The Van Trump Report

How a Midwestern Lawyer Revolutionized Food Packaging

In the late 1800s, US businesses were in a consolidation frenzy. Taking cues from John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust, the aim was to buy up smaller firms in order to end the destructive cycle of price wars, as well as create larger companies that could dominate, if not outright monopolize, entire industries.

One group of cracker makers in Chicago looking for help consolidating their industry looked to lawyer Adolphus W. Green in 1890. Green helped the group of bakers incorporate the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company. “Biscuit,” the British term for “crackers,” was used because it was considered “classier.” In total, the new company brought 40 bakeries in 13 states together under its umbrella.

Then in 1898, American Biscuit took over its two main competitors – the New York Biscuit Company and the United States Baking Company. The three companies were combined into the National Biscuit Company, aka N.B.C., giving them control of over half the cracker business in America. The company would later become “Nabisco,” (Na. Bis. Co).

The new N.B.C. board, mostly made up of bakers, appointed Green as Chairman of the Board. He initially wanted to remain on the sidelines but said he was drawn in “largely against my will.” While still running his law firm, he set about modernizing the bakeries and developing a product that could take advantage of the country’s new railroads.

Nearly every town in the country had one or more cracker bakeries, most of which had originally made “pilot bread” or “ship’s biscuits.” These utilitarian biscuits remained edible for long periods of time, making them ideal for sailors and soldiers. Savvy bakers looking to expand their market had tweaked those recipes to meet domestic needs, coming up with tastier fare like soda crackers and water crackers. 

However, none had updated their production processes but rather maintained the old-fashioned, labor-intensive methods used to make their original pilot bread. The finished product was packed into wooden barrels and delivered to local stores in horse-drawn carts and buggies.

These “cracker barrels” were like the “water cooler” of today, serving as a common meeting place where the town folk would congregate in the local general store. But as you can imagine, these barrels were not great at preserving the crackers. Crackers absorbed the humidity in the air, as well as various odors. They were not at all sanitary, either, and commonly contaminated with dirt, insects, and rodent droppings.      

Green decided to focus on soda crackers, which were a top seller. He insisted on giving them a catchy brand name and worked with top advertising agency N.W. Ayer of New York to come up with “Uneeda Biscuit.” Rather than sell them in barrels, Green wanted them to be sold in small, moisture-proof boxes, which was unheard of at the time. Green’s associate Frank Peters developed an inter-folded wax paper/cardboard box that N.B.C. patented and named “In-er-seal.”

In-er-seal was a revolutionary new package system that provided more distribution time, longer shelf life, and better-tasting products. It also allowed Uneeda Biscuits to be shipped anywhere in the country. Combined with a massive advertising budget of $7 million – the largest ad budget in history up till that time – the “stay fresh” packaging helped N.B.C. sell over one hundred million packages of Uneeda Biscuits in its first year.

Green’s marketing savvy helped N.B.C. launch a series of products that would go on to literally become world famous, including Fig Newtons, Barnum’s Animal Crackers, Oysterettes, and of course Oreos, which became the largest-selling cookie in the world. Green ran N.B.C up until his death in 1917, at the age of 74. N.B.C. at that time was the largest food company in America after meatpackers Swift and Armour, and the largest company dedicated to branded food rather than bulk food.

Interestingly, the company did not start referring to itself as “Nabisco” until the advent of radio, which was dominated by the National Broadcasting Company. The use of N.B.C. became confusing so the company referred to itself as Nabisco starting in the 1920s. However, they did not officially adopt Nabisco as the corporate name until 1971. (Sources: American Business History, NewYorkCityEats, ThoughtCo)

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