From the end of the Civil War to the turn of the century the United States population more than doubled. This rapid growth was felt most in the expanding industrial cities. Much of the increasing population was far removed from food-producing farmlands. To support the large cities, food packaging companies began using questionable preservatives and adulterated foods to extend shelf life and maximize profits.
In 1906 the government responded by passing the Pure Food and Drug Act. This law prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious food, drugs, medications, and liquors.” It was the beginning of the Food and Drug Administration and caused manufacturers to properly identify the ingredients in their goods or face possible prosecution.
The Burlington Free Press reported the new law would mean businesses outside of Vermont that produced and sold products labelled “Pure Vermont Maple” would no longer be able to do so. Many of these out-of-state businesses were also in the practice of adulterating Vermont Maple Syrup with cheap replacement sugars, water, and corn syrup. It was hoped the new law would protect Vermont sugar makers in the future.
In much of Vermont it wasn’t until the 1830s and ’40s that maple goods were produced in marketable quantities and sold in urban areas. Sugarhouses were unknown at the time and boiling was done in huge kettles suspended by chains attached to poles in the open air. Farmers used modified potash production equipment to produce maple bricks, sugar, and syrup.
The early version of marketable maple syrup produced with this system was darker, thicker, and had a strong maple flavor. In 1852 the Brattleboro’ Eagle newspaper reported “There is no season of the year during which the common farmer receives so much net profit as the sugaring months.”
As sugarhouses, boiling pans and filtering grew in popularity the syrup became lighter in color and less thick. Consumers had to be educated about the changes. This may be where the old belief that lighter maple syrup is better than darker maple syrup began.
By 1880 Vermont maple products were in high demand across the country and many people were willing to pay a premium for them. This led to fraud and adulteration of the product. The Bellows Falls Times reported, “The makers of maple sugar have as formidable an enemy to contend with as have the butter makers. What ‘oleomargarine’ is to the dairy farmer so is ‘pure Vermont maple syrup made in Chicago’ to the sugar maker. Stores and restaurants were selling combinations of glucose syrup, cane sugar, maple syrup and water, and labeling the product “Pure Vermont Maple Syrup.” In 1884 Vermont passed a law prohibiting the adulteration of maple sugar, maple syrup and bee’s honey. This step was taken to stop modifications of these goods within the state. The Montpelier Argus and Patriot newspaper reported, “The grocers of Montpelier could tell good stories of the business they do every spring in selling cane sugar to certain owners of maple sugar orchards in this vicinity. Since the rise in the price of maple sugar, its adulteration with cane sugar has become very profitable.”
The widespread fraud and adulteration of maple products began to take its toll on Vermont sugar makers. In 1888 the Vermont Maple Sugar Exchange opened operations on Flat Street in Brattleboro. The Vermont Sentry newspaper reported, “The object of the Vermont Maple Sugar Exchange at Brattleboro is to furnish consumers in all parts of the country with pure sugar and syrup direct from the producers in the Green Mountain State. The universal adulteration of this product by dishonest middlemen outside of the State, and the flooding of markets with this adulteration falsely termed Pure Vermont Maple, induced the Vermont State Grange and businessmen of the State to organize in this way on a sound financial basis so that both producer and consumer may be protected. The exchange has 135 producer members.”
In 1892 the Cambridge Transcript newspaper described the purpose of the operation as “to obtain better markets for maple sugar and syrup and guaranteeing consumers a genuine, pure article. The sugar and syrup is received from farmers, the exchange packages the product and ships it anywhere in the United States. The prices paid to farmers exceed those usually paid in the markets. The guarantee of purity and full weight has its influence among consumers. The exchange numbers 180 producer members.”
In 1893, the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association was founded. It was spurred on by Clarence Whitman of Brattleboro. He was in charge of the Vermont maple display at the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair. Whitman, a manager at the Maple Exchange and a farmer along the West River, had the idea of bringing major maple producers from around the state together to discuss Vermont maple’s representation at the World’s Fair. One thing led to another and it was decided that a statewide organization should be formed to support the quality production and marketing of Vermont maple products. One of the first decisions of the Association was to establish a distinct label that would be placed on any maple product sold by one of its members. This would show that the product was authentically produced in Vermont. The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association continues to operate today.
Many of the goals of the Vermont Maple Sugar Exchange were met with the founding of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. Issues around maple purity and quality were addressed through the Association. The “Pure Vermont Maple” brand was strengthened by the collective support of Association members.
Vermont is the largest producer of maple syrup in the United States. In 2015 the U.S. Department of Agriculture adopted the maple syrup grading system followed by Vermont.