Who Invented Peanut Butter?

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It’s one of the country’s favorite things to spread over bread. We dip celery sticks in it. It’s often baked into cookies and countless deserts. I’m talking about peanut butter and as a whole Americans consume tons of the pulverized pea -- about a billion pounds worth each year. That’s roughly $800 spent annually and a booming increase from the roughly two million pounds produced at the turn of the 20th century.

 

Peanuts were first cultivated as food in South America and natives in the region began turning them into grounded up paste roughly 3,000 years ago. The kind of peanut butter that the Incas and Aztecs made was of course much different from the manufactured stuff sold in grocery stores today. The more modern story of peanut butter actually began towards the end of the 19th century, not too long after farmers began mass commercializing the crop that was suddenly in demand after the civil war.

So who invented peanut butter? Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t famed botanist George Washington Carver, though he did develop a recipe for a modified version that helped contribute to its early popularity. In fact, there appears to be some disagreement among food historians over who deserves the honor. One historian, Eleanor Rosakranse, says a woman from New York named Rose Davis started making peanut butter as early as the 1840’s after her son reported seeing women in Cuba grinding peanuts into a pulp and smearing it onto bread.

    

Then there are some who think the credit should go to Marcellus Gilmore Edson, a Canadian chemist who in 1884 filed and was granted the first patent in the United States for what he called “peanut-candy.” Conceived as a kind of flavoring paste, the process described running roasted peanuts through a heated mill to produce a fluid or semi-fluid byproduct that cools into "a consistency like that of butter, lard, or ointment." However, there wasn’t any indication that Edson made or sold peanut butter as a commercial product.

A case can also be made for a St. Louis businessman named George A. Bayle, who began packaging and selling peanut butter through his food manufacturing company. It’s believed that the idea was born out of a collaboration with a doctor who had been seeking a way for his patients who were unable to chew meat to ingest protein. Bayle also ran advertisements in the early 1920’s proclaiming his company to be the “Original Manufacturers of Peanut Butter.” Cans of Bayle’s Peanut Butter came with labels touting this claim as well.

It isn’t difficult to find those who dispute this claim as many have argued that the honor should go to none other than the influential Seventh-day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Indeed, the National Peanut Board states that Kellogg received a patent in 1896 for a technique he developed for making peanut butter. There’s also an 1897 advertisement for Kellogg’s Sanitas company Nut Butters that pre-dates all other competitors.

More importantly, though, Kellogg was a tireless promoter of peanut butter. He travelled extensively throughout the country giving lectures on its benefits of to health. Kellogg even served peanut butter to his patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a health resort with treatment programs supported by the Seventh-day Adventist church.

The one big knock on Kellogg’s claim as the father of modern day peanut butter is that his disastrous decision to switch from roasted nuts to steamed nuts resulted in a product that barely resembled the ubiquitous jarred goodness found on store shelves today.

Kellogg also in an indirect way played a part in the production of peanut butter reaching a mass scale. John Lambert, an employee of Kellogg’s who was involved in the nut butter business, eventually left in 1896 and founded a company to develop and manufacture industrial strength peanut-grinding machines. He would soon have competition as another machine manufacturer, Ambrose Straub, was granted a patent for one of the earliest peanut butter machines in 1903. The machines made the process easier as making peanut butter had been quite tedious.

Peanuts were first grounded using a mortar and pestle before being put through a meat grinder. Even then, it was hard to achieve the desired consistency.  

In 1904, peanut butter was introduced to the wider public at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. According to the book “Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food,” a concessionaire named C.H. Sumner was the only vendor to sell peanut butter. Using one of Ambrose Straub’s peanut butter machines, Sumner sold $705.11 worth of peanut butter. That same year, the Beech-Nut Packing Company became the first nationwide brand to market peanut butter and continued to distribute the product until 1956.

Other notable early brands to follow suit were the Heinz company, which entered the market in 1909 and the Krema Nut Company, an Ohio-based operation that survives to this day as the world’s oldest peanut butter company. Soon more and more companies would start selling peanut butter as a disastrous mass invasion of boll weevils ravaged the south, destroying much of cotton crop yields that had long been a staple of the region’s farmers. Thus the food industry’s growing interest in peanut was fueled in part by many farmers turning to peanuts as a replacement.

Even as demand for peanut butter grew, it was primarily being sold as a regional product. In fact, Krema founder Benton Black once proudly boasted “I refuse to sell outside Ohio.” While it may sound today like a bad way of doing business, it made sense at the time as grounded peanut butter was unstable and best distributed locally. The problem was that, as the oil separated from the peanut butter solids, it would rise to the top and quickly spoil with exposure to light and oxygen.          

All that changed in the 1920’s when a businessman named Joseph Rosefield patented a process called “Peanut butter and process of manufacturing the same,” which describes how hydrogenation of peanut oil can be used to keep the peanut butter from coming apart.

Rosefield began licensing the patent to food companies before he decided to go off on his own and launch his own brand. Rosefield's Skippy peanut butter, along with Peter Pan and Jif, would go on to become the most successful and recognizable names in the business.