Fig Newton: History and Invention of the Cookies

A machine invented in 1891 made the mass production of Fig Newtons possible.

Fig Newtons

Evan-Amos/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The iconic Fig Newton was one of the earliest commercially baked products in America, and the serendipitous result of the blending of a cookie maker in Philadelphia, an inventor from Florida, and a massive merger of over 100 bakeries in New York and Chicago

At the same time, and arguably because of the lowly Fig Newton, the legendary Nabisco baking company had its roots. Its bakery in Chicago today is the largest bakery in the world, with more than 1,200 workers and producing 320 pounds of snack foods annually. 

The Cookie Maker

The recipe for the fig filling was the brainchild of Charles M. Roser, a cookie maker born in Ohio. Roser worked for a bakery in Philadelphia who sold his recipe to the Kennedy Biscuit company. Although rumor has it the cookie was named after the pioneering physicist Isaac Newton, in fact, Kennedy Biscuit named the cookie Newton after the town in Massachusetts. The Boston-based company had a habit of naming their cookies after local towns, and they already had cookies named Beacon Hill, Harvard, and Shrewsbury when the Newton was created. 

Roser probably based his recipe on fig rolls, up until then a locally and homemade cookie brought to the U.S. by British immigrants. The cookie is made up of a crumbly pastry with a jammy scoop of fig in the middle. Nabisco's recipes are (obviously) a secret, but modern copies suggest that you start with dried mission figs, and add applesauce and orange juice, and a little orange zest as you process the fruit. More exotic recipes add Medjool dates, currants and crystallized ginger and perhaps a few ground almonds. 

The Machine

The manufacture of Fig Newtons was made possible by the creation of Florida inventor James Henry Mitchell, who revolutionized the packaged cookie business by building an apparatus that could make a hollow cookie crust and fill it with fruit preserves. His machine worked like funnel within a funnel; the inside funnel supplied jam, while the outside funnel pumped out the dough. This produced an endless length of filled cookie, which could then be cut into smaller pieces. 

Mitchell also developed a dough-sheeting machine, another that made sugar wafers, and others that helped speed cake production: all of these went into production by the precursors of Nabisco.

The Merger

At the end of the 19th century, bakeries began to merge, in order to mass produce cookies for a burgeoning middle-class market. In 1889, William Moore of New York bought out eight bakeries to start the New York Biscuit Company (including Kennedy Biscuit), and in 1890, Chicago-based Adolphus Green began the American Biscuit Company, by merging 40 midwestern bakeries. 

It was a match made in heaven: Moore and Green merged in 1898, making the National Biscuit Company, or N.B.C. Among the purchases were the machines of Mitchell and Roser's cookie recipe. Mitchell's machine for sugar wafers was also purchased; N.B.C. started mass producing sugar wafers in 1901. Both Mitchell and Roser walked away wealthy. 

N.B.C. to Nabisco

In 1898, N.B.C. had 114 bakeries and a capital of US $55 million. They built an enormous bakery in downtown New York, what is today the Chelsea Market, and continued to expand it. The chief architect of this project was Adolphus Green, and he insisted on standard recipes for N.B.C.'s products. They continued to make two wildly successful products that the little bakery companies had made: Fig Newtons (they added the Fig to the name when the cookie received good reviews), and Premium Saltines. 

A new cookie called Uneeda Biscuit was introduced in 1898—and despite the goofy name N.B.C. even had a copyright infringement case over competitors who called their biscuits Uwanta and Ulika. In 1903, N.B.C. introduced Barnum's Animal Crackers in the famous decorative box resembling a circus cage filled with animals; and in 1912, they introduced both Lorna Doone shortbread cookies and the unstoppable Oreos. 

Modern Changes to the Fig Newton 

Nabisco began replacing the fig jam in its cookie with raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, as well as an apple cinnamon flavor by the 1980s. In 2012, they once again dropped the "Fig" from the name because, as the Kraft specialist Gary Osifchin told The New York Times, they wanted to change the core of the brand to fruit. "It was going to be hard for us to advance the Newtons brand with the baggage of the fig." 

Sources 

Adams, Cecil. Who or what are Fig Newton cookies named after? The Straight Dope May 8, 1998. 

Klara, Robert. Kicking the Figs out of Fig Newtons. Adweek June 18, 2014

Nabisco Foods Group History. Funding Universe. International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 7. St. James Press, 1993.

Newman, Andrew Adam. Reminders That a Cookie Goes Beyond the Fig. The New York Times, April 30, 2012.

Martinelli, Katherine. The Factory that Oreos Built. Smithsonian, May 21, 2018