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As American as Peanut Butter and Jelly

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Today’s post is by 2011 Junior Fellow  Brian Horowitz of Montgomery College in Maryland. Brian is also the author of  the  Art of War…and of Sandwich Making and Stumbled upon in the Stacks– a brief biography of Brevet Major Alfred Mordecai.

Beech Nut Peanut Butter Advertisement in Woman's Home Companion, v48, October 1921: p. 53

In elementary school my favorite lunch consisted of a peanut butter and jelly (PB&J)  sandwich in a brown paper bag accompanied by a ripe red apple and a juice box. This traditional lunch is quick and easy to make and a favorite of most kids.  In Boy Scouts of America, I remember singing the confederate camp song “Eating Goober Peas” (by A. Pindar and music by P. Nutt) . I learned that peanuts were a staple during the Civil War era. But you would be surprised to discover how different the peanut butter of today is from the original savory paste.

There is some debate among culinary historians about who was the first person to invent peanut butter, but the first person to popularize its use was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg.   Kellog, a supporter of vegetarianism and Fletcherism (the practice of chewing foods thoroughly to aid digestion), began to grind foods into smaller pieces in order to make it easier for his Battle Creek Sanitarium patients to chew their food. Dr. Kellogg experimented with peanuts , eventually creating a paste out of boiled peanuts and other seeds.  In Patent No. 567,901 (September 15, 1896) for his food compound, he used the term “butter,” not peanut butter, however, historians have given him the title of the founder of this new food fad.  Making peanut butter was a laborious process of grinding peanuts with a mortar and pestle and later with meat grinders, which produced a fairly coarse product.  The production of peanut butter was simplified in 1903 when Dr. Ambrose W. Straub patented a machine to make peanut butterPatent No. 721 ,651 was granted on February 24, 1903, for a “mill for grinding peanuts for butter.”

Peanut plant from Artemas Ward's The Grocer’s Encyclopedia, p. 459 (c1911).

Vegetarian cooks extolled the use of this new butter substitute, and cookbooks such as E.G. Fulton’s Vegetarian Cook Book: Substitutes for Flesh Foods  c.1904, 1910  included peanut butter in many recipes. In addition, non-vegetarians took a liking to peanut butter and substituted it for dairy butter on beef sandwiches, fish sandwiches and other types of sandwiches. Around the turn of the century, at the same time George Washington Carver reported his findings on peanuts, the Atlantic Peanut Refinery in Philadelphia, PA introduced their peanut butter made with roasted nuts instead of boiled.  Their “nut butter” was called peanut butter, the name that is primarily used today. 

Unlike today, the peanut butter sandwich was considered a savory delicacy, was often expensive, and was served in tea rooms and at fancy affairs. You can find recipes for peanut butter and cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and lettuce rolls, and peanut butter spiced with paprika and Worcestershire sauce.  One of the first references to the traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be found in Julia Davis Chandler’s article on Peanuts and Pralines in Boston Cooking School of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics, v. 6, November 1901: p. 188.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich. Renee Comet (photographer), National Cancer Institute.

As the peanut butter industry grew, peanut butter became a sweeter, creamier product and became more affordable for the common man.  But the real boost to the PB&J came in the 1920s when Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented a safe way to slice bread.  Thus the ability to make this easy sandwich was perfected and children began making their own. PB&J sandwiches became a staple for American households and children’s lunchboxes; Peanut butter and jelly went to war as part of soldier’s rations; and Boy Scouts were taught how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  We often say “as American as apple pie” we could say “as American as a peanut butter and jelly.” 

For more information about the history of the peanut see:  


  1. I wish I had a nickel for every PBJ I have eaten…..I’d be a millionaire!

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