How Snacking Became Respectable; Before they became standard fare in American life, snacks drew suspicion and even scorn

August 30, 2013, 7:54 p.m. ET

How Snacking Became Respectable

Before they became standard fare in American life, snacks drew suspicion and even scorn


As parents take their kids back-to-school shopping this year, it isn’t just new jeans and notebooks that will be checked off the list, but also booty for the pantry: snacks to help bridge the gap between the end of the school day and dinner. When it comes to American eating, snacking is ubiquitous—at home, at work, everywhere. But snacking wasn’t always such a regular or accepted part of the American eating routine. Snack foods once drew suspicion and even scorn—that is, before they were redeemed.The original American snack food was peanuts. A South American native, the peanut arrived in North America via slave ships and showed up in African-inspired cooking on southern plantations. Slaves sometimes made a little cash growing and selling the famous “goober pea,” and after the Civil War, when Union soldiers acquired a taste for them, peanuts traveled north. There they took their place alongside beer at baseball games and became a symbol of the cheap and often rowdy upper balconies, dubbed “peanut galleries,” in vaudeville theaters. Associations with vaudeville, sports, and the working class didn’t lend the legume a very prestigious image, nor did its inherently messy nature. Because peanuts only came in shells, one could identify a peanut-lover by the sound of shell-scrunching and the typical trail of peanut jackets left in his wake.

Popcorn, also originally from South America, was a slightly less controversial early American snack, and rural 19th-century children took great pleasure in growing, harvesting and popping it in long-handled, wire-mesh baskets extended over a fire in the company of siblings and friends. Though not as messy as peanuts, popcorn still proved enough of a threat to cleanliness that movie theaters kept the possible projectile outside their doors for decades.

Peanuts and popcorn also bore the stigma of being sold by street vendors of questionable hygiene. Sometimes referred to as “squatters,” these vendors were known for roaming sidewalks and parks as well as swarming early tourist sites such as Niagara Falls. The shrill of the peanut vendor’s steam whistle drew the ire of many a quiet neighborhood, and the fare itself, often sold uncovered and dust-exposed, was prone to draw the public’s suspicion.

During the Victorian era, middle-class etiquette had reached an apex, and utensils played a celebrated part of the mealtime ritual. Etiquette books warned dinner partygoers to not even consider approaching a piece of fruit—a peach, say, or a banana—without fork and knife. At sports games, circuses and fairs—where vendors were legion and indulging in snack food standard—one was at liberty to shirk Victorian dinner table conventions, but only at the risk of being branded lower class.

So how did snack food change from a dubious indulgence to a respectable, even standard feature of American life? In one word, commercialization. As the food industry began mass-producing snack foods, snack foods shed their negative associations and consumers dropped their suspicions. Consider the case of the pretzel.

It was most likely the Dutch who introduced the pretzel to North America, via New Amsterdam, in the 17th century. Beginning in the 1860s, Julius Sturgis of Lititz, Pa., pioneered commercial production of the salted twist. Vendors, who sold pretzels from baskets or stacked vertically on poles, were notorious for hawking their wares uncovered. These roving, dirt-poor immigrant-entrepreneurs frequently hailed from Germany and the Slavic World, spoke broken, if any English, and were perceived as irreconcilably foreign. Not surprisingly, folks of any standing thought twice before buying and partaking.

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In addition to its association with seedy street vendors, the pretzel bore a strong tie-in with saloons, where it enjoyed a happy career as a standard alcohol accompaniment. The link between alcohol and pretzels was so strong that with prohibition in the 1920s and ’30s, many pretzel bakers closed up shop. The industry was forced to devise new strategies for enticing customers. They advertised pretzels as a healthy, mineral-rich food for children, manufactured them in fun, new, child-appealing shapes—sticks, half-moons, letters of the alphabet—and even invented a special teething pretzel for infants. When the government lifted its ban on the bottle, pretzel production spiked, but by then, the industry had laid the foundation for an alternative image. The salted twist was no longer fettered to the bar.

Packaging also helped clean up the pretzel’s reputation. Bakers began sealing their products in cellophane, and grocers no longer had to contend with the liabilities of selling by bulk out of open barrels and crates, a practice that compromised purity and freshness. Packaging helped remove the peddler and the cracker barrel from the equation, while at the same time providing a blank canvas on which to apply a logo, advertising copy, and compelling visuals—all helpful tools in constructing a new kind of reputation for a once questionable snack.

The pretzel’s transformation culminated in a clever marketing effort that grafted the baked twists onto the meal. Companies collaborated to design pairings, the most successful of which was pretzels and mustard; pretzels and ice cream was a hit in the 1930s. Companies also promoted recipes for pretzel soup (touted as a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition) and pretzel-crumb pie crust (perfect with a lemon meringue filling). Eventually pretzels even made their way into salad dressings, casseroles and Jell-O. By the 1950s, the pretzel had become so innocuous that a politician (not surprisingly from Pennsylvania) ran for office proudly wielding the pretzel as his campaign mascot. But pretzels weren’t the only snack to be redeemed.

Makers of various snack foods “dressed up” their products, giving them a sense of glamour and sophistication. Mr. Peanut, that lanky anthropomorphized goober in top hat and tails, gave Planters’ a classy look, and the makers of Korn Kurls christened their cheese puff “the Aristocrat of snacks.” Dips, such as Lipton’s onion soup mix combined with sour cream, a 1950s sensation, gave partygoers something special to do with crackers and other dunkables, and television celebrities lent intrigue to TV-Time Popcorn and other between-meal treats. By midcentury, snacking had become an all-American pastime, eventually emerging as an internationally recognized emblem of American life, and setting the stage for the snack food explosion of the 1980s.

Thanks to commercialization, snack food has been redeemed. Whether snack food is healthy is another question.

—Ms. Carroll is the author of “Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal,” to be published by Basic Books on Sept. 10.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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