Newburyport – the Birth of NABISCO (Sort of)

Oreo Cookie with a Nabisco Trademark on itOne of the things about Americans is the distinctive difference between them and the mother country, England.     Americans look at the English instinctively and shake their heads; and the English look at Americans and, in turn, shake their heads.      That was one of the great strengths of Winston Churchill.     His father was English and his mother was American – and he knew how to reach over the pond and actually get a positive response.     That affinity helped win the war.

But at least in New England, you can see traces of old England; by the early Georgian architecture and the funny way we pronounce many cities and places in this region.     Much of our accents have some origin in our mother country.

Fresh from the Revolutionary War, that distinctiveness is clearly played out in NABISCO which stands for the National Biscuit Company.     In England, a biscuit is a cookie and sometimes the word is attributed to crackers.     In colonial times, early American usage was identical.

In 1792, Pearson & Sons opened up a bakery in the building that is next to the Custom House.    They initially like many others in Newburyport produced HardTack, which before them was really a cottage industry with many homes filling the stores of the sailing ships going out to sea.     John Pearson introduced a more reliable product and his bakery began to obtain a reputation for consistency and quality.

Pilot Bread and BoxBut what really helped him was his invention of Pilot Bread which later became, under the NABISCO brand, Crown Pilot Cracker.       Hard Tack was long lasting but it literally could break your teeth if not softened.       Pearson created Pilot Bread which was more palatable and could also survive long sea voyages.    He introduced a higher level of sugar and shortening content to make it more easy to consume and even had two varieties: flaky pilot bread and what is termed a Barge Biscuit.     New Englanders used the product in chowders and it gained wide-spread acceptance as a basic tradition.       So much so, that when Nabisco discontinued it in 1996, a small uprising occurred from Maine to Connecticut; and the company hastily brought it back into production in 1997.       After a continuing drop in sales, it was finally discontinued in the first quarter of 2008.

NABISCO proudly traces it’s origins to its very first popular product which had wide acceptance throughout the Maritime Provinces.          It took two more companies to help them become a nationwide brand though.

In 1801, Josiah Bent at his bakery in Milton, Massachusetts first coined the term, ‘crackers’ for a crunchy biscuit he invented.        This company is still in business today.       Later in 1889, William Moore bought up Pearsons & Sons, Josiah Bent’s and six other bakeries and called it the New York Biscuit Company.     The very next year, Adolphus Green creates the American Biscuit & Manufacturing Company by buying up forty bakeries.       Both of these men, along with John G. Zeller who owned Richmond Steam Bakery merged and formerly called themselves the National Biscuit Company or Nabisco in 1898 in East Hanover, New Jersey.     The very first president was Mr. Green.

Key to the founding of Nabisco was Pittsburgh baking mogul Sylvester S. Marvin. Marvin arrived in Pittsburgh in 1863 and established himself in the cracker business, founding S. S. Marvin Co. Its products included crackers, cakes and breads. Marvin was called the Edison of manufacturing for his innovations in the bakery business. By 1888 it was the largest in the US, and the centerpiece of the National Biscuit Company. Marvin was also a member of the elite South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club of Johnstown Flood fame.

What we have come to know them by as Nabisco was actually a slow development.     They started selling in 1901 a sugar wafer called Nabisco, but after years of the name being assigned to corporate by customers nationwide; the company followed suit and officially became Nabisco as recently as 1971!

if you can keep up with all these mergers, Philip Morris Company acquired Nabisco in 2000, merged it with Kraft Foods, and then split the Nabisco side into a separate company called Mondelez International LLC.       Fortunately for all of us, all we can see is the Nabisco name brand and the well-known symbol in the upper right corner.

Nabisco’s trademark, a diagonal ellipse with a series of antenna-like lines protruding fromNabisco Logo the top (Orb and Web), forms the base of its logo and can be seen imprinted on Oreo wafers in addition to Nabisco product boxes and literature. It has been claimed in company promotional material to be an early European symbol for quality. It may be derived from a medieval Italian printer’s mark that represented “the triumph of the moral and good over the evil and worldly, or to represent the act of winnowing, separating grain from chaff.

Today, Nabisco has gone totally global but the company points proudly back to Newburyport, Massachusetts as the point of origin.        Pearson's Bakery former site where Hardtack and Pilot Bread was madeWe can, though there exists (again) no plaque to commemorate it, walk to the building that lies directly to the west of the Custom House Maritime Museum, which is now the home of Urban Elements.      It was in this building that the Pilot Bread was manufactured and began the long corporate road to Nabisco.

I hope this historical outline will make clear the important position that our city held in the formation of Nabisco; and provide the necessary authority to our docents, present and future; when they proclaim:

Here lies the birthplace of Nabisco!

-P. Preservationist

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One Response to Newburyport – the Birth of NABISCO (Sort of)

  1. Steve Crosby says:

    About 10 years ago, I did some carpentry work on the house next to City Hall in Newburyport. During the course of the job, I had to go into the basement, where there were stacks and stacks of blank National Biscuit Company receipts, next to the base of a big old chimney. The house is from the 1800’s and was thought to have a bakery in it at one time. Just thought I’d share that recollection.

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