Go into a store and you’ll see shelves full of boxes, cans, and bags—some familiar, some new. Behind that colorful façade of logos and nutrition panels lies a highly competitive industry; every inch of shelf space must be earned and kept through robust sales. A lot of new products don’t make it, and are destined from the get-go for the annals of obscurity.
That makes food brands that have been around for decades all the more impressive. Some, in fact, predate modern grocery stores. They were results of early innovators who were quick to implement or develop new processing, packaging, and shipping technologies.
These are all products you can still go out and purchase today. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out how to avoid encountering some of them, they’re such a ubiquitous part of the grocery store landscape.
Chocolate-making technology and fashions in the U.S. have gone through a curious arc since Dr. James Baker and his partner John Hannon began importing cacao beans in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1764. Back then, solid chocolate was not the smooth and creamy product we’re familiar with today, but a convenience item for baking or making drinking chocolate—that is, solid chocolate was gritty, bitter, and not made for eating out of hand. Besides, Baker’s chocolate (Hannon never returned from a business trip to the West Indies, so his wife sold the company to Baker in 1780) was never intended to eat as a snack, because it’s not conched (that’s the refining process that makes chocolate smooth and mellow). So yes, even in its sweetened form, Baker’s Chocolate is indeed for baking, and its brand name handily dovetails with its product description. It’s now owned by Kraft and is not by any stretch artisan chocolate—but if you need to make brownies for the P.T.A. bake sale, it’s your go-to.
Joe Wolf CC BY-ND
We should clarify that we mean cold breakfast cereal here. Post launched Grape-Nuts in 1897 (and, according to the totally awesome cereal database on Mr. Breakfast, just edged out Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, which followed a year later). Breakfast cereals were part of a wave of radical health-food proponents like C.W. Post and the Kellogg brothers. It’s amusing to consider that both Post and Kellogg’s went on to create such sugary, lighthearted treats as Honey Smacks and Cinnamon Marshmallow Scooby-Doo! Grape-Nuts still marches on, however; certified food snobs (like me) eat it with fresh fruit and buttermilk.
This Philadelphia institution began in 1861, when founder Lewis Dubois Bassett powered his backyard ice cream churn with a mule. The mule is long gone, but Basset’s is still a family-run business, operating scoop shops and retail distribution to restaurant and grocery stores, too. Bassetts has had a stand in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market since 1892.
Paul Roth CC BY-SA
Frozen foods visionary Clarence Birdseye commercialized the flash freezing process, wherein foods retain more flavor and texture. To sell his products, Birdseye had to also push stores to install freezer cases. Electric home refrigerators were still new and prohibitively expensive in 1927, when Birdseye began using his double-belt freezer (or “quick freeze machine”) to freeze fruits and vegetables. Read more about the history of frozen food here, but know that even if you never buy Birds Eye products, our freezer-friendly way of eating owes a lot to his developments.
Boston Public Library CC BY
Detroit may be famous for being the home of Faygo, the budget-friendly soda favored by Insane Clown Posse, but Vernor’s Ginger Ale has it beat by a good four decades. Legend has it that when Detroit pharmacist James Vernor went off to serve in the Civil War in 1862, he left behind an oak cask filled with the drink he’d developed. When he returned in 1866, Vernor found the liquid in the cask to be impressively changed. He continued selling his barrel-aged ginger ale at his soda fountain (cola syrups didn’t enter the market until the 1880s.), eventually selling the syrup to other fountains and then bottling the carbonated drink for the general public. Vernor’s may not be ages on oak barrels today, but it’s still highly regarded by ginger ale enthusiasts. Vernor’s is now owned by Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.
Jill Robidoux CC BY
They’re chalky, kinda bland, and 169 years old. NECCO Wafers owe their existence to the mechanical lozenge cutter invented by Oliver Chase. Chase and his brothers formed Chase and Company in 1847 in Boston, and used the machine to cut thin sugar wafers (eventually they created Sweethearts valentine conversation hearts, too). A 1901 merger formed the New England Candy Company, or NECCO, thereby giving the original wafers developed by Chase a good, catchy name. NECCO today has a veritable stable of old-timey candy brands under its umbrella, including Clark, Mary Jane, and Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Tri-Sum was established in Massachusetts 1908 as the Leominster Potato Chip Company, and its wares were sold via horse-drawn cart. Potato chips themselves were nothing new at the time—there are potato chip recipes in cookbooks dating back to 1822—but the burgeoning packaged snack foods industry was ready and waiting. The company switched its name to Tri-Sum after a contest asked factory workers to suggest a snappier name.
Packaged peanut paste (which a doctor in St. Louis marketed as a food for people with bad teeth) dates back to 1890, but peanut butter products didn’t get rolling until the early 1900s. Krema Nut Company (formed in 1898) in Columbus, Ohio started selling peanut butter in 1908. Krema’s peanut butter is still fundamentally the same today—all natural, with no added salt, sugar, or preservatives, and one simple ingredient: peanuts. You can tour their factory and their peanut butter being made.
Spam may have the biggest share of pop culture consciousness when it comes to canned meat, but Underwood’s Deviled Ham has been around way longer. The William Underwood Company dates back to 1822, when they canned condiments and pickles in glass jars (commercial canning was still in its youth at the time). Eventually they switched metal cans. Their deviled ham spread was added in 1868; the distinctive, impish devil logo was trademarked in 1870 and is reputedly the oldest food logo still in use in the U.S. (On a side note, we had a single can of Underwood Deviled Ham lingering in our basement pantry during my entire childhood, and that devil’s leering face always creeped me out.)
Sara Bir is Paste’s contributing food editor. She really likes Krema peanut butter. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Sausagetarian.
Main photo by cursedthing CC BY-ND