America’s Favorite Luncheon Meat Turns 75
The classic luncheon meat that comes in a can celebrates 75 years! What was once a standard in American households became the target of many jokes through the decades, but is still a favorite amongst many diners. Made from chopped pork shoulder meat and ham, SPAM was introduced by Hormel Foods Corporation in 1937.
The SPAM name comes from the words “spiced” and “ham”. Ken Daigneau, the brother of Hormel’s vice president at the time, won the naming contest. His prize was $100.
The canning meat was developed by Jay Hormel (son of company founder George Hormel) in 1926. The initial product was called Hormel Flavor-Sealed Ham and it was the first canned ham. It would take nearly 11 years to further develop the product so it did not require refrigeration.
In 1936, the company introduced Hormel Spiced Ham. The name was short-lived as the company launched a contest looking for a new, catchy product name. SPAM, which came from the words “spiced” and “ham”, was submitted by Ken Daigneau, the brother of Hormel’s vice president. His prize was $100 and packaging under the new name took place quickly in order to thwart stiff competition.
It was promoted heavily during 1937 and was offered as an anytime product not just for lunch. They were a sponsor of the George Burns and Gracie Allen radio program and created the character Spammy the Pig. But sales really took off during WWII since it was great for the military because it required no refrigeration. It also was not rationed as beef products were so it became a popular meal staple. Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev actually credited SPAM with helping his armies survive during WWII.
Hormel was quick to market this new “Miracle Meat”. Print ads promoted it as a meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, calling SPAM “seven types of meat” because of the function it served in each dish. Ads that featured people speaking often rhymed, such as: “We like SPAM burgers a lot!” “Cold or hot SPAM hits the spot!”.
In 1940, Hormel released a radio commercial which is believed to be the first singing commercial. The company also sponsored the George Burns and Gracie Allen radio show, introducing the character Sammy the Pig.
World War II altered the company’s focus, and between 1941 and 1945, more than 100 million pounds of SPAM was shipped to allied troops. Using a more economical label, SPAM became a big hit with soldiers. It was nutritious, inexpensive, and didn’t need to be kept cold. Sales “back home” soared because, unlike many beef products, SPAM wasn’t rationed.
Post-war, a troupe of ex-GI women was created by Hormel to promote products across the country. The Hormel Girls worked door-to-door as well as at events, associating the consumption of SPAM with being patriotic. The troupe was well-received, growing to a group of 60 women, and ultimately turning the show into a radio program.
The Hormel Girls lasted until 1953, but Hormel’s foundation for SPAM recognition was well set. SPAM was already seen as a staple of the American diet. For many households, it was as common to have SPAM in the pantry as it was iced tea in the refrigerator.
Some refer to SPAM as “mystery meat”, but it’s actually made of just six ingredients. Original SPAM includes pork shoulder, rear pork meat (ham), salt, potato starch, sugar, water and sodium nitrite (to preserve coloring).
By 1959, Hormel had produced one billion cans of SPAM.
It was 1970 when SPAM was re-introduced to a new generation by way of comedy. An episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus including an “SPAM” sketch that is a considered a classic. In the sketch, two customers in a greasy spoon attempt to order breakfast from a menu that includes SPAM in nearly every dish. One of the customers, Mrs. Bun, asks for a dish without SPAM and is met with disgust by the waitress. Her husband, who loves SPAM, is quite shocked. Mrs. Bun resorts to screaming, “I don’t like SPAM!” During the dialogue, Vikings interrupt the main conversation by singing, “SPAM, lovely SPAM, wonderful SPAM.” During the closing credits, many of the names include SPAM, and the final logos read as BBC SPAM TV.
The sketch, which ran just over three minutes, was a great promotion for the canned meat many say you either “love or hate”.
Watch the SPAM sketch:
The Monty Python sketch served as inspiration for the terms “electronic spam” and “spam email”.
One would think that myths and fun-poking would have affected sales, but SPAM continued to gain traction in the marketplace, especially during economic hardships. In trying times, SPAM is listed right up there with peanut butter – it’s considered a staple to have on hand when other foods become unaffordable.
Hormel had packaged 2 billion cans by 1970, 3 billion by 1980, 5 billion by 1994 and in 2007 the 7 billionth can of SPAM was produced.
And some just love the taste. From fried, to baked, to right out of the can, SPAM fans and restaurants continue to create recipes using SPAM as an ingredient. Especially in Hawaii, which consumes about 7 million cans each year. Part of the island’s culture, SPAM is as common in restaurants as in the home. Yes, you can get “the Hawaiian steak” and eggs at McDonald’s. The state is also home to festivals that host contests or food booths featuring SPAM-inspired cuisine.
Over the years, Hormel introduced varieties of SPAM, including Low-Sodium, Hickory Smoked, Oven Roasted Turkey, Hot & Spicy and Lite. The typeface changed one, and the photo on the label changed from a loaf of SPAM with cloves to a SPAMburger.
None of the product-line changes compare to the amount of money Hormel has spent over the years marketing SPAM via advertising and merchandising. The SPAM store features a horde of product – from shirts and coffee mugs to wine charms and shoelaces. Actually, the SPAM logo, label or related images are imprinted on hundreds of items, even obscure collectibles and novelties.
While many companies have created competing products, SPAM is the most recognized when it comes to canned meat. It also appears to be the most loved. Leaders have credited SPAM with sustaining soldiers during war time, and Hormel runs an active SPAM fan club. The SPAM Facebook page boasts more than 150,000 likes.
While many joke about the canned meat and others find it to be a delicacy, there’s no argument that SPAM has had a rich, American history. Once referred to as “Special Army Meat”, and sometimes labeled as “poor people food”, SPAM is still produced in the US; there are factories in Austin, Minnesota (Spam Town USA) and Fremont, Nebraska.
When prompted with (like Mrs. Bun), “I don’t like SPAM!”, many SPAM advocates will simply reply, “You haven’t tasted it
There’s also a SPAM Museum, and admission is free. After your visit, you can hit one of many local restaurants that spotlight SPAM dishes on the menu.