The History of Crisco, or What I Learned at Berkeley

I was just reading this article on the death of trans fats, thinking sheesh, will you people make up your mind, when I caught the Crisco quote:

When Procter & Gamble debuted Crisco in 1911, it was billed: “It’s all vegetable! It’s digestible!” The shortening was also kosher, leading to the even better (worse?) slogan: “The Hebrew Race has been waiting 4,000 years for Crisco!”

Both shortening and its classier cousin, margarine, took off for obvious reasons—who wouldn’t want a butter substitute that was cheaper, lasted longer, and came with free cookbooks? (All the recipes called for Crisco, of course.)

…and I was annoyed, because like all mentions of Procter & Gamble’s Crisco, the article makes no mention of the reason Crisco was developed. Which is pretty interesting, and which I know about because when I was at Cal, I took a Larry Downes course that I liked very much, and when I like a course very much I work hard. Even when it’s group work, which much of the MBA courses were.

So my group was assigned Procter & Gamble. Task: evaluate the history, identify its use of information technology in the supply chain (a big thing in the early oughts), identify its ability to handle the “innovator’s dilemma” (ditto) and look to its future. My job was history.

My research showed that P&G did a tremendous job for over a century before the information age shifted the balance of power away from manufacturing, back to the retailers. It avoided the innovator’s dilemma, time and again risking its core competencies to bring out new products. For example, in 1945, despite its market strength in Dreft, Ivory Flakes, and Oxydol, P&G bet the farm on the best “synthetic laundry detergent” of all time with Tide, which is still the market leader.

But even before that, P&G showed a willingness to think ahead.

Procter & Gamble were a major candlemaker, having reached a million dollars in sales a few years before the Civil War. Soap was a distinctly secondary line, about a quarter of its business. Candles and soap both require fat as a primary ingredient. Cincinnati, home of P&G, was a major center for hog butchering (originally known as Porkopolis and no, I’m not making this up), so there was always a ready supply of fat. However, during the Civil War, fat supplies dwindled, and P&G were innovators of new methods for making both soap and candles that required less animal fat. (don’t ask me the details, I don’t teach science.)

By the 1880s, the Procters (who ran the business side) realized that Thomas Edison’s new invention, the electric lightbulb, would soon obliterate their primary line of business. Rather than make panicky attempts to corner the market or stop innovation, the company decided it was time to bet big on soap. It was time to sell soap as an individual consumer product, to compete with the expensive European soaps that came handwrapped in pretty paper, rather than sold in big barrels and cut off in chunks, as American soap was purchased.

The problem, still, was fat. American soap used animal fat that produced a brown, coarse soap. European soaps used olive oil, and were light and pretty–but costly. How could P&G come up with an inexpensive oil that would produce a high quality soap? The Gambles ran the production side of things and came up with a combination of palm and coconut oils as having the necessary sweet-smelling quality without the expense. Then, through a fortunate mistake that involved introducing air into the manufacturing process, they came up with a beautiful, light soap that Harley Procter dubbed Ivory, “so pure it floats”. Harley, known today as the father of modern advertising, created the first marketing campaign, and the company evolved from a candle company to one that made soap.

P&G was not only willing to take risks and abandon its core competencies. Due to its early reliance on key raw materials, the executives were always on the lookout for ways to ensure a secure supply chain.

Look back at the quote from the Atlantic article: in 1911, P&G debuted Crisco. That seems like no big deal, just a history tidbit. But in fact, here are Proctor & Gamble’s products from the late 1800s to 1945: Ivory, Crisco, Camay, Oxydol, Dreft.

Huh. One of these things is not like the others. Why did the company that actually invented the soap opera, that invented inexpensive, attractive handsoap, develop Crisco? And it developed Crisco second, mind you. Procter & Gamble didn’t have another non-soap product until the 50s, with Crest, followed by Pampers in 1961. Most of its other products were purchased.

So why Crisco? Why did a soap company transform the cooking industry with a vegetable-based fat? I can’t find my notes, and the books I dug up were over fifty years old in the dust-bound stacks of Cal (it may have been the last time I did research in a library), but fortunately you can find everything you need on the Internet:

In order to assure its supply of fat, P&G purchased the Buckeye Cotton Oil Company and began to look into hydrogenation, which would harden the oil into a more stable form. They commissioned Edwin Kayser, who had patented the process and… some point, someone realized that partial hydrogenation of cottenseed oil made it look a lot like lard and went “Hmmm.” The change from total to partial hydrogenation kicked off a huge lawsuit and I can’t remember the details, but when I was reading about it for this post I came across a mention of it and went “oh, no, not the lawsuit!” Don’t make me go there again.

It’s not relevant, anyway. What mattered to me, to my group, to our project, was that Crisco came about not because Procter & Gamble wanted to make a “better” shortening, but because it was a smart company trying to lock down its supply chain. It was also a company that understood the meaning of serendipity, and was a dab hand at advertising.

These days, the only time this history is mentioned is in castigating the evil Procter & Gamble for forcing, yea, I said forcing! innocent housewives to abandon healthy saturated fats. Those doing the castigating are, in fact, the same people who demand McDonalds abandon beef fat for their french fries, but the times, they change.

Business history is fascinating. We should teach it more in school. Without a test. Just for fun. Studying business is a wonderful means of making our country’s history real.

Meanwhile, next time you dip into a big blue can of Crisco, remember it came about because the Procters wanted an easy way to store soap fat.


4 thoughts on “The History of Crisco, or What I Learned at Berkeley”

  1. Hi Michele,
    I just had to take a moment to thank you for posting this fascinating history of Proctor and Gamble and especially Crisco.

    As a cookbook collector for many years, I often find myself wondering about the beginnings of the many companies that once formed corporate America.

    It isn’t always easy to find the information needed to put the pieces of the puzzle together to reveal the innovative need or desire for the final results.

    Your post today has been a huge help. The next time I share one of my Proctor and Gamble cookbooks on my blog for Cookbook Wednesday, I will be sure and mention this post and the history you have shared. Thank you, Michele…

  2. I’m delighted you found this useful! This is one of my most popular posts, so I know people are using it. I used to collect cookbooks, too, and refuse to throw my old ones away. Even though I mostly google for recipes (even the ones I know are in my cookbook!)

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