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Peanut Butter’s Many Inventors

Friday, August 15, 2014

The popular product illustrates both the opportunities and the risks of intellectual property.

How have so many people come to love peanut butter? Experts aren’t sure how long it takes to develop the taste, but to many people it’s a formative childhood memory. One notable fan, William F. Buckley Jr., called it “absolutely congenital.”

Like many other prepared foods, though, peanut butter is not a traditional homemade product that was merely industrialized in the 19th century, like jelly or bread. Instead it developed decade by decade, shaped by innovations in chemistry, marketing, distribution, and even packaging. And its popularity shows both the power and limits of intellectual property.

Some design historians have credited the rise of peanut butter in the 1930s to the innovations of industrial designer Brooks Stevens. One of many overachieving polio survivors like Franklin Roosevelt, Stevens was a peer of better-known contemporaries like Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy. While his base in Milwaukee may have limited his visibility in national media, generations across the country grew up with toys, household appliances, lawnmowers, and outboard motors based on his ideas. It was Stevens who thought of the window built into most clothes dryer doors today.

Economic crises and wartime emergencies have shaped our diet at least since the 17th century.

Stevens’s most famous food industry brainstorm remains Oscar Meyer’s 1936 Wienermobile, still going strong in a recent, supersized format. But curators at the Milwaukee Art Museum love to point out his breakthrough for the Holsum company, the wide-mouthed peanut-butter jar. The brand, marketed by a Milwaukee wholesaler, had previously used a “tall, narrow-necked vessel,” according to Glenn Adamson’s book, Industrial Strength Design, which credits Stevens’s user-friendly packaging of 1934 with a significant increase in sales.

A glance at the new jar reveals, however, that the mouth is actually still much narrower than on today’s almost-universal cylindrical model. Most peanut butter was still sold in tins; just a few brands like Holsum, Heinz, and Beech-Nut advertised glass as more attractive and hygienic. It was only in World War II that all manufacturers began to use glass because tin and steel were needed for military production.

The timing of the new packaging wasn’t coincidental. Economic crises and wartime emergencies have shaped our diet since at least the 17th century, when German peasants, recalling the marauding bands of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), realized that a hard-to-plunder potato field could be life-saving insurance against future military foraging. The 20th-century Depression brought a boom for cheese as a protein alternative. Kraft began to market premixed macaroni and cheese in 1937, and it has remained a staple. At about the same time, the Swiss Cheese Union mounted a successful marketing campaign based on a pseudo-historical identification of fondue as a national dish for “spiritual defense” of the nation. For thrifty meat eaters there was Spam, a mix of ham and an oversupply of pork shoulder meat, introduced by Jay C. Hormel. Even Nutella breakfast spread was developed by a pastry maker in wartime Italy who used locally abundant hazelnuts to extend scarce cocoa. Taste for these foods survived the hard times that made them popular.

Nearly six decades later, Hormel Food Corporation agreed in 2013 to buy Skippy from its current parent, Unilever, for $700 million.

Peanut butter provides other lessons for innovation. The leading brand for decades, Skippy, was indirectly launched by the Depression. In his recent book Creamy and Crunchy, Jon Krampner traces the origins of peanut butter as we know from the independent formulas of two inventors, the health enthusiast and cereal pioneer Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (who was probably first) and the St. Louis snack-food salesman George Bayle in the 1890s.

The decisive step was the introduction of hydrogenated peanut oil in 1928, which prevented oil from separating. The inventor, a Bay Area food packer named Joseph Rosefield, licensed the key patent for the process to a division of Swift and Co., which sold it under the brand name Peter Pan. When a new manager tried to cut his royalty in half, Rosefield boldly canceled the agreement and decided to produce and market his own brand nationally. He called it Skippy, an allusion to a popular cartoon character. Like many other Depression-era innovations, the brand grew slowly, not making a profit until 1940. The Rosefields invested heavily in proprietary manufacturing equipment; in the sexist spirit of the day, a descendant told Krampner, no males were allowed to visit the plant lest they copy trade secrets. Girl Scouts could tour, but not Boy Scouts.

By 1955, Rosefield’s gamble and development of trade secrets finally paid off. The family sold Skippy to Best Foods (also known as Hellman’s) for $6 million. Nearly six decades later, Hormel Food Corporation agreed in 2013 to buy Skippy from its current parent, Unilever, for $700 million. Who knows what the brand will be worth in another 50 years?

Stevens’s most famous food industry brainstorm remains Oscar Meyer’s 1936 Wienermobile, still going strong in a recent, supersized format.

The struggle and triumph of hydrogenated peanut butter illustrates both the opportunities and the risks of intellectual property. For the Rosefields, it shows that secrets, if kept, don’t expire. For Brooks Stevens, the retrospectively obvious change was the start of a magnificent career.

For independent copyright holders, though, the peanut butter story is less encouraging. According to Krampner, James Barrie never authorized Swift’s use of his character Peter Pan, and neither he nor the hospital that inherited his estate has ever received payment. And life can be even more unjust for cartoonists.  The brilliant but troubled artist Percy Crosby, creator of the once-ubiquitous and now-obscure character Skippy, for whom the brand was obviously named — a signature fence from the strip was adapted on the first label — died in a mental hospital without ever having seen a dollar from his lawsuits for copyright infringement, and his descendants are still pursuing legal action.  

Edward Tenner is author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity. He is a visiting researcher in the Rutgers Department of History and the Princeton Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.

FURTHER READING: Tenner also writes “Tomorrow's Technological Breakthroughs: Hiding in Plain Sight?” “The Value of Scientific Prizes,” and “Dreams of a New Atlantic-Pacific Passage.” Jeffrey Eisenach authors “Trolling for a Patent Policy Fix” while Roger Bate examines “New Delhi's Patent Malpractice.” James Pethokoukis asks “Should Human Genes be Patented? Should Anything?


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group


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