The History of Peanut Butter in the U.S.

The Madison journal. (Tallulah, Madison Parish, La.) January 15, 1921

The origins of certain food items usually make for good conversation. Potato chips were invented in 1853 when a customer complained that his french fries were too thick.  Ketchup is a derivative of a Chinese fish sauce.  Sliced bread became commercially packaged around 1928.

Peanut butter is one of those foods that seems like it has always been around and well-loved by Americans.  Surprisingly enough, not only did peanut butter not become popular until the late 1800s, but even when it did make a widespread appearance, people didn’t necessarily go nutty over the condiment.  It was a tough market to crack and things didn’t always go smoothly for peanut butter marketers.  It took a few years for consumers to come out of their shells and incorporate peanut butter into their daily grind. … Okay, the puns will be finished… in a Jiffy.

Chronicling America affords us with incredible resources to investigate the first commercial appearances of peanut butter.  We can search freely through historic digitized newspapers from across the country to find the very first mentions of this new product.  Of course, advertisements for peanut butter are fascinating in their own respect.  They reflect the economics of the time, the relative value of peanuts and peanut butter depending on national demand and interest.

Corpus Christi caller and daily herald. (Corpus Christi, Tex.) May 15, 1915

Interestingly enough, early peanut butters were used as a protein supplement for vegetarians.  Take, for instance, this early mention from 1898, predicting the rise of peanut butter sales:

The Banner-Democrat. (Lake Providence, East Carroll Parish, La.) April 02, 1898

Or this blurb describing peanut butter as a “butter substitute”:

The evening bulletin. (Maysville, Ky.) December 15, 1897

"Peanut butter is a new article that is expected to crowd the genuine stable. Freedom from dangers which beset animal fat and its wholesomeness are the main points of its excellence." Tombstone epitaph. (Tombstone, Ariz.) October 24, 1897

The general public was skeptic of this new spread at times, as seen in this (somewhat unappetizing) description:

The Wichita daily eagle. (Wichita, Kan.) December 11, 1898

A bit of controversy was sparked when peanut butter hit the market.  This stemmed from the assumption that peanut butter was meant to replace regular dairy butter in all uses and applications. In theory, this could cripple the dairy market.

Lexington gazette. (Lexington, Va.) April 19, 1899

It could be that people were confused by the label “butter” and associated peanut butter with dairy.  For example,

Semi-weekly interior journal. (Stanford, Ky.) May 27, 1898

Eventually, peanut butter gained popularity and became a staple for nearly every kitchen.

The Saint Paul globe. (St. Paul, Minn.) August 19, 1899

And of course, mentions of this new food made their way to Oregon, with one of the first appearing in 1899:

The new age. (Portland, Or.) December 23, 1899


These are just a few examples of articles addressing the creation of peanut butter.  Hundreds of pages exist in Historic American Newspapers for you to search and browse, either on this topic or any other subject that interests you.  I suggest investigating the rise of the peanut and its multitude of new uses at the turn of the century.  You’ll be surprise at what you find. Peanut bread, anyone?  –Sarah E. North  (I’d also like to thank the UO Map/GIS Librarian, Kathy Stroud for the lunchtime conversation that inspired this post.)


Filed under Chronicling America, Highlights

5 responses to “The History of Peanut Butter in the U.S.

  1. Thanks, Sarah — really interesting to see how PB was billed as a dairy product and alternative to real butter.

  2. Incredible the grocery prices back then!

  3. Remarkable post, I love Marshmallow Fluff myself.

  4. Mmmm. My favorite subject! Fantastic post. Here’s a statue to the venerated peanut on the county courthouse grounds in Early County, Georgia,

  5. Pingback: Gratuitous amounts of PRACTICALITY! | FEWD PLOG!

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