make it. In 1791, Nicolas Leblanc did so and set up his operation.
Three years later his factory was ransacked during the French Revolution and his secrets, fame and fortune were stolen. Sodium carb shops turned up everywhere. The despair of his loss led to suicide, though in Paris a statue of the chemist stands in his honour. Leblanc’s system became one of the most
important industrial-chemical processes of the 19th century. It was also the beginnings of the sodium bicarbonate industry, which introduced, as it turned out, a very versatile and useful product into the European economy and lifestyle.
Across the Atlantic a brother and brother-in-law, John Dwight and Austin Church, identified the magic of tiny CO 2 bubbles in baking, and invented the cake! They knew they were onto something. Church gave up his medical practice, to process and to package NaHCO₃ in eco-friendly brown paper bags in his kitchen. Their company, Church and Dwight Co. 1846, has not stopped production since. It is now a billion dollar enterprise, with a product respected by generations, and a logo recognised by the family cat.
Nevertheless, to our detriment, the unwavering power and the historical impact of “The Great Arm and Hammer” -or other bicarbonate of sodas by brand, are today severely under-recognized. As people went crazy trying out new recipes made possible by the effervescence of baking soda, they discovered other things. “Soda” marvellously cleaned the greasy stove; it neutralized acid spills; it put out fires; it salvaged the burnt pot, it demustified old books, it made a soft bath for baby; it soothed rheumatism; it took out the itch or the sting; it fixed
bad breath and the toothache, it stopped the hiccough, indigestion, flus and Colds. There was no end to this marvel. Arm and Hammer, gathered the data and credited those making the discoveries – #81 Thank you to Agnes Barnes of
Centerville, Missouri-. Dwight and Church had a superior marketing machine, mailing out promotional material to millions of homes every year. “Good Things to Eat” was then followed by “Cleansing Helps for the Housewife”, “Helpful Tips for Motorists”, “Good Care of the Teeth”. The company advocated that baking soda was “good for upstairs and downstairs”, “in the kitchen cupboard and the medicine cabinet”. Populations that had the little blue or yellow box on the shelf became reliant on it.
The reputation of bicarbonate as a serious medicinal agent was launched in 1920. Following the devastating Spanish Flu, Arm and Hammer published a 4 page flyer “A Physician Writes”. It made the astonishing claim that “rarely anyone, who had been thoroughly alkalinized with bicarbonate of soda, contracted the disease”. A simple prescription for avoiding future Colds and flu’s was included. This declaration was not in any way contested, and was in fact followed by a 32 page booklet, A Friend in Need, “Facts worth knowing about ARM & HAMMER BAKING SODA as a proven medicinal agent.” The original account was quoted twice in the booklet. A correspondent physician is quoted in the foreword. “It’s (bicarbonate of soda’s) value to the Culinary Art is
unquestioned, but it carries a far greater value unknown to its millions of users”. “For the good it will be to Humanity, I want to advocate the establishment of a department in your organization …” …which they did, hiring the good doctor, (a physician of merit in the US Public Health Service). Remedies in the booklet were assuredly ratified by the US Pharmacopoeia, America Medical Association and the American Dental Association. The Health Education Department and its publications held forth for 4 decades and folks got used to their regimes. According to The Materia Medica, Bastedo, 1947, “bicarbonate of soda is perhaps the most employed of all drugs”.
In the 1960’s, criteria for being a drug were changed by the FDA and NaCOH3 got the axe. Reacting to this gigantic loss, Arm and Hammer, rallied by focusing on its health promoting capabilities in the environment. In 1970 it was the only
commercial sponsor of the first Earth Day, marketing a detergent without phosphates. In 1985, nearly 20 tonnes of bicarbonate of soda were poured into an acid-rain dead lake, Wolf Pond in New York, by Prof James Bisongi, Jr., bringing
it back to life. In 1986, because of its extraordinary cleaning properties, more that 100 tonnes of the stuff, were carted across the country from the mines in Wyoming to scrub the interior copper walls of the Statue of Liberty, to celebrate it’s 100 th . With such impressive feats the public was gaining confidence in its safe and simple abilities to clean their homes, and maintain their lives.
Some say sodium bicarbonate is the most versatile and useful substance on the planet. Its potentials seem boundless. We should not be surprised to learn it is actually naturally produced by the body, serving as the main regulator of our acid/base system, and the escort of CO 2 from our cells. Indeed, all living things are dependent on it.
In our present COVID crisis we should also not be surprised that some people are looking back at the cure for a 1918, pH dependent virus. Perhaps this humble substance has once again something astounding to offer us.
Many thanks to: