Soup Is Good History
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because those failing to know their history are doomed to eat bad soup.
By Eugene S. Robinson
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Camden, New Jersey
Corporate archives are the last source of unknown American history, of cataloged stories yet to be told. That may sound dramatic, but from where I sit, in the middle of 150 years of Campbell Soup history, I can see quite clearly how a company interwoven with American history provides unique perspectives on historical moments.
For example, I recently came across a treasure trove of items from a former employee, all from the early 1960s when NASA had Pepperidge Farm adapting bread for the earliest manned space flights. It turns out that during the Mercury and Apollo space programs, our astronauts wanted a simple pleasure from home, something that Pepperidge Farm later delivered: a sandwich.
Uncovering stories like these are one part of what I’m doing as a corporate archivist. I’m also the internal reference desk for the company, answering questions relating to Campbell’s history and heritage. Working in the archives — which are at our world headquarters in New Jersey — I review reference inquiries, the bread and butter of what an archivist does. Today, for instance, a school group wrote asking how many of each letter are in a can of alphabet soup. It’s not the type of question someone can just type in and come up with an answer, so it trickles down to me.
The archive is where the soul of the company lives, and that’s something you can’t buy and you can’t re-create. I’m using the Campbell archives to answer the question “Does this keep with the authentic voice of who we are?” Sharing these stories is one of my favorite parts of the job.
I embrace being a history nerd, but to be honest, I fell into museum work. I entered undergrad as a premed major and switched over to history after an internship opened my eyes to this type of work. I knew I didn’t want to teach or publish, so hearing about museum studies was a life changer. After grad school, I worked with several outstanding collections, but when Campbell called, I answered.
The Campbell archives have documents and artifacts that date back to the start of the company. We use and rely on this history every day. It lets us unearth old label designs, defend our trademarks, recognize our role in pioneering areas of food safety and labeling, and learn from the original condensed soup recipes how we changed the way people ate. We even have records of the company’s role in feeding our troops in times of war and providing jobs when they returned home.
Not too long ago, we found the earliest production recipe for our New Jersey beefsteak tomato soup. We were so inspired by the original recipe — penned by our founder in his ledger — that we decided to bring it back for a limited time. The recipe used a completely different language from what anyone was used to, which made reproducing it pretty challenging. There was also no one around to let us know if what we created was close to what the original tasted like! But it’s been such a hit that we think we got pretty close.
While the historical significance of the Campbell archive is important, I also have fun. A recent inquiry came across my desk from a woman who was throwing a Fifties-themed dinner party. She had a list of questions specifically about Campbell’s products and what they looked like in the 1950s since she wanted to make her dinner party as authentic as possible.
I sent her images of vintage soup labels that she could print out and wrap around cans to give away as gifts, as well as fun facts, trivia and recipes from the era (think Jell-O molds) and, of course, the famous 67-year-old Tomato Soup Spice Cake recipe — the end result of which was the big finale of her party.
That’s a large part of what I love about this job. It’s a personal touch to the legacy that is Campbell Soup. We’re a part of a story that’s as valid today as it was back then. And with any luck, we can continue to preserve our history and draw from the lessons of our past for centuries to come.