Hormel Spiced Ham, the “father” of Spam, was created in 1927 as an inexpensive luncheon meat to help housewives stretch their budget dollars. But when the combination of cheaper competition and the Great Depression caused sales to drop, company president Jay Hormel decided in 1936 to relaunch the product with a glitzy marketing campaign and a new name.
Now Jackson had his acorns
And Grant his precious rye;
Teddy had his poisoned beef —
Worse you couldn’t buy.
The doughboy had his hardtack
Without the navy’s jam,
But armies on their stomachs move —
And this one moves on Spam.
—Anonymous World War II poem
At the New Year’s Eve party held at his home he announced a name-the-product contest with the prize winner receiving $100. The 65 guests attending had to “purchase” their drinks by completing a contest entry. Hormel recalled, “Along about the third or fourth drink they began showing some imagination.” Finally, the butler brought to Hormel a sheet of paper containing the word “Spam.” Whether or not the entry written by Kenneth Daigneau, a Broadway actor and brother to Hormel vice president R.H. Daigneau, was a piece of inspiration fueled by inebriation, the fact is he won. In 1937 Spam, or according to the company: SPAM®, a mixture of chopped pork shoulder, ham, salt, water, modified potato starch, and sodium nitrite, was launched. Described in ad campaigns as a “miracle meat,” by 1940 70 percent of American households had tried Spam.
With the signing of Lend-Lease in March 1941, shipments of Spam were included in the aid transported to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. It was gratefully accepted by both the military and civilian populations. Future British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, then a teenager working in her parents’ grocery store, called it “a war-time delicacy.” On Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) 1943, she recalled, “We had friends in and … we opened a tin of Spam luncheon meat. We had some lettuce and tomatoes and peaches, so it was Spam and salad.” And Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his autobiography, “Without Spam, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.”
When America entered the war, Spam became both the boon and bane of troops. Because it was so easy to transport in large quantities, and had a long shelf life, tons of it—ultimately more than 150 million pounds—accompanied them. Though the services purchased luncheon meats made by other companies, all looked alike. As Spam was the most famous of them, all such meats came to be called Spam. It wasn’t long before the troops, seemingly served Spam three times a day, seven days a week for the duration, got thoroughly sick of the stuff.
“Spam is a ham that didn’t pass its physical.”
Inevitably, it became the butt of jokes. Among the printable barbs were such lines as “Spam is a ham that didn’t pass its physical.” And “Spam is a meatball without basic training.” A Life magazine cartoon in which an angry GI is waving a slice of luncheon meat at the cook shouts, “Whadya mean luncheon meat? I say it’s Spam and I say to hell with it!” It was a sentiment shared by many a serviceman.
But Russians and the English defended Spam, with the former calling it “Roosevelt Sausage” and the latter serving Escallope of Spam in fine restaurants. In an attempt to halt the negative American troop comments, the London Daily Mail ran an article with a front-page headline proclaiming “Spam Has Suffered Enough.”
After the war, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower wrote a letter to a retired Hormel executive commenting on his company’s famous product. “During World War II, of course, I ate my share of Spam along with millions of other soldiers. I’ll even confess to a few unkind remarks about it—uttered during the strain of battle, you understand. But as former Commander-in-Chief, I believe I can still officially forgive you your only sin: sending us so much of it.”
“I’ll even confess to a few unkind remarks about it—uttered during the strain of battle, you understand. But as former Commander-in-Chief, I believe I can still officially forgive you your only sin: sending us so much of it.”
Spam became an American cultural icon during the war, a position that has grown. In 2007, the seven billionth can of Spam was sold. But Spam reached new heights — or lows, depending on how you look at it — when in the 1990s it became an all lower-case common noun used to describe junk emails. As such, it is perhaps the most widely known English language word in the world—with the ironic image of millions of people cursing the spam in their email inboxes while enjoying the Spam they’re eating.
Originally published online on May 19, 2011