Mr. Kendall's biscuits

What are the origins of our favorite all-purpose assent?

These days, everybody is saying it--many times each day. Yet, as to its origin or what it really stands for, there are only vague explanations. Even those of scholarly lexicographers have significant shortcomings. And others appear to be nothing but unfounded fiction. Those I have heard do not ring true for they fail to account for the term's widespread usage.

In fact, its origin came from within my family. It's a Chicago story and a Civil War story. Moreover, it's a simple story, one passed on to me by my parents and grandparents.

In recent years, I've become increasingly burdened by the fact that knowledge of this universal term's origin has dwindled down in the family pretty much to me. Even my brother had forgotten key elements of it. So I've been confronted with an important challenge--how to get the story of O.K.'s origins to the right language authorities before I pass on.

After long wondering how to go about it, my answer came through a pair of fortuitous coincidences. And so this has also become a Kenyon story.

The Chicago part of the story stems from the corner of Washington and Dearborn streets, where, in 1854, my great-grandfather built a four-story building to house his "steam" bakery when he relocated to the city from Quincy, Illinois.

According to a biography of him, published in the book Chicago: Its History and Its Builders (S.J. Clark Publishing Company, 1912), "the superiority of his product . . . caused his output to become the best known and most popular in the city."

He was also quite prominent in the life of the city. "Few men of Mr. Kendall's day outside public life could claim a wider acquaintance among leading men of the city," that biography relates. "He served as one of the board of aldermen. He was also well known on the Board of Trade, and as a judge of flour, he was considered one of the most expert in the city, his opinions concerning that commodity being often sought." The biography goes on to describe his leadership role in the First Presbyterian Church as well.

When the Civil War broke out, Great-Grandfather Kendall and other bakers in the Chicago area were called upon by Union Army officials to supply quantities of "hard tack"--biscuits--for the soldiers. Like everything else, he took this responsibility seriously and incorporated the best available ingredients in making his biscuits "for our boys in blue," as my uncle told me years back on several occasions.

Great-grandfather Kendall was later dismayed to learn from army officials that his entire initial shipment--railroad car-loads of it--had to be destroyed because his shipment was mixed with the products of other, less scrupulous bakers, some of whom used weeviled flour and sawdust to pad their goods--and their income. All the biscuits, of course, looked alike.

At that point, he declared that this would not happen again, because, he said, "I will put my initials on every biscuit I make."

His full name: Orrin Kendall

Because of his action, soldiers throughout the Union Army came to know that biscuits marked "O.K." were all right, safe to eat.

My uncle, the late Hugh M. Boice, a grandchild of Orrin Kendall and one-time vice president of Columbia Broadcasting Company (in radio days), told me of a visit he made to the Old Soldiers Home in Vineland, New Jersey. At that time (in the early 1930s), the home still harbored a number of Civil War veterans, and he had the opportunity to tell them the story of Orrin Kendall's hardtack.

Several of them, he told me, piped up simultaneously, "O.K. biscuits, I remember them well!"

Other explanations of the origin of O.K.--even the most plausible--fail to provide any basis for the term's widespread usage. O.K. biscuits were known to thousands of Union Army soldiers. Knowing that, for many years, lexicographers have pondered and speculated over the origin of this term, and knowing that even members of my immediate family have forgotten important details, I have long worried about how I could "unbottle" its story and get it into the hands of people of language authority.

So now we come to the Kenyon part of this story.

A cousin of mine (we are descended from two of Orrin Kendall's four daughters) has a strong interest in family genealogy. She is still in possession of a dress worn by her great-grandmother (my great-aunt) during the Civil War as well as a banner she made as one of the women leaders of the Civil War era in Chicago.

My cousin lent these items to the Chicago Public Library for a special eight-month exhibit entitled "From Fireside to Field: Women and the Civil War" in the grand gallery of the Harold Washington Library Center in the Loop. In connection with the exhibit, she came to know the library's chief archivist of its special-collections division. When she asked me to furnish him with photographs of the four Kendall sisters and some other materials for the exhibit, I became acquainted with him, too.

Moreover, I sent him copies of some printed matter I still hold regarding the Kendall family and the origin of "O.K.," surmising that he might know to what language authorities this story should be directed.

When we first conversed by telephone, he answered that question for me. "That's simple," he said; "the editorial board of the Oxford University Press."

And that's what he has done. Since then I have sent him additional material to be directed to the press.

At the end of our first conversation, I asked permission to pose an unrelated personal question. Upon his assent, I continued, "The name Chalmers isn't all that common. By any remote chance are you related to Gordon Keith Chalmers, president of Kenyon College in the thirties and forties?"

There was a moment of silence. Then came the reply, "Yes, he was my father!"

So there you have my family story of "O.K."--Chicago, the Civil War and, for me at least, its latter day Kenyon twist.

I hope, through the efforts of John Chalmers, the puzzlement over the origin of "O.K." is now being resolved.

Art Cox, a retired public-relations executive, lives in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

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