The History of Crisco, or What I Learned at Berkeley


Michele Kerr

Michele Kerr lives in California, for her sins.

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18 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    There are times that the history of a long lived business tells the American story better than the political history.

    Great post, thank you!Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Dude, this was awesome.

    (And McDonald’s getting rid of beef fat for their fries was a bad thing. I suppose that I can understand arguing it as a matter of taste… but it was argued as a matter of morality and that is absolutely incomprehensible to me.)Report

  3. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    Very interesting piece.

    Business history is fascinating. We should teach it more in school. Without a test. Just for fun. Studying business is a wonderful means of making our country’s history real.

    I would put it that cultural history, of which business history is a part, is fascinating. Traditional history is wars and kings. This certainly is a legitimate field of study, but far from all there is. I believe that the point of studying history is to figure out how we got here from there. This is interesting for its own sake, but it also helps us understand where we are now, potentially informing our current decisions. Wars and kings is part of this, but where we are now is a cultural question. Hence the study of cultural history.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      There’s also the aspect of technological history. When you think about how bad trans-fats are, you might wonder why anyone thought they were a good idea to begin with. History like this grants insight into both the, “We didn’t know any better at the time” and the “This was the problem someone was attempting to solve”. It helps when later we do know better, and you can ask, “do we have a better solution to the problem, now that we know the original solution has negative consequences we were unaware of, and if there is a better solution, why isn’t it in play?”. Then you can see if it’s time to start warming up a class action suit.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        you might wonder why anyone thought they were a good idea to begin with.

        They’re not animal-based fats.

        They’re *PLANT*-based fats.

        That makes them healthier.


        • Avatar bookdragon says:

          Also makes it parve, which remains a selling point for some folks. 😉Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            This causes heart attacks… but it’s kosher.

            I can’t tell if this is my Southern Babtist or my old college pomo rising but I can’t help but think that the laws could stand to be updated when new information is received.Report

  4. Avatar atomickristin says:

    Such a good article! I really enjoyed it. Thanks so much!

    Crisco has taken a lot of heat over the past several years but I’ll say this – when you’re poor and you’re out of butter and it’s several days till payday…and there, in the back of the cupboard is that bucket of Crisco and you can make something that will get you through for a couple days…

    Even though it’s not healthy it’s definitely handy.Report

  5. Avatar bookdragon says:

    I have a friend from MIT who specializes in history of technology and has written books about the histories of various companies and the inventions that created and sustained them. Ultimately, I decided I’d rather be part of creating new tech than tracing its history and impact, but the area still fascinates me.

    So, this was a great article for that. However, I am puzzled as to how/why this would lead to conclude you were “done with technology”. One successful product, developed by chance, was later found to be an unhealthy type of fat. But the product is still out there and successful after various changes in formulation, and there are numerous spin offs. I would think that if anything P&G’s example of long term commitment to continuous improvement and innovation would be an inspiration to stay in the field.Report

  6. Avatar George Turner says:

    As an aside, what Cincinnati developed in the early 1800’s was the “disassembly line”, which was the direct precursor to the later assembly line method. The region produced enormous amounts of cheap corn (which wasn’t profitable to ship to eastern markets), so they fed it to massive numbers of hogs. But shipping live hogs down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers on flatboats, to be transferred to ships bound for the east coast, wasn’t profitable either. But pork products could be shipped profitably, so the problem was how to best turn massive numbers of pigs into packaged pork. Having a butcher cut up a single hog in the long-accepted and conventional way wasn’t efficient, nor was having workers move from pig to pig, so they rigged up overhead chains to keep the carcasses in motion, with each worker making one or two cuts and placing a particular pig part into a pile. That was extremely efficient (and is still the method we use today.

    As a side-effect of the business, massive amounts of minor pig parts piled up. Normally butchers threw those into the trash. A couple of hooves or joints are useless. But mountains of them put minds to work trying to find a use, whether glue, cosmetics, lubricants, or soap.

    As Chicago became a major meat packing center, the trend accelerated.


    • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

      Worth noting that while “Porkopolis” was indeed a genuine nickname, it seems (at least by the 1880s) not to have been considered complimentary. I see “Porkopolis” and “Porkopolitans” used in baseball reportage, but not in Cincinnati papers, and not when expressing admiration.Report

  7. Avatar Michele Kerr says:

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone!


    I am puzzled as to how/why this would lead to conclude you were “done with technology”.

    What I learned from Berkeley was that I was done with tech AND Crisco. Not because of Crisco.

    Actually, I learned a bit more. But all the stuff that interested me was policy and process stuff, for which there is zero career unless you want to become an academic. I was too old–plus, while Berkeley didn’t try to get rid of me, I wasn’t terribly popular. I was often the damper on many technology miracle tales, mentioning how it worked in real life.


    • Avatar bookdragon says:

      Thanks. I must have misread.

      Policy and process is what interested you, eh? Pity you didn’t go to UofM, because in automotive (at least in the late 80s through mid-90s) the joke among engineers was that no one cared if you could design things. If you wanted to get ahead, you had to be working on ‘process’. And putting a damper on ideas because there was risk? Heck, they’d make you management.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        I was still hearing that and I was class of 2000.Report

        • Avatar bookdragon says:

          We gave up and moved on in ’97, but it was certainly the case then and I’m not surprised it continued right up until the industry crashed. In fact, since nearly everyone we knew back in Detroit has left, for all I know the Big 3 have gone right back to it.Report

  8. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Crisco is a unique product because Proctor and Gamble took the unusual step of aiming it at American Jews because it was kosher. It was probably the first example of targeting a specific demographic rather than a general market for a mass market item.Report

  9. Avatar North says:

    This was a great read! Well done!Report