The OAH Magazine of History

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Uneeda Read This

Carl Weinberg Carl Weinberg is the editor of the OAH Magazine of History.

Do you recognize the little boy on the cover? He has not appeared in any commercials lately. But the Uneeda Biscuit boy (or the “slicker boy” as he was also known due to his ever-present raincoat) was one of the most recognized advertising images of the early twentieth century. As Pamela Laird and Catherine Canavan explain in their teaching strategy in this issue, Uneeda was launched by the National Biscuit Company (NBC)–today Nabisco–with the help of a professional ad agency in the late 1890s. By today’s standards, the name seems almost comical. Surely, we think, people knew they were being manipulated. And yet, the campaign was wildly successful. After only a year on the market, NBC was selling ten million Uneeda biscuits a month. There were Uneeda eating contests. A town in West Virginia named itself Uneeda. And other baking companies tried to cash in on NBC’s success, launching rival products with suspiciously similar names like Uwanta and Iwanta. (NBC obtained federal injunctions to stop them.) On one level, the Uneeda Biscuit exuded simplicity, honesty and homespun values. It was a soda cracker, a staple of the American diet made from flour, yeast, and shortening. On a deeper level, though, the history surrounding the rise of Uneeda nicely mirrors the rich complexity of business history that guest editors Pamela Laird and Mark Rose have brought to us in this issue.

Laird asks readers to consider how familiar the world of business–including advertising–is to students and yet how rarely we think about that subject in historical terms. It is difficult for me to think about my own childhood eating habits without reeling off a list of Nabisco products. What would my life have been like without Oreos, Ritz, Triscuits, and my beloved Animal Crackers? (I don’t think I ever ate a Uneeda, though they remained on the market until 2009, lasting 110 years.) But then, as Laird asks, “How did this world we experience develop? How did being ‘modern’ come to mean living and working in a consumer culture with countless goods and services beckoning to us?”

As Laird and Canavan explain, NBC was incorporated in 1898 from a merger of three large baking companies, each one itself a product of earlier mergers. The process of corporate consolidation and mechanization that Mansel Blackford informatively describes in his article applied not only to heavy industries such as steel, but to commercial baking as well. Indeed, a reporter in the early 1900s referred to NBC as the “cracker trust.” Over the past century, that process has continued apace, as fewer workers produce more in less time with more efficient machinery. Nabisco’s flagship plant in Chicago is currently the biggest bakery in the world, with some 1,500 employees who produce 320 million pounds of food annually. The company is now a subsidiary of Kraft Foods, though for a time, it was owned by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco and then Phillip Morris.

The Uneeda Biscuit was the product not only of broad historical processes, but of specific key innovators in technology. Two articles in this issue take up this general theme. Leslie Berlin profiles Robert Noyce, the engineer who obtained the first patent for the semiconductor and went on to found Intel. And Michael Stamm shows that newspaper companies coped with the challenge of early commercial radio by becoming multimedia corporations. In baking, a pivotal figure was attorney Adolphus Green. This Boston-born son of Irish immigrants graduated from Harvard, worked as a clerk and commercial librarian, read law, and then became a major player in the corporate merger wars of the 1890s. He was a central founder of NBC and president of the company from 1905 until his death in 1917. It was Green who saw the possibility of using the humble soda cracker to create a profitable industrial powerhouse. Working closely with the Ayer advertising firm, Green selected “Uneeda” from a host of other possibilities. (The Uneeda boy was based on a 1900 photo of Gordon Stille, the five-year-old nephew of an Ayer advertising executive.)

Green also applied himself to the problem of the soggy biscuit. As he was well aware, crackers (then called “biscuits”) were sold by bakeries to retailers in bulk and were delivered in wooden barrels. In most general stores, the “cracker barrel” was a regular fixture. When a customer wanted crackers, the store clerk filled up a bag directly from the barrel. If you were lucky, you got “top of the barrel” crackers; at the “bottom of the barrel,” crackers were more likely to be wet, moldy, smelly, and feasted upon by mice. Under Green’s supervision, experiments with moisture control were conducted until a solution was found. An associate of Green’s, Frank Peters, actually hit on the wax paper and cardboard method, which they quickly patented, of keeping the crackers dry. It became known as the In-Er-Seal, which you can see printed on the box held by the Uneeda boy. This explains why the boy is wearing a slicker–the Uneeda Biscuit stays dry even in the rain.

