Today, peanut butter has become a treat most today think is fit for kids’ sandwiches or to be paired with chocolate. However, it wasn’t too long ago that the creamy concoction made of the common legume was considered a delicacy. It was consumed by the very wealthy as a status symbol. While that’s strange, the story of how peanut butter went mainstream and was commonly paired with jelly in a sandwich is ten times as odd.
If you’re like me, you probably learned George Washington Carver invented peanut butter. After all, the man created over 300 products using the peanut plant. In post-Civil War Missouri, Carver became fascinated by plants. Not a particularly strong child, he couldn’t work the fields like others on the farm where he grew up, so he helped with household chores and gardening. As his interest in plants and adeptness at caring for them increased, he became known as “the plant doctor.”
Carver’s desire for more knowledge pushed him into school at the age of 12. Nobody could have imagined that he would rise to some of the highest levels of academia in the area about two decades later. He became the first black faculty member at Iowa College.
The former slave turned revolutionary agricultural scientist faced considerable difficulty pursuing his dreams. Perhaps through those trials he learned the value of persistence, which paid in spades. The man crusaded for Southern farmers to revitalize their soil which had been sapped by constant cotton production. The man encouraged farmers to plant other products, among them peanuts, although that was sometimes a hard sell. To help incentivize the struggling farmers, Carver found ways to produce many useful items with these alternative plants, ranging from medicines to glue. The man was truly a revolutionary in his field, but he did not invent peanut butter.
Before Carver earned his master’s degree from Iowa’s Simpson College, now called Iowa State University, John Harvey Kellogg filed a patent for peanut butter, although it was a far cry from the delicious treat we know today. The year was 1895, but Kellogg’s peanut spread was made from raw peanuts, vastly different from the creamy, sweet stuff we consume today. The same can be said of Marcellus Gilmore Edson’s peanut paste patented in 1884, although his invention at least was made of roasted peanuts. Dr. Ambrose Straub patented a peanut-butter-making machine in 1903. Most agree these three were the inventors of peanut butter.
Over time, the process of making peanut butter was refined to the point it was more or less like what you have in your pantry right now. However, in the early part of the twentieth century peanut butter was still considered a delicacy, not a casual snack for kids, with the wealthy being the primary consumers. Often, people would eat it with crackers, pimento cheese, celery, or cucumbers.
While the famous combination of peanut butter and jelly on bread was existent right after the turn of the century, the pairing was hardly common. By the Great Depression that changed as people needed a protein-rich food which didn’t spoil easily. Commercial peanut butter brands like Peter Pan and Skippy helped bring costs down to a level everyone could afford. The fact Wonder Bread came pre-sliced starting in 1928 helped further with the popularization of PB&J as a meal. And thus a star was born in a time of extreme adversity.
That’s not the end of the story, because while peanut butter and jelly had grown in popularity, it was about to hit prime time. It’s been largely forgotten that for many soldiers fighting in WWII, peanut butter and jelly were a lifesaver, quite literally. They would receive rations of peanut butter, sliced bread, and Grapelade (a jelly which was popular at the time). That combination sustained life and provided the energy to fuel the war machine, plus it didn’t spoil as men were engaged in fighting on the warfront for days on end. US GIs returning from the battlefront after the close of the war in Europe and the Pacific were hooked on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, their popularity exploding across the country. Today, the famous pairing is associated with children, but for a time it was the meal of choice for those fighting to preserve freedom around the globe. And that is the strange story of how peanut butter and its pal jelly became so popular.
Lead image credit: Karolina Grabowska