The Story of Crisco

Lard Ad from 1916.

Lard Ad from 1916.

In the early 1900’s, there was a tin pail of lard in nearly every kitchen in America.  Lard was the universal shortening.

The demise of lard began in 1906, when Upton Sinclair published his book, The Jungle, which exposed the gruesome reality of the Chicago meat-packing plants.  Sinclair claimed that workers would sometimes fall into the boiling vats of lard and became part of the product.

The Jungle was a work of fiction, and President Teddy Roosevelt called Sinclair a “crackpot” who was “hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful.”  Nevertheless, Sinclair set the stage for a bold new competitor to lard.

Around this time, William Proctor and James Gamble realized that the rise of electric lighting was about to put their candle-making company out of business.  But Proctor and Gamble made a key scientific breakthrough:  they discovered that hydrogenating the process to make their cottonseed oