The Taming of the Peppermint Plant
I recently got a call from a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, asking about the background of peppermint in the U.S.: Was it a breath freshener? A medicine? A treat? I don’t think I’m scooping WSJ by answering the question here, which is “yes.” Peppermint was all this and more.
A hybrid of water mint and spearmint, the peppermint first made an appearance in England in the 1600s and in North America via the early colonists. They used the plant as a medicine as well as a treat in early versions of candy. It was tasty, effective, and grew and spread effortlessly, perhaps viciously: by the early 1800s, it was considered an obnoxious weed. The man to tame the weed and make it both useful and profitable, was New York native Hiram G. Hotchkiss.
According to an 1886 article in the McCook Tribune, Hotchkiss, then a “plump and robust” 75 years old, started out as a grocery-man when he was 18, but soon saw the future of peppermint – and the future looked good. With financial and agricultural prowess, he and a handful of others catapulted peppermint oil into an profitable industry, appreciated for its value in medicine for stomach aches and a joyous and equally appreciated candy.
When I say “candy” I mean it in the broadest sense. The peppermint was used as a breath freshener, in such products as the turn-of-century Pep-O-Mint Lifesaver, especially useful at saloons to mask the smell of smoke and drink; a holiday flavoring, especially at Christmas time; and an addition to everything from cocktails to cakes.
Today, the peppermint retains its value in all of the above, quite often encompassing all at once.
Did you know: Altoids were first made in 1780 and have been around ever since.