In an obituary for Adolphus Green in 1917, a reporter for the New York Times noted that under his leadership, factory production was mechanized so that crackers reached consumers “untouched by human hands.” For bakery workers, this was a mixed blessing. As the thought-provoking teaching strategy on meatpacking by Thomas Andrews in this issue reminds us, business history is also labor history. Around the time NBC was established, the average baker in New York City worked a fourteen-hour night shift in a small, dirty cellar bakery at temperatures reaching 110°. In comparison, factory production meant shorter hours and cleaner workplaces. But the smaller bakeries were a bastion of largely German-speaking skilled male workers who brought with them craft pride and strong socialist and union traditions. Factory production, that is, also meant loss of control and employment for skilled unionized workers. In 1901, officials of the Bakery and Confectioners’ union testified that NBC paid the lowest wages in the industry and hired “unskilled and immigrant labor” (who also included women and African Americans) to replace striking workers. Company welfare measures, similar to those Stuart Hobbs mentions in his article on business history and the TAH program, were also effective in staving off collective bargaining. Union activists made more headway in the 1930s, when greater numbers on the picket line sang, “U-Don’t-Needa Biscuit.” By 1969, some 9,000 NBC bakers were unionized.

As appealing as dry biscuits may have been, Green still faced the challenge of selling baked goods to consumers in an age when many women still baked bread at home or shopped at the corner bakery. Could NBC truly induce consumers to “need” their factory-made products? In his teaching strategy in this issue, Mark Rose shows us how utility companies faced an uphill battle in persuading women to give up their familiar and relatively inexpensive coal-fired stoves for those powered by electric and gas. On a different front, Vicki Howard shows how specialty apparel companies had a vested interest in a recently invented tradition of fancy black and white wedding attire. NBC faced a similar problem. An early company statement noted that “too many women still cling to the task of spending hours beating batters and watching them in the oven, when they might buy cakes and cookies that rival their own.”

Indeed, in 1912, NBC released a new product that became the best-selling cookie of the twentieth century–the Oreo Biscuit. As of 2007, nearly 500 billion had been sold worldwide. Originally targeted at the British market, the Oreo has been sold in China since 1996, illustrating the theme of globalization that Mansel Blackford discusses in his article. Since Chinese consumers were not in the habit of pairing cookies with milk, Nabisco set out to educate them about this American habit. They started an Oreo apprentice program at thirty Chinese universities and eventually hired three hundred students. Some rode bicycles around Beijing with Oreo-themed wheels to hand out free cookies to some 300,000 city residents. Others staged Oreo-inflected basketball games to emphasize “dunking” cookies in milk.

The Oreo has become so omnipresent in American consumer culture that it has become a common noun, related rather closely to Malia McAndrew’s article on African American modeling agencies and charm schools. As she notes, at the same time that pioneers like Ophelia DeVore used their business ventures to break down barriers to African American women, they also accepted middle-class white standards of beauty and proper behavior. So, what did “black beauty” mean? Could a black woman straighten her hair, associate with whites, and still celebrate her blackness? One imagines that the use of the word “Oreo” by some African Americans to mean a person who is black on the outside but white on the inside stems, in some sense, from that predicament. Nabisco executives were apparently unaware of this lexical innovation when they teamed up with Mattel in 1997 to release Oreo Barbie (designed to look African American), and then quickly recalled it under protest.

In light of the criticism that health experts have leveled at Oreos in recent years, it is striking to read the following claim about the Uneeda Biscuit that appeared in a 1911 advertisement: “Uneeda Biscuit[s] are the most nutritious food made from flour and should be eaten every day by every member of the family from the youngest to the oldest.” In Philip Scranton’s informative survey of the field of business history in this issue, one of the “fresh themes” he identifies is “fraud and fakery” which it is hard not to apply to this choice bit of advertising copy.

Ironically, the Uneeda boy himself raised the issue of fraud with NBC, though of a different sort. In 1900, when Gordon Stille was photographed in his raincoat, his family received the tidy sum of $100. In 1948, NBC needed Stille’s signature to extend their legal right to use his image as a company trademark. Stille was now fifty-three years old and in poor health. And it seems that he felt cheated. Demanding more compensation, which the company refused to pay, Stille would not sign. NBC pressured him to comply. In a series of letters to Stille, NBC attorneys suggested that they did not legally need his signature but would appreciate his cooperation. The Uneeda boy held firm. He went to his grave without renewing his consent for NBC to use his fetching five-year-old face.

Though we can no longer buy the Uneeda Biscuit, the issues it raises are more relevant than ever today. My thanks to Pamela Laird, Mark Rose, and all the authors for putting together such an excellent issue.

Carl R. Weinberg