All About Peanut Butter - A History, from Peruvian Tombs to Skippy Jars

Many say Americans have contributed two decent things to the world: jazz and baseball. I would venture to add a third component to that mix: peanut butter. It is, after all, seen as very American- and in a positive way. Heck, I was once approached by a Yakuza boss in Narita Airport who noticed me spooning the stuff out of a Skippy bottle, and he struck up an entire conversation with me about “Skippy! American!” as his body guards watched on in the distance. Clearly peanut butter is some powerful stuff.

Peanut Butter - A History

Peanut butter-like substances have been used many years and in many countries. Peanuts may date as far back as 950 B.C. and have even been found in Peruvian mummy tombs. According to PeanutButterLovers.com, “Africans ground peanuts into stews as early as the 15th century. The Chinese have crushed peanuts into creamy sauces for centuries. Civil War soldiers dined on ‘peanut porridge.’ ” The site points out, however, that such previous “uses, however, bore little resemblance to peanut butter as it is known today.”

Peanut butter was first made by George A. Bayle Jr. in 1890 at the behest of an unknown physician who thought the substance would make for a good protein substitute for those unable to chew meet. Apparently the physician had used a meat grinder to create the paste, while Bayle found a way to mechanize the process.

According to TIME.com, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (yeah, the cereal guy) “patented a process for turning raw peanuts into a butter-like vegetarian health food” in 1895, which he “fed to clients at his Battle Creek, Mich. sanatorium” and which also contributed to peanut butter’s entrance into mainstream food culture, but not as much as one might imagine, as Kellogg’s early peanut butter was not so yummy, given that it was supposedly made with peanuts that “were steamed, instead of roasted, prior to grinding.” Despite this, peanut grinders soon came on the market (thanks to Joseph Lambert), and peanut butter emerged as an ingredient in several recipes.

In the early 1900s, peanut czar Dr. George Washington Carver developed over 300 uses for peanut butter and improved peanut horticulture, making the spread even more popular. By 1904, peanut butter had made its international debut at the 1904 St. Louis Universal Exposition, where one C.H. Summer sold $705.11 worth of the stuff. In 1908, Kerma Products Company began selling peanut butter commercially- and has continued to do so ever since, making it the oldest peanut butter seller in the world.

Hydrogenated vegetable oil was added to peanut butter in 1922 by chemist Joseph Rosefield, who used the additional ingredient to prevent separation. The resulting improved product was called Skippy and became a national icon (which was first produced in Alameda, CA; the hometown of Yours Truly). Soon to follow were the Peter Pan (1928) and Jiff (1958) brands.

In 1994, reduced fat peanut butter was developed by the Arthur D. Little Inc’s Center for Technology and Product Development as a reaction for growing consumer demand for low-fat foods. This new version substituted poly-dextrose, water, and starch for fat. While it was met with mixed reviews, reduced fat peanut butter remains on the market to this day.

The popularity of peanut butter has inspired the production of other iterations, including smooth and chunky peanut butters, reduced sodium peanut butters, natural peanut butters (that require stirring), and even alternative nut butters, such as almond butter and cashew butter. Though not nearly as popular, almond and cashew butters are also quite delicious, and are slowly making their way into the aisles of large grocery store chains.

With all of its various versions and uses, peanut butter has become quite a commodity. “In 1992, statistics showed Americans alone consumed 857 million pounds of peanut butter or 3.36 pounds per person,” writes Peggy Trowbridge Filippone of About.com, and though “more than half the American peanut crop goes into the making of peanut butter… the majority of peanut butter consumed in the United States is imported.”

Peanut Butter Controversy

Peanut butter, while beloved, has its downsides, one of them being that the substance is a danger to those with peanut allergies. Time points out that over the 20th century many schools banned peanuts from their cafeteria menus to prevent problems, and foods that share common processing machinery with peanuts- or that contain any trace of peanuts or peanut butter- must be specially labeled.

The recent backlash against trans-fats has also brought some types of peanut butter into question (as the partially hydrogenated oils used to prevent separation are major trans-fat sources), and ingredient changes have become necessary to convince consumers to continue buying the no-stir spreads.

Furthermore, the 2009 salmonella outbreak at the Peanut Corporation of America, which, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “sickened 600 people around the nation… and may have killed eight,” and resulted in the recall of more than 1,800 peanut-containing products, dampened the innocent reputation of this delicious condiment to even non-allergic and trans-fat phobic individuals.

That said, one 2002 estimate has it that “the average American child eats 1,500 PB&J sandwiches before graduating from high school” and “peanut butter remains an $800 million industry.” Peanut butter, famous American icon that it is, has fan sites (such as Peanut-Butter.org), involvement in an internet meme, and even its own month (Peanut Butter Lover’s Month is in October).

