A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why is Boston called "Beantown"?

May 19, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Why is Boston is sometimes referred to as "Beantown"?

C'mon. This part is pitifully easy. Boston baked beans. Now, if you wanna know why baked beans were big in Boston, it gets a little more interesting.

One answer might be "mercantilism." For those of you who slept through history in high school, this was a colonial economic policy that, among other things, discouraged foreign trade, unless it brought a favorable balance of payments for the mother country, and also discouraged colonial manufacturing of finished goods. What has this to do with baked beans, you ask? They're sweetened. The sweetener used is molasses, a product of the (British) West Indies. Relax, this will all come clear anon.

Another part of the answer is the Coriolis Effect. What's that, you slept through physics, too? Big systems on a spinning sphere, like prevailing winds, tend to form clockwise patterns in the northern half of the sphere, counterclockwise ones in the southern half. In the Northern Atlantic, not only do the winds follow this pattern, but so does the major ocean current, the Gulf Stream. That was another reason to use molasses--it was easy to ship stuff up from the Caribbean; hard to ship stuff down there, or to import directly from Europe.

The next factor was, oddly enough, slavery. You had your ship sailing from New England full of farm products. The easiest place to sail it was England; that's the way the current carried you and the winds blew. Getting back was a different story. So, ships would make their next port of call somewhere they could easily sail to where they could sell finished goods--let's say the Gold Coast in Africa. The next cargo would be slaves, who were taken to the Caribbean to raise sugar cane. Then rum or molasses were loaded for New or old England. This "triangular trade" (although it was as often actually square, with four ports of call) again made molasses the natural choice, since it fit in so well with mercantilism.

So, the exigencies of colonial trade meant Boston had an abundance of inexpensive molasses, which local entrepreneurs soon put to good use. Why beans? Same reason armies used to like them. Cheap, storable, and very easy to cook.

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