Doctor Withrow and the Great Pretzel Kerfuffle of 1898

The famed health commissioner met his match when he tried to ban pretzel sellers from city school grounds.

There is no question that John M. Withrow, M.D., was a big wheel in Cincinnati. Yes, the very same person for whom Withrow High School is named. Withrow had a long and successful career in town, and his intelligence and probity resulted in his appointment to several distinguished posts. After his first wife died, Withrow married the daughter of General Andrew Hickenlooper, president of the city’s gasworks and among the richest men in town.

Image digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

Withrow was not afraid of controversy. As a longtime member and sometime president of the school board, he convinced the city to totally reorganize a politically corrupt board with every ward represented into a modern, streamlined board of only seven citywide representatives. He refused to install fire escapes on city schools, believing them more dangerous to children than actual fires. He lobbied against markets selling spoiled meat, vendors blocking the sidewalks, and poor ventilation in the county Courthouse.

But Withrow met his match when he picked a fight with the city’s German pretzel bakers. In Cincinnati, some topics are verboten!

The Great Cincinnati Pretzel Kerfuffle erupted in 1898 while Withrow served one of his two terms as Cincinnati’s Health Officer. One wonders when he found time to fulfill the duties of this post. At the time, he was also dean of the Laura Memorial Women’s Medical College, a professor at UC’s College of Medicine, on The Christ Hospital’s medical staff, vice president of a baby carriage company founded by his brother, and treating his own patients as the city’s premier gynecologist. Nonetheless, despite all of these distractions, Withrow’s name appeared in the newspapers almost daily with some pronouncement about hygiene or sanitation.

So it was that Withrow observed a disturbing phenomenon of street vendors selling pretzels to children on school property. This offense would not stand. According to The Cincinnati Post [January 18, 1898]:

“Health Officer Withrow seems to have sampled some pretzels sold to school children. An X-ray photograph of the doctor’s stomach would probably show that pretzel still there. The doctor said it was not fit to eat.”

A Cincinnati Post cartoonist illustrates Dr. John M. Withrow’s opinion of Cincinnati’s pretzels. The goat on the left munches happily on tin cans, while the unfortunate beast on the right has succumbed to an inedible pretzel.

Image from the Cincinnati Post and extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The jaunty tone of this news brief suggests that The Post might have believed the good doctor to be less than serious. Not so. The next day, the newspaper repeated the decision but included a cartoon showing two goats, one happily munching on tin cans, the other dead from eating pretzels. The caption read:

“The ‘School Pretzel’ As A Steady Diet. Health Officer Withrow says it is indigestible and wants sale of same in schoolyards discontinued. A Post artist has caught the beatific expression of countenance on Mr. William Goat after the proverbial repast on tin cans, rusty nails, hoop skirts, etc. The other melancholy picture shows the unhappy consequence of indulging in one school pretzel.”

Withrow’s edict sent a tremor through the city. At the time, schools did not offer lunches and had no cafeterias. Students went home for lunch or bought something from vendors who congregated around the school, offering anything from baked potatoes to candy to pretzels. Among this array, pretzels were cheap and filling and a lot of children bought them.

Cincinnati bakeries, particularly in the Over-the-Rhine district, made pretzels for the school trade. The city directory listed eight factories that made pretzels exclusively and dozens more that offered pretzels in addition to other baked goods. Pretzels were good business in Cincinnati, and the pretzel manufacturers prevailed upon the city to moderate Withrow’s dictum. A crew of city authorities, perhaps recalling the pretzels from their own school days, decided to look into the matter. According to The Post [January 24, 1898]:

“Monday a number of places were visited, among them one on Bremen Street. It was found to be not lacking in cleanliness, and the officers who sampled the pretzels pronounced them good, as far as taste goes, light and wholesome. Pretzel-bakers of Cincinnati will send a delegation to Dr. Withrow to convince him if possible of the error of his opinion. He will be invited to make an inspection of all the pretzel bakeries in Cincinnati.”

Image from the Cincinnati Post and extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Somehow the pretzel bakers survived. In 1908, Cincinnati became the first U.S. school district to offer lunches at school. That probably cut into the street vendors’ market. Prohibition was at first believed to be another blow, when all the saloons closed, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When pretzel manufacturers held their national convention in Cincinnati in 1933, they had nothing but good things to say about Prohibition. Conrad Berg, chairman of the Pretzel Baker’s association, is quoted in The Cincinnati Enquirer [January 18, 1933]:

“Sales have risen since prohibition, because before the arid era saloons gave them away with beer, and, therefore, groceries and delicatessens would not stock them.”

Withrow laid aside the burdens of municipal hygiene and focused his energies on the city’s schools. In addition to reforming the school board, he initiated a program to improve the quality of school buildings. His efforts helped move Hughes High School out of the West End and up to the hilltop near UC, and he was behind the creation of the brand new East Side High School in 1919. It was this school that, on Dr. Withrow’s retirement from the school board in 1924, was renamed in his honor.

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