Porcineographs and Piggeries: William Baker Emerson and Ridge Hill Farms
Occasionally, when going through the stacks here at the MHS, something that you are not looking for catches your eye and makes you stop and take a look. Sometimes, you just take a quick look and then go back to what you were doing. Other times, though, the item piques your interest and prompts you to start doing a little bit of digging, even if only to fill up a blog post. Conveniently enough, just such a scenario played itself out for me this week.
While going through some of the Society’s broadsides the other day, looking for an item requested by a researcher, I saw a large broadside folder with the word “Porcineograph” written on it. Curious, I opened the folder and found a fairly beautiful, 19th century map of the United States made to look like….a pig. Bordering the pig-map were crests for each state of the Union accompanied by local cuisine involving pork products. I immediately scanned for Illinois – my home state – to see what was usual back in 1877 and was not disappointed: “Prairie hens, berries, corn-fed pork, and lager.” That sounds like a nice and balanced meal to me!
I made a mental note to take another look at this broadside and then looked it up in our online catalog, ABIGAIL, to see what little I could find out about it there. And here’s what I found!
In looking at the catalog record for the Porcineograph, I found that it was created by a man named William Emerson Baker and was meant as a souvenir for guests at his estate, Ridge Hill Farm, where the invitees were to have a dual celebration: commemorating the centennial of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the establishment of a new “Sanitary Piggery” on his farm. Using the subjected headings in the catalog record I was able to find the subject term Swine—Massachusetts in our catalog and thus identified two copies of invitations to the event.
Through a little bit of investigation online, I found that Baker, a man who made a fortune in the mid-19th century making sewing machines and retired at the age of 40, bought up several adjacent farms in the town of Needham, Mass., and established an 800-acre estate called Ridge Hill Farm. The farm featured things like a man-made lake, bear pits for exotic animals, extensive gardens, and a 200+-room luxury hotel.
While somewhat eccentric and seemingly frivolous, Baker’s idea of a sanitary piggery was a bit revolutionary in that he recognized the potential links between poor care of livestock, low-quality foodstuffs, and public health. He believed that by taking better care of livestock, the food which they were used to produce would improve, and thus, public health would also improve. I find this interesting considering this was a good 25-30 years before the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
Unfortunately, after Baker’s death in 1889, the estate did not last much longer. The hotel succumbed to fire, the land was subdivided, and the ornate pillars and statues crumbled. However, as evidence of what once was, we have in our collections here a published Guide to the Ridge Hill Farms, detailing all of the wonders that existed there in its heyday.
If you are interested in reading more about this man and his estate, check out the articles I found online (linked below) and which provided some of the information in this post. And, as always, come on in to the MHS library to see the items from our collections up-close!
- H.D.S. Greenway, “A Lost Estate,” Boston Globe, April 8, 2010. Accessed 7/31/2015 at www.boston.com/yourtown/needham/articles/2010/04/08/little_remains_of_19th_century_eccentrics _wondrous_estate_in_needham/
- Rebecca Onion, “An Eccentric Millionaire’s 1875 Pork Map of the United States,” Slate. Accessed 7/31/2015 at www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2014/01/31/pork_map_william_emerson_baker_s_porcinegraph _of_the_united_states.html [Includes image that can be blown-up.]
- “Once Upon a Time at the Baker Estate,” Gloria Greis, Needham Historical Society. Accessed 7/31/2015 at needhamhistory.org/features/articles/baker-estate
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