Author: The makers of Campbell's soups
From: Helps for the Hostess

Boil spaghetti in rapidly boiling salted water, with clove of garlic, until tubes are soft and water absorbed. To a heated skillet add oil, onions, pepper and mushrooms, reserving a few whole mushrooms and pepper rings for garnish, and cook slowly until tender. Add to drained spaghetti. Fry slice of ham, cutting into three or four narrow strips when cooked. Pour Campbell's tomato soup into skillet containing ham dripping, add spaghetti, onions, peppers, and thyme. Mix thoroughly, and mound on round chop dish or platter. Lay ham strips crosswise on top, sprinkling with grated cheese. Garnish base with whole mushrooms and pepper rings.

  • 1 can Campbell's tomato soup

  • 1/2 pound smallest tube spaghetti

  • 1/2 pound sliced smoked ham

  • 1 can button mushrooms (or 1/2 pound fresh)

  • 2 small onions, thickly sliced

  • 3 small peppers, thinly sliced

  • 1/2 teaspoonsful thyme

  • Clove of garlic

  • 2 tablespoonsfuls olive oil

  • Grated cheese (American or Parmesan)

While the British producers of Oxo were handing out recipe books to their customers, all of which used their magic ingredient, so too were the makers of Campbell's soups in the United States. From the early 1900s, and as they grew their soup range, they endeavored to encourage women to see quite how versatile a humble can of soup could be. "Spaghetti à la Campbell," from Helps for the Hostess, their recipe book from 1916, is possibly the least offensive offering. There was "chicken jelly loaf," made with Campbell's consommé, cold chicken, slices of tongue and stuffed olives. "Campbell's aspic" used their canned bouillon. "Vol-au-vent of rice with beef" had a ring of molded rice filled with Campbell's tomato soup mixed with diced beef, mutton or pork. Even more upsetting was the "broiled halibut steak" in which tomato soup is sandwiched between two layers of fish and then poured over the top before being garnished with an olive and a lemon slice.

Their ingenuity knew no bounds. "Many times unattractive 'left-overs' are thrown away when, by using a can of Campbell's soup, they could have been made into an attractive, appetizing dish." And as with the equally inventive Oxo in Britain, Campbell's also had a pair of chubby children championing their brand. But there the similarities end: the American company took advertising to a whole new level of sophisticated, manipulative, guilt-inducing genius. 

It took its name from Joseph Campbell, a wholesale agent who, toward the end of the nineteenth century, teamed up with a small-time tinsmith with a modest cannery called Abraham Anderson. Campbell later bought out his partner and on his death in 1900 his most senior man, John Dorrance, took over. He in turn brought in his own son -- a chemist called John T. Dorrance -- who developed a method of condensing the soup. (The process of canning itself had developed significantly from 1861, when the experiments of Louis Pasteur with microorganisms led to food being heated to a specific temperature before being sealed inside a can.)

Condensing the soup saw huge savings in production costs. Less water was needed, which also meant lower transport costs. The famous red and white stripes, derived from the shirts of players at a football match, created a distinctive design and with pictures of food overlaid -- hitherto cans had been free of labels, blankly mysterious and unappealing -- they had an exciting product.

The problem was there wasn't much of a market and sales were modest. The company's early poster campaigns urged women to free themselves from soup-making drudgery. But at the turn of the century, American women were happy to make their own soup and, anyway, it wasn't a key part of their diet. The company's challenge was to convince people that they needed to have something they hadn't previously realized they needed. Their first ploy in 1908 was inventing the eye-catching Campbell kids, who tended to dress as adults, crossed social boundaries and, as the campaign developed, engaged in different activities. The boy layered bricks, did some policing or donned a tuxedo, while the girl looked after her dolls or gazed into a mirror. 

But while these images appealed to the American housewife, tugging at her heartstrings, the slogans juxtaposed with them played to her insecurities. If a woman felt inadequate or anxious, Campbell's had her firmly in their sights. They wanted America's women to live in fear of social embarrassment. Imagine if your husband turned up at the house one night and you didn't have sufficient provisions to turn out a nice supper. What could be worse? So sensible women stockpiled Campbell's soup for such an eventuality.

With posters on tramcars and, crucially, in magazines like Ladies' Home Journal, Campbell's painted a picture of a society where women were engaged in a constant battle to gratify their husband's desires, culinary or otherwise. The man simply came home and sat in judgment. And woe betide if meals didn't include Campbell's soup in some shape or form. 

"The way to a man's heart is through his stomach," advised a poster from 1911. "And many a dainty young housewife has discovered that one of the easiest 'short cuts' is Campbell's tomato soup." An advertisement in 1912 shows a man admonishing his wife for spending so much time in the kitchen. "Take advantage of modern ideas," he scolds her. "Don't bother with homemade soups. Use Campbell soup." Meanwhile, another poster declares: "When a man says it's good . . . it's good."

The company's advertising may have affirmed their role on the domestic front, but their soup also promised to free women from being a slave to both the seasons and their kitchens. Another poster in 1912 shows one housewife say to another: "And only one maid! How do you manage so nicely?" Freed from the burden of making soup (which ironically they weren't now making much of anyway), a woman became independent and could make some welcome redundancies among her household staff. And while the Campbell kids had America's children urging their moms to bring home a can, the moms themselves were made to feel they had a moral imperative to buy it. "Housewives of America insist on these soups," declared another poster. Soon enough, America's housewives were wondering how on earth they ever got along without them. They welcomed these new branded and shiny products into their homes.

Meanwhile, John T. Dorrance, who became president of the company in 1914, ran the business with a controlling zeal, managing the supply-chain with ruthless efficiency and constantly striving to force down costs. He once sniffed about his soup-making plant being in Camden, New Jersey -- a town, he thought, with far too many bars. "I figure that drink weakens men's efficiency 10 percent," he stated. "And we are moving to Campbelltown soon because we want added efficiency." A reminder that while the image of his soups was one of comforting, wholesome, hygienic modernity, the other side to the story was a rather less savory one of cheap, seasonal immigrant labor and workers battling for a decent wage.

The mass, industrial production of Campbell's soup saw the product spread across the United States with most households having at least one can in their storecupboards. It was said that the roads to the Campbell soup plant ran red with the juice and pulp of tomatoes as they bounced off the wagons on the way. The success of the advertising was phenomenal long before Andy Warhol painted the cans in the 1960s and fixed Campbell's soup in people's minds as a truly iconic American product.

From William Sitwell's A History of Food in 100 Recipes published by Little, Brown and Company, 2013.