Published On: Tue, Aug 15th, 2017

How Oreos Acquired Their Identify: The Rise of an American Icon


[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]

Editor’s Notice: This publish is reprinted from my newly launched cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, with permission from W. W. Norton. For all notes and citations on this text, see web page 209 within the e book.

Within the mid-19th century, America’s business bakeries graduated from a cottage business centered on easy crackers to the extra formal factories we all know right this moment, producing a spread of fancy biscuits, cookies, and different “dainty items” (as they had been identified within the commerce). It was throughout this time that brothers Jacob and Joseph Free purchased a controlling curiosity within the Corle Cracker and Confectionery Firm, down in Kansas Metropolis, Missouri.

Guided by Jacob’s expansionist philosophy, the newly named Free Brothers Manufacturing grew to become a multimillion-dollar enterprise inside just a few years. However Jacob did not see the sense in competing together with his fellow bakers within the Midwest once they may all profit from becoming a member of forces as an organization. So, in 1890, he employed a big-city lawyer named Adolphus Inexperienced to supervise the negotiations and paperwork wanted to wrangle everybody collectively. The second the ink dried, the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Firm grew to become the second-largest company bakery in America. Naturally, Jacob named himself president, then appointed Joseph to the board of administrators and Adolphus to normal counsel.

On the nationwide stage, American Biscuit fell between the New York Biscuit Firm and the USA Baking Firm. For the following seven years, the trio duked it out in a contest so fierce, reporters referred to as it “the biscuit battle.” The battle took its toll, and, in 1897, poor well being compelled Jacob to step down as president.

That put Joseph in management, and he’d seen sufficient battle. He determined to finish the biscuit battle and make peace, or revenue, not less than. With Adolphus Inexperienced’s authorized savvy, ABC entered into an settlement with NYBC and USBC. Jacob fiercely opposed the alphabet-soup merger from his sickbed, and he begged Joseph to not undergo with it, however alas: His two most bitter enemies devoured up American Biscuit, creating the super-giant Nationwide Biscuit Firm (Na. Bis. Co.). On its board of administrators: three of Jacob’s former board members, his former lawyer, his treasurer, and his personal brother.


[Photograph: Library of Congress]

So you will perceive that when Jacob recovered his well being, he had one thing of an ax to grind. From his perspective, the Nationwide Biscuit Firm was resting on his laurels. In 1902, he teamed up with John Wiles to type the Free-Wiles Biscuit Firm. Getting down to reclaim all that was misplaced, Jacob pushed his new firm by way of a decade of exponential development, till he as soon as once more had one of many largest company bakeries in America, second solely to Nabisco—however a distant second. In 1912, Nabisco made $45 million to Free-Wiles’s $12 million. To make issues worse, his previous pal Adolphus had labored his approach as much as president.

But Jacob’s success demanded consideration. With headlines resembling “Alternate Nationwide for Free-Wiles?” suggesting the Nationwide Biscuit Firm had already peaked on the New York Inventory Alternate, shares of Free-Wiles appeared to supply nothing however development. The recognition of Jacob’s firm hinged in no small half on one biscuit, a best-seller so in demand that groceries purchased it by the ton. Just a little one thing referred to as Hydrox.

Hydrox was an instantaneous basic, a nationwide favourite and an ice cream parlor staple, the unique pairing of cookies and cream. Bitter chocolate shortbread joined with candy vanilla fondant gave Hydrox a mighty crunch that put Nabisco’s dainty Sugar Wafers to disgrace. Free-Wiles marketed Hydrox as “a dessert of itself,” nevertheless it regarded like a murals. Every wafer had a scalloped edge, a border of scrollwork, and 6 seven-petaled flowers chained collectively by leaves and stems, with a laurel wreath at their coronary heart.

Whether or not by way of coincidence or spite, Nabisco unveiled the Oreo on Free-Wiles’s 10th anniversary. The clone marketed “two chocolate-flavored wafers with a wealthy, creamy filling,” competing instantly in opposition to Hydrox’s “two chocolate wafers full of candy vanilla cream.” Oreo could not match the element of the Hydrox design, nevertheless it imitated what mattered most: the laurel wreath.

That swipe went deeper than copycat aesthetics, straight to the guts of Oreo’s darkest thriller: its identify. Nabisco has at all times shied away from explaining its origin, which impressed many years of hypothesis. The most typical model asserts that Oreo derives from or, French for “gold” and supposedly the colour of the unique packaging. Others say it stands for “orexigenic,” a medical time period for substances that stimulate the urge for food (together with hashish). One other common rationalization proposes an elaborate symbolic scheme, whereby the 2 Os in “Oreo” characterize cookies sandwiching cREam within the center, a principle that makes extra sense if you happen to placed on a tinfoil hat.

