I recently bought thirty-three cans of Campbell’s Condensed Soup. And just in time, it appears. They say that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and it appears that my life (which has largely been lived out-of-phase from most popular trends) has managed to sync with today’s need for emergency preparedness. So “No soup for you!” is not something that will be uttered in our abode for quite some time.
You probably figured that I was not stocking up to wait out the Coronavirus, although this has turned out to be a fortunate side effect. I bought them at the behest of Mrs. JPC who saw them on sale at a local store – buy ten for a dollar each and get the eleventh for free. But what better time to celebrate this quintessential American (processed) food product.
Did you know that there was canned Campbell’s soup being manufactured and sold before 1900? In fact, the company can trace its roots back to 1869 when fruit-merchant Joseph Campbell teamed up with an icebox manufacturer to offer canned fruits and other foods from a manufacturing plant in Camden, New Jersey.
Joseph Campbell retired in 1894 and was succeeded by Arthur Dorrance as president, and the Dorrance family has owned the company ever since. In 1897, Arthur’s son John figured out how to remove half of the water from the ready-to-eat canned soups the company had introduced two years earlier. Getting rid of that easily-replaceable water cut weight and costs all through the manufacturing, shipping and selling process. All the home cook had to do was add her own water back into the soup as it came from the can, and there we were – American life as modern and up to date as the most recent John Phillip Sousa march played in the local park. Which was the only way to listen to it because Edison would not perfect his Home Phonograph for another eleven years.
The red and white labeling was applied in 1898 and the little gold medallion on those labels was added to represent the prize won by the company’s soups at the 1900 Paris Exposition. American canned soup winning a prize in Paris – OK, I’m sold. And there we are – everything was in place for corporate America to feed the Twentieth Century. OK, maybe not until 1911 when the company achieved national distribution of this Philly and New Jersey staple.
John T. Dorrance took over from Arthur in 1914. We can think of him as sort of the Henry Ford of soup who tirelessly worked out the kinks in production and distribution efficiency, putting his family’s canned soups into pretty much every American kitchen. His only son, Jack Dorrance, was eleven years old at the time of John T’s 1930 death, but grew up to maintain family control of a business that remains one of very few of its size with so much control from the family of the one who built it. That family control has not been without controversy or disagreement in recent years (as in allegations that they take too much money out and have not invested enough back into the company), but that family ownership and control remains.
Did I ever mention that I once had dinner with Jack Dorrence? I was visiting my grandmother in the old Philadelphia Main Line suburbs and we all went out for a meal. If pressed, I would have to admit that my grandmother and I were at one table while Mr. Dorrence and someone else were at a different table several feet away from us. But it was in the same room and at the same time. So, yeah – and why do you have to be so picky about it?
But back (in)to the soup. By 1933 they were up to a 21-soup menu with such tasty varieties as Mock Turtle, Mutton and Mulligatawny which were chucked into the Delaware River long ago.
Chicken Noodle and Cream of Mushroom expanded on the 21-soup menu in 1934, and it is difficult to imagine life without them. Difficult for me, at least.
As an aside, it is difficult to remember a blog topic that was more awash in old advertising for use as illustrations. Being able to be picky about which of the old ads will be lucky enough to be included here is a true luxury, one that I almost never get to experience.
The American Thanksgiving table would certainly be different if someone from the Campbell’s test kitchen had not concocted that green bean casserole out of the company’s cream of mushroom soup in 1955.
One of my earliest memories of a family meal was Campbell’s soup. It must have been a busy day for Mom because that was dinner – My father and little sister shared a potful of Beef (with vegetables and barley) soup while my mother and I feasted on Bean with Bacon. Bean & Bacon soup became a favorite of mine, as long as there was about a half-sleeve of saltine crackers to crunch up into it, making sort of a Bean & Bacon-flavored masonry mortar, which would probably be favored by bricklayers everywhere. It would certainly smell better than the regular stuff.
Given my experience with my mother’s homemade soup, is it any wonder I developed a fondness for the kind from the red and white cans? And no, the advertisement above does not really depict the relationship between my parents in the years before their divorce.
Campbell’s has saved my bacon more than once during Lent with its classic Tomato soup. Although it has also started some disagreements at home about whether it should be made with milk, cream, or water. However it may be mixed up, just add a grilled cheese sandwich and who the heck needs fish?
I have watched in dismay as my old favorite red and white cans have slowly and steadily lost shelf space to other products. And when the eleven-cans-for-ten-dollars promotion was conceived, I doubt that the Coronavirus was on anyone’s mind. It certainly was not on mine as I scooped cans of Tomato, Chicken Noodle, Cream of Mushroom and others into my cart. But what a time for them to be out of my Bean & Bacon! Grumble.
I was initially heartened to find Franco-American and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee products offered on the same terms. Mrs. JPC, however, told me that I have no business eating that stuff. So I passed on the Italian-But-Not-Really-fest that I had briefly (but mistakenly) seen in my future. I realize that there is mighty little Italian left by the time those pasta dishes get crammed into those cans, but we must make allowances for convenience.
So do your worst, Coronavirus. We are all souped-up and ready for you. We have thirty three cans of soup (plus what was already “in stock” in our pantry) and plenty of water. So bring it! M’m M’m! Good!
Opening photo by Famartin, via Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license
The rest is vintage Campbell’s advertising material, being used more or less as intended.