Editor's note: This is the third in a month-long series on Jersey Firsts, which spotlights innovators who have changed the way we eat and drink with their inventions and groundbreaking businesses.
One of New Jersey’s humblest yet most influential inventions is turning 125 this August.
Condensed soup, first made by Campbell Soup Co., which is headquartered in Camden, is now a common pantry staple. But in 1897, a can of condensed beefsteak tomato soup was a money-saving breakthrough.
The original Campbell’s soup, created in 1895, was 30 ounces and ready to serve (no water required). But by removing the water to make the soup “condensed,” the company was able to fit the same amount of servings (six) into a smaller 10¾-ounce can.
“The smaller can made shipping our soup much more affordable and lowered production cost which allowed us to drop the price from $0.30 to $0.10 a can,” said Scott Hearn, Campbell Soup Co.’s corporate archivist.
Hearn said when Campbell’s was founded in 1869, Camden was the ideal place to start a business. It had a thriving commercial center, close to Philadelphia, the Delaware River and the Camden and Amboy railroads which ran to Philly and New York City.
“Founders Joseph Campbell and Abraham Anderson were also natives of New Jersey, and Camden’s location gave our early business access to the farms of South Jersey and the shipping routes based out of Philadelphia,” said Hearn.
New Jersey farms were of the utmost importance to Campbell’s. One of the company’s original products was canned beefsteak tomatoes. Demand increased when they started making beefsteak tomato soup, which made it necessary for Campbell’s to have enough tomatoes to meet demand.
John T. Dorrance is credited with creating the process of condensing soup in 1897. Dorrance, a chemist educated at the University of Göttingen in Germany, was the nephew of Arthur Dorrance, the president of the Joseph Campbell Preserve Company (one of the early names of Campbell Soup Co.; the original was Anderson & Campbell).
“While initially reluctant to hire his nephew, Arthur eventually brought John aboard and he quickly went to work analyzing recipes and production costs,” said Hearn. “John became focused on one of our worst performing products, canned ready-to-serve beefsteak tomato soup.”
There were two major problems with the product, said Hearn. The flavor was bland and the cost to produce and ship the soup was high, considering it was in a 30-ounce can. Dorrance reworked the recipe to make it more flavorful and figured out how to remove the water from the soup.
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In the early 1900s, Hearn said, Campbell’s had experts experiment with new growing methods to make sure they had a reliable and plentiful crop of Jersey tomatoes.
Dorrance’s house in Cinnaminson also served as Campbell’s' early agricultural research farm where farmers learned how to grow the beefsteak tomatoes.
While Dorrance mastered the technique in 1897, it wasn’t until 1898 that the iconic red and white packaging was designed — a look that would go on to inspire pop artist Andy Warhol and become synonymous with the Campbell's brand.
The original orange and black labeling was replaced when the company’s treasurer Herberton Williams went to a Cornell football game. The team’s red and white uniform inspired him.
Now, those red and white cans can be seen en-masse in nearly every grocery store in the country. Condensed soup remains an affordable meal with a long shelf life.
Many families depend on it for a cheap lunch or dinner in a pinch. On a rainy day, what’s more satisfying than a grilled cheese and tomato soup?
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ tomatoes were key to Campbell's first can of condensed soup