Peanut Butter Trends

What are some future prospects for this classic American spread?

One interesting trend involves flavored peanut butter.  While some companies such as Smucker’s have combined peanut butter and jelly in one container, others, such as P.B. Loco, tried out even more daring combinations, such as Sumatra Cinnamon Raisin, Asian Curry Spice, and Raspberry White Chocolate.

Another trend involves unique package design.  For a while, Skippy sold its peanut butter in a squeeze bottle, and on a visit to Japan, I bought the spread in a similar bottle.  The cool thing about my Japanese packaging was that the squeeze bottle had a decorative edge, which created a fancy-looking result.  Perhaps this packaging will see a resurgence someday.

At any rate, we can certainly expect to see peanut butter used in new recipes, products, and cultural practices.  What can I say? It’s a classic.

Comments from the Peanut Gallery!

What is your favorite type of peanut butter?

  • Smooth
  • Crunchy
  • Natural (the kind that separates)
  • No-stir (e.g. Skippy)
  • The kind mixed with jelly!!!
  • Oh, please. I'm allergic to peanuts.
See results without voting

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Comments 25 comments

kaltopsyd profile image

kaltopsyd 6 years ago from Trinidad originally, but now in the USA

Very interesting facts about peanut butter. I never thought of the history. Very interesting! Thanks for educating me.


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

It was fun to do the research - I LOVE peanut butter and appreciate it even more now that I've taken the time to figure out what the heck it is and where it came from XD


chirls profile image

chirls 6 years ago from Indiana (for now)

Interesting article! I love peanut butter, too. I used to live in the UK and it just isn't the same as here in the US (where I am) and Canada (where I'm from). We do it much better on this side of the pond, in my opinion!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

I sincerely agree!


Deerwhisperer 6 years ago

Fascinating story. Peanut Butter is a staple at our house. We even eat it by the spoonful, rght out of the jar!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Hahaa- who doesn't? That's the best part >_


World-Traveler profile image

World-Traveler 6 years ago from USA

Hello Simone

I grew up with peanut butter and I still remember Skippy, thanks for the memories!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks World-Traveler! Isn't it amazing how such a simple food can have so many fond feelings?


susanlang profile image

susanlang 6 years ago

Mmm mm good peanut butter read, lots of interesting facts! Rated up.


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago

Really interesting. You were digging peanut butter out of a bottle in the middle of an airport? For some reason that strikes me as odd. Odder than the Yakuza boss. Apparently you were momentarily trapped in a Takashi Miike film.


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

@Arthur, close- I am actually *permanently* trapped in a Takashi Miike film. But one with peanut butter. So it's all quite lovely!


troy0619 profile image

troy0619 6 years ago from puerto rico

You love peanut butter but you forgot about the jelly? How rude!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Jelly? Pshaw- jelly deserves its OWN hub. It's far too interesting to just *mention* hahaa


Pinkchic18 profile image

Pinkchic18 6 years ago from Minnesota

Very interesting! I never knew they was so much history to peanut butter! Great hub :)


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks Pinkchic18! It's really surprising how ordinary things can have such fascinating histories.


frogyfish profile image

frogyfish 5 years ago from Central United States of America

PB-How interesting! I am addicted to it and will enjoy it even more knowing its 'history'.

My dogs love it too - and it's fun sticking a fingerfull on the top of their mouth...:-)

Thanks for a fun read!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Oh, dogs + peanut butter = HILARITY!


liswilliams profile image

liswilliams 5 years ago from South Africa

not sure many would survive without good old peanut, fantastic stuff!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Hehee- I know I couldn't!


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago

Love peanut butter and loved your hub. One of my favorite ways to eat peanut butter is with apple slices. It is a food I never get tired of. And in my house, not one speck of peanut butter gets wasted because when we are done with the jar, my dogs lick it clean. I can't figure out how their tongues are long enough to reach into the big jar, but I guess that is the magic of peanut butter.


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Hahaa, that's awesome! Dogs + peanut butter in general are highly amusing. I know how they feel, too! I can't waste a bit of peanut butter - I always clean out the jars with a spatula and nom away!


vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

I had no idea peanuts were found in Peruvian tombs. Peanuts are everywhere in Peru, but unfortunately not PB. So we make our own homemade PB, which is pretty good. My favorite combo is pretzels, peanut butters and chocolate! yum!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 4 years ago from San Francisco Author

Ooh, homemade peanut butter is delicious! And pretzels, PB, and chocolate... that's an awesome combo indeed!


Ruby H Rose profile image

Ruby H Rose 4 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

Peanut butter history, how wonderful. This hub is really a delight. What yummy discoveries. I never knew there were so many peanut butter combinations, and flavors. Awesome, thank you.


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 4 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks, Ruby H Rose! I hadn't realized there were so many, either.

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