Eating History: What Ketchup Tasted Like in the 1880s

Early recipes reflect the evolution of the beloved condiment.

  • Postcard courtesy New-York Historical Society's Print Collection
  • Postcard courtesy New-York Historical Society's Print Collection
  • Photo: Jaya Saxena
  • Photo: Jaya Saxena
  • Photo: Jaya Saxena
  • Photo: Jaya Saxena

Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.

As you probably know by now, many of our favorite foods have gone through significant evolutions to become the dishes we know and love today. No condiment refelcts that change better than good ol’ ketchup. Today, it’s all tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, and salt, but the sauce has a long history.

According to Fastco Design, the condiment originated in China, where ke-tchup, was more of a fish sauce than anything. Slowly, the name became a catch-all for any tangy sauce in the west, though the most popular ones were made with mushrooms. In the New-York Historical Society’s library collections, I’ve found ketchup recipes that call for everything from plums to walnuts.

The earliest tomato ketchup recipe I’ve found in our collections is in a book kept by Mary Virginia Stiles of Missouri, from 1884-1886, filled with newspaper clippings and handwritten recipes for everything from Christmas Cake to oyster omelettes. Unfortunately, her ketchup recipe calls for a bushel of tomatoes, which according to my research is about 53 pounds, so I had to go ahead and cut that down.

The other issue is that this recipe seems to be missing the key ingredients of any modern ketchup recipe: vinegar, salt, and sugar. Instead, it calls for boiling down tomatoes for five hours in a blend of spices, including cinnamon and allspice. We’ll see how this goes.

Tomato ketchup, Mary Virginia Stiles-style (to make it manageable, I cut all the quantities by 1/8th)

  • 1 bushel tomatoes
  • 1oz black pepper (whole)
  • 1oz cloves
  • 1oz allspice
  • 1oz cinnamon (stick)
  • 1/2oz mace
  • 1/2oz cayenne pepper
  • 1/2oz mustard

Strain through fine sieve and boil five hours.

The problem with making this recipe in December is that tomatoes are horribly out of season, and the average C Town “slicing tomato” is too thick and dry to strain. So I mashed them together as best I could, removing seeds and skins when possible, and set it to boil with all the spices.

What resulted is what could be generously called “tomato applesauce.” My fiance entered the house remarking that it smelled like cider, but when it was done refused to even try it because it apparently looked like the elementary school cafeteria tomato sauce that convinced him he hated lasagna for most of his childhood.

Luckily, home cooks seem to have gotten their act together by the 20th century. The personal cookbook of C.A. Schuchardt has a recipe dated 1954 for tomato ketchup that seems to resemble our modern ketchup much better:

  • 1 gallon skinned tomatoes
  • 4 tablespoons of pepper
  • 3 tablespoons of ground mustard
  • 1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 4 tablespoons salt

Let it boil well 3-4 hours in 2 quarts vinegar. Add 2 onions and some mace, strain when done and bottle.

If someone wants to test that out, let me know how it goes. Currently, I do not have any more room in my apartment for tomatoes.

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