Nutmeg Adds Spice. But is it Nice?

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By 
Walter 
W.
 Woodward, Winter 2007 Volume 6 Number 1 ©Connecticut
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State 
historian 
Walt 
Woodward 
tells 
us 
the 
story 
behind 
the
 state’s 
association
 with 
nutmeg 
and
 sheds some 
light 
on 
an
 unusual 
object 
in 
the 
collection 
of 
the 
Museum 
of
 Connecticut 
History: 
a
 wooden 
nutmeg
 carved
 from
 a 
piece 
of 
the 
famous 
Charter 
Oak.

NutmegOf all the nicknames people have used to describe the essential
 character 
of 
our 
state, 
none
 has
 a 
more colorful—or 
controversial—history 
than
 the 
“Nutmeg 
State.” That 
slogan 
was 
born
 in
 the
 early 
days 
of
 the American 
republic,
 and 
it
 captured
 in 
two 
words 
much 
of
 what
 was 
both
 best
 and 
worst
 about
 the
 newly emerging 
Connecticut 
Yankee.

Nutmeg Adds SpiceDuring 
the
 years 
surrounding
 1800,
 Connecticut
 sea
 captains 
actively 
traded
 Wethersfield
 onions—used 
largely
 to 
feed
 Caribbean 
slaves—for 
much‐sought‐after 
nutmeg,
 a 
spice 
grown
 only 
on 
the
 West 
Indian
 island 
of 
Grenada
 and 
in 
the 
Mollucas 
islands 
of 
Indonesia. 
Also 
during
 this 
time, 
young 
Connecticut 
men 
ventured
 in 
ever‐increasingnumbers 
to 
the
 American 
South
 and
 Midwest 
to 
peddle 
the 
clocks, 
buttons, 
needles, 
and 
other 
sundries
 being
 produced
 by 
a
 host 
of 
small, 
new
 Connecticut 
manufactories.

These 
Yankee
 peddlers 
loved
 having 
the 
hard‐shelled 
nutmegs—durable, 
light, 
and
 profitable—among 
their 
goods.
They 
were
 highly 
desired 
and 
always 
easy 
to 
sell. 
So 
easy 
that,
 so 
the 
story 
goes, 
some
 of 
the 
craftier—and
 less 
ethical—of 
these 
Connecticut 
lads 
took 
to
 mixing 
wooden 
nutmegs 
in 
with 
the 
real 
ones, 
simultaneously 
increasing 
both
 their profits 
and
 their 
“nutmeg” 
supply. 
They, 
of 
course, 
counted 
on 
the 
fact 
that 
the 
purchaser 
wouldn’t
 discover 
the 
difference 
until 
the 
trader 
himself
 was
 back 
in
 the 
Land 
of 
Steady 
Habits 
(or 
was
 that 
the 
Provision 
State?). 
As 
a
 result 
of 
these 
and
 similar 
trickster‐like 
practices, 
Connecticut
 Yankees’ 
reputation
 for 
clever‐but‐not‐fully‐principled
 trading 
spread 
widely 
and
 quickly,
 and
 the 
homeland
 of 
these 
likeable 
but
 shrewd
 hucksters 
became 
known
 as
 “The 
Nutmeg
 State.”

Just
 as
 their 
forefathers 
had
 done 
when
 they 
adopted 
as 
their 
own
 the 
song 
“Yankee
 Doodle”—a 
tune 
originally 
intended 
to 
ridicule 
Yankees 
for 
being 
crude
 rustics—Connecticans 
took 
to 
“Nutmeg
 State” 
the 
way 
“snake
oil” 
took 
to 
“salesman.” 
At 
an 
early
 and 
quite 
formal 
dinner 
gathering 
of 
the 
Connecticut 
Historical 
Society, 
one 
of 
the
 dignitaries—following
 a 
numerous 
and 
extended
 series 
of 
toasts 
preceding
his 
own—offered 
this 
salute 
to 
the
 assembled
 guests,
 “To 
the
 Nutmeg
 State,” 
he 
said, 
lifting
 his 
glass
 yet
 again. “Where 
shall 
we 
find 
a 
grater?”

Throughout
 the
19th 
century, 
despite 
the 
sobriquet’s
 pejorative 
connotations,
 most
 Connecticans
 remained 
pleased 
with 
their 
reputation 
for 
cleverness, 
and
 it 
was
 (and
 still 
in
 some 
circles 
is) 
common 
for 
men
 to 
wear 
a 
wooden 
nutmeg
 in 
their 
jacket 
lapels, 
identifying
 them
 as 
Connecticans. 
Such 
approbation 
was 
not 
universal, 
though, 
by 
any 
means. 
On 
several
 occasions, 
and 
especially 
in 
1903, 
when 
it 
endorsed 

Emily 
G. 
Holcombe’s 
efforts 
to
 officially 
name
 Connecticut 
“The
 Constitution
 State,” 
The
Hartford
 Courant
 urged 
citizens 
to
 reject
 the
 old 
nickname.
 “Do 
not 
yourself, 
and 
do 
not 
let 
others 
in 
your 
presence,”
it 
exhorted,
“ allude
 to 
Connecticut 
as 
the 
‘Nutmeg 
State.’” 
Continuing 
to
 use 
the 
phrase, 
they
 opined, 
was 
 “an 
insult 
which
 we
 give
 ourselves.”
 One
 hundred
 years 
later,
 Connecticans
 still,
 though 
with
 perhaps 
a
 bit
 less 
frequency, 
think
 of
 themselves 
as 
Nutmeggers, 
preferring,
 perhaps, 
a 
little
 spice
 to 
a 
lot 
of 
propriety.

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