The untold truth of Campbell’s Soup

It doesn’t matter how much of a foodie you are, you probably grew up with at least a can or two of Campbell’s Soup in your pantry. Whether it’s nostalgia or what’s in the can, there’s something comforting about popping open a can even today. It’s familiar, it’s the stuff of childhood, and it’s been a part of your life forever. There’s still probably some things you don’t know about Campbell’s Soup, though, so let’s talk fun facts.

Those iconic cans tell a story

The red and white cans were iconic even before Andy Warhol painted them, but they almost didn’t look like that at all. According to Food Republic’s look at Campbell’s branding, they say the original colors were blue and orange. Campbell’s rolled out their condensed soups in 1897, and it was only a year before labels became red and white. Treasurer and GM Herberton L. Williams is credited with making the change after attending a college football game, liking the look of Cornell University’s white and red uniforms, and pitching the change. A food icon was born.

There are a few other things you probably didn’t know about that iconic label. The distinctive Campbell’s font is believed to be based (at least loosely) on the actual signature of company founder Joseph Campbell, and it was meant to convey a down-home sort of feel. That medallion changed in the first few years of Campbell’s existence, but the one you’re familiar with is a medal they won at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. They won it for excellence, and have kept it ever since.

A chemist condensed it

We’re fortunate enough to live in a world of convenience, and it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary the idea of condensed soup was. Campbell’s was the company that invented it, thanks to their resident chemist.

Campbell’s was founded in 1869, and their first soup plant was in Camden, New Jersey. It wasn’t until 1897 — long after founder Joseph Campbell’s retirement — that chemist John T. Dorrance perfected the process for creating shelf-stable condensed soups. Dorrance had quite the foodie background himself. Born in Philadelphia, he studied abroad in Germany before heading to Paris to work in their food industry. While there, he developed the basic idea behind condensed soup. He had the restaurant industry in mind first, and wanted to come up with a way they could buy, ship, store, and prepare soup that was more convenient every step of the way.

That was, of course, condensed soup, and it was great for the home cook, too. Those first cans sold for 10 cents a can in 1897, and remained under a dollar a can until 2012.

It makes good… cake?

Soup doesn’t sound like it would be a key ingredient in a delicious cake, but it absolutely can be. Campbell’s says they think it was in the 1920s — during the Great Depression — that inventive home cooks first hit on the idea of using tomato soup to make a spicy sort of cake. It wasn’t until 1940 that Campbell’s test kitchens released their first version, and it was for a fruit-and-nut, British-style pudding. Not your thing? Have no fear.

By 1942, the fruit had fallen by the wayside and the most popular versions of tomato soup cake were ones heavy with flavors like nutmeg and clove. According to The Kitchn, tomato soup cake was popular during the days of wartime rationing and got a complete makeover after the war years. By the 1970s, bakers were adding cream cheese frosting as the finishing touch, and if you’re looking for a spicy, unique cake for that next special get-together, Campbell’s has you covered.

They reduced their salt… and then added it back

Soup can be one of the healthiest meals you can make at home, but what about the stuff from the can? In 2010, Campbell’s took some major strides toward lowering the amount of sodium in their soups. A good percentage of their products got a makeover, reducing — on average — the sodium content of each can by about 45 percent. That’s a good thing, but Forbes reported only a year later that sales had plummeted so much they were going to be putting the sodium back in.

For a bit of reference, the American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium intake to no more than 1500 mg per day. Before the change, a single serving of Select Harvest had around 800 mg, which Campbell’s got down to 480 mg. Post-2011, the Los Angeles Times reported those soups were going to be going back up to an average of 650 mg per serving. It’s still better than it was, so that’s something.

Andy Warhol loved it more than you think

Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup Cans art installation is the very definition of pop art. There are 32 canvases, each depicting a different kind of Campbell’s soup, and Mental Floss says Warhol did, indeed, love the stuff. He was quoted as saying, “I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years, I guess, the same thing over and over.”

No wonder he was so familiar with those cans! They ultimately launched his entire career, and if you look closely at them you’ll see they’re not all 100 percent identical, in spite of Warhol’s attempt to mimic a machine-stamped look.

Campbell’s approved of the pieces, too, even issuing a paper Souper Dress inspired by the work.

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