There’s nothing more American than peanut butter and jelly – except for one small detail: Peanut butter isn’t actually American at all. It’s Canadian.
Yet, for some reason, peanut butter has become associated with the US of A. So why don’t Canadians claim the nutty spread as their own? Some damn good All-American marketing.
Peanut butter was actually invented in Canada in the 1880s, though there are several creation myths surrounding its inception. It’s widely assumed George Washington Carver, the American botanist, was the creator of peanut butter because of his tireless promotion of peanuts. Known as the “Peanut Man,” he advocated peanuts before the U.S. Congress in the early 20th century and promoted the use of peanut butter in his book How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption, but his work on peanuts began almost a decade after peanut butter was patented.
It was, in fact, in Montreal where peanut butter was invented. Chemist and inventor Marcellus Gilmore Edson was the very first person to enter a U.S. patent on peanut butter in 1884. Edson’s “Manufacture of Peanut-Candy” was developed as a protein-packed paste for those without teeth and those who couldn’t chew solid food, a common problem at the time – before regular brushing and flossing. However, Edson did little to no promotion of the product, which allowed Americans to take it and run.
Enter Kelloggs. Seventh-day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg is most famous for his eponymous cereal brand (and particularly the accidental invention of corn flakes, which, by the way, was originally marketed as an anti-masturbation aid), but his promotion of peanut butter is what helped it become the sandwich staple it is today.
Kellogg received a patent for the process of making peanut butter in 1896, and in a genius stroke of marketing, started calling it “butter” instead of “paste,” making it more palatable to Americans. He toured the country giving thousands of talks about peanut butter’s health benefits and served it to the patients of his sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan.
The 1904 World’s Fair was also a pivotal peanut butter moment. Hosted in St. Louis, Missouri at the Universal Exposition, the fair was the ideal place for countries to show off their national achievements and inventions, including food products. Many beloved American foods like hot dogs, iced tea, club sandwiches and cotton candy all debuted at the 1904 World’s fair, along with peanut butter. C.H. Summer was the only vendor to publicly sell peanut butter at the World’s Fair, presenting it as an American innovation; mentions of Canadian Edson were nowhere to be found as the product started its rise to sandwich stardom.
Constant promotion of peanut butter, along with dozens of innovators trying to perfect it for public sale, completed its Americanization over the following years. Just three years later, more than 34 million pounds of peanut butter were being produced annually in the United States – in 1899 only 2 million pounds had been consumed.
Peanut butter became more in demand and inventors spent time refining it over the decades. The Heinz company added hydrogenated oil to peanut butter in the 1920s to give it a longer shelf life, and pretty soon peanut butter became a staple in every kitchen in America.
*This article was originally published in December 2017.