Friday Ephemera: How Campbell’s Soup Got Its Gold Medal


In some ways I’m very much an true American at heart. I have always been interesting in product brands and logos: the fonts they choose to use, the emotions they evoke, the way they evolve over time, and how they reflect the time period that they come from. In fact, I’ve often thought that if I had it to do over again, I may have chosen to study graphic design, but then I realize that such a career veers way too close to the Jobs-And-Hobbies-That-Require-Me-To-Draw zone, which I have successfully avoided ever since trying to do a charcoal sketch of Bette Davis in 11th grade and realizing she looked more like the witch from Disney’s Snow White.

My point being, when I stumbled upon this little piece of history about the Campbell’s soup can label, I was fascinated. But I’m getting ahead of myself. In order for you to be equally fascinated, I suppose I need to set the stage a bit first:

If you were forced to name an era to associate with Campbell’s soup, chances are you’d name the 1950’s (or, if you’re an Andy Warhol fan, 1968.) Campbell’s conjures up images of mid-century suburban Cold War America, when those darling little Cabbage Patch Kid precursors had just enough time to dip their grilled cheese in a bowl of tomato soup before diving under their desks for a bomb drill.

Someone should call McCarthy. There's an awful lot of red going on here.

In actuality, though, the Campbell’s company is quite a good bit older than that. It was started in 1869 by fruit merchant Joseph Campbell and icebox manufacturer Abraham Anderson (a match made in heaven!) in New Jersey. At first, the company mostly canned tomatoes, vegetables, soups, and jellies, but everything changed with the persistence of one stubborn whippersnapper intern, 24-year-old John T. Dorrance. Dorrance was the general manager’s nephew and a chemist who was so determined to make a legacy for himself in soup that he agreed to work for a piddling $7.50 a week and purchase all his laboratory equipment out of pocket. With the soundtrack to Fame playing mysteriously in the background (or at least that’s how it goes in my head), Dorrance struck paydirt in 1897 when he invented condensed soup on the principle that by reducing the amount of water used in the recipe, he could lower production and shipping costs and therefore make a more affordable product.

what a show-off

Dorrance’s ideas did more than just make the company (and himself) filthy rich. Occurring right on the cusp of the turn of the century, this major innovation in mass-produced vegetable soup must have been fresh in minds of the coordinators of the 1900 World Fair in Paris, because the humble little tin can received a gold medal, alongside such exhibits as the diesel engine and refracting telescope.

Cambell’s executive Herberton Williams debuted the can’s new color scheme at the Fair–the cherry red and white that soon became its trademark. The image of the medal was added after, and those elements combined to form a product design that became larger than life, so much so that Mr. Warhol used it in one of his most famous series to make a statement at once both humorous and ominous, comforting and unnerving.

And what, may you ask, ever became of our enterprising Mr. Dorrance? He went on to become president of the company from 1914-1930 and buying out the Campbell family. So there you have it, kids. The moral of this story is: Interns, never give up! One day you could own that place.




Filed under friday ephemera

2 responses to “Friday Ephemera: How Campbell’s Soup Got Its Gold Medal

  1. This is so great to learn. I knew that the label was much older than the 50s though, but everything else was new for me! Thanks. It reminds me of when I had to cut up all the soup labels in 3rd grade doing office help. I did it constantly for a few months because I had no friends and offered to help since I didn’t want to be with the mean kids.

    • Oh man, do they still do the label thing?? I totally forgot about that! I saved up cereal box tops for a while, but I think I lost them before I ever got to mail them in for a toy or anything. =P

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