However take into account the roster of Nabisco’s fancy biscuits in 1913: Avena, Lotus, Helicon, Zephyrette, Zaytona, Anola, Ramona, and Oreo. It looks like a random assortment of unique names, however I observed a sample. Avena is Latin for “oats,” and everyone knows the well-known lotus blossom. “Helicon” comes from Heliconia, a genus of flower native to Florida. “Zephyrette” matches with Zephyranthes, the genus of the tropical lily. Zaytona is Arabic for “olive,” “Anola” was shortened from “canola” (one in every of its defining components), and ramona is within the buttercup household (buttercups dotted every field). Somebody at Nabisco clearly had a factor for botany, and to know Oreo, you do not have to look any additional than the mountain laurel on each Hydrox—Oreodaphne. It was a copycat in each approach.

For a time, Hydrox remained the “King of Biscuits,” and one of the vital extensively consumed cookies in America. Regardless of what you hear right this moment, Oreo did not have a lot preliminary success. Groceries struggled to entice prospects away from Hydrox, and commercials tied Oreos to gross sales on different Nabisco merchandise to assist unload their stock. In 1914, one retailer discovered itself with a 700-tin stockpile that refused to budge, so that they slashed the value and berated their prospects: “Yesterday we marketed these splendid Oreos they usually had been an incredible cut price. Whereas we bought just a few, they did not transfer something like we anticipated. It is merely a case of your not realizing what a tremendous biscuit delicacy they’re.”

In the meantime, Free-Wiles took a extra diplomatic method. In 1924, the corporate partnered with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU) to create the nation’s first kosher-certification program. The OU seal fostered large assist for Hydrox inside the Jewish group. Twenty years later, Oreo did not even make it onto a listing of Nabisco’s hottest merchandise, a lot much less one definitely worth the expense of certification.

No matter success it amassed in these early years, although, it is exhausting to see Hydrox as something aside from the Titanic. Regardless of its craftsmanship, magnificence, and common attraction, it harbored a deadly flaw. When Hydrox debuted in 1908, its pseudoscientific identify (hydrogen + oxygen) was widespread to all method of products, from Hydrox Aerated Desk Water to Hydrox Ice Cream and Hydrox Ginger Ale. Cashing in on the Hydrox fad gave Free-Wiles a little bit of avenue cred, nevertheless it later meant they could not defend their model in court docket. Ultimately, the variety of random Hydrox merchandise in the marketplace stained the phrase with an inescapably generic vibe, and an icky one at that, as chemical firms specifically took a shine to the time period.


[Photograph: Library of Congress]

Free-Wiles realized that they had a picture downside, however as an alternative of renaming Hydrox, they renamed the corporate: Sunshine Biscuits. Admittedly, “Free-Wiles” sounds just like the type of insult mother and father throw on the cigarette-smoking neighbor child (“In my day, we did not tolerate these forms of unfastened wiles!”), however “Sunshine” did not put Hydrox in a extra appetizing mild.

A good PR staff may have turned issues round, however Sunshine’s commercials took a bizarre, curmudgeonly tone. From 1915 to 1965, Hydrox appeared hell-bent on exposing Oreo as an impostor, even going as far as promoting a tiny bear cub actually crying over stolen cookies. They relentlessly billed Hydrox because the “first,” the “best,” the “authentic,” the “solely,” and the “basic,” shaking a finger at America: “Do not be fooled by look-alikes!”

They may as effectively have advised Oreos to get off their garden. That cranky marketing campaign did nothing to win anybody’s coronary heart. Shoppers needed a tasty deal with, and Oreo provided precisely that, with completely happy, colourful commercials about crisp, chocolaty sandwich cookies filled with extra filling than every other model. Nabisco had the stamina and monetary sources to promote Oreos at a loss. Within the mid-1950s, the rope-a-dope technique paid off when Nabisco sprang into motion with a very redesigned cookie and a snazzy marketing campaign for “new Oreos.” Concurrently, they jacked up the value—reverse psychology at its best. People did not flock to the all of the sudden reasonably priced Hydrox; they shunned it as low cost in each sense of the phrase—the form of low-budget, fuddy-duddy knockoff favored by penny-pinching grandpas. Certainly, by the 1960s, grandpas had been nearly the one ones who may bear in mind the glory days of Hydrox.


The lights went out at Sunshine shortly thereafter, and the Hydrox model bounced across the business like a third-string baseball participant, first bought to the American Tobacco Firm, then resold to G. F. Industries, Keebler, and later Kellogg’s, which formally pulled the plug. In one thing straight out of a Greek tragedy, Kellogg’s returned Hydrox to manufacturing for the only real function of crushing them into bits for the wholesale market, supplying producers who cannot afford a license from Oreo. With Hydrox useless* and buried in off-brand ice cream, Oreo celebrated its 100th birthday because the uncontested king of cookies.

* Alas, the latest Hydrox comeback occurred after BraveTart was despatched off to print.

If opposites appeal to, Oreos generate a drive nothing wanting gravitational. Black and white. Creamy and crunchy. Bitter and candy. Chocolate and vanilla. Latest years have sadly added “pure and synthetic” to the record, however we will make like Jacob Free and reclaim what’s been misplaced by striking out on our own.

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