5 things that happened in 1914 that changed the food industry
In the food industry, a constant flux in technology, the economic environment and public taste make rapid change the norm.
But there was one year when the changes were more significant, more long-lasting than typical. That year was 1914—100 years ago. In 1914, as the nightmare of World War I engulfed Europe, a series of events happened here in the States that would mark the start of the modern food industry.
Here are five of the more important developments in the food industry from that storied year:
1. The Tasty Baking Co. opened its doors in Philadelphia. The company still survives today as the Tastykake brand of Flowers Foods, and celebrated its centennial earlier this year. That's no surprise given the revolutionary approach that the bakery took. Tasty Baking was the first company to produce small cakes wrapped and packaged as individual servings. Every little snack and cake that exists today—Twinkies, Little Debbie, Drake's, etc.—can trace its history to Tasty Baking.
2. Vincent LaRosa and his five sons opened the first pasta factory in the United States. Prior to the outbreak of war in Europe, pasta was an imported food. If you wanted macaroni or spaghetti, you either bought it fresh in a neighborhood of Italian immigrants, or you bought a bag of dried pasta that had been shipped across the ocean. But when the war cut off pasta supplies, the Brooklyn entrepreneur opened his factory and much to the surprise of just about everyone, Italian pasta rapidly becomes the most American of foods—served for either lunch or dinner—in homes across the country.
3. Canned fish became a thing. Fish was once quite rare in American cuisine. If you lived on the coast, you could get it fresh and packed in ice. Or, if you were the industrious sort, you could catch it yourself. But that all changed starting in 1914. A small California company called Van Camp launched that year and started canning fish, particularly tuna, for sale in markets far from the sea. Tuna was quite exotic then, and it wasn't easy to convince people to eat the stuff. But eventually the company hit on the idea of connecting tuna to a far more popular food: chicken. And Chicken of the Sea was born.
4. A technological breakthrough led to the widespread adoption of refrigerators across the food industry. The first commercial refrigerators, which used mechanical methods rather than ice, first started appearing as far back as the 1870s, primarily at breweries. By the close of 1914, the five major meat packers with operations in the Chicago stockyards—Armour, Swift, Morris, Wilson, and Cudahy —had invested in state-of-the-art ammonia compression systems. Meanwhile, California produce growers turned to refrigerated railcars to send their crops to the major markets in the East. The result was that in 1914 rail cars of lettuces, asparagus, watermelons, cantaloupes and beef all began to roll down the tracks, greatly expanding the shelf life and market reach of perishables.
5. Agricultural chemist George Washington Carver promoted legumes as a way to improve denuded soil, giving birth to the peanut butter industry. Carver had already completed years of research by 1914, but his work wasn't particularly well-known outside of academia and science. At that time, much of the cotton production of the South had been destroyed by the boll weevil. Carter recommended that Southern farms plant legumes to restore nitrogen to the soil, and in 1914, announced the findings of his experiments to the public. What followed was a boom in both peanut and sweet-potato production. Carver is often mislabeled as the inventor of peanut butter—that food had existed as far back as the Aztecs. Instead, Carver's understanding of the peanut plant, and his tireless advocacy for its production, gave the world the peanut butter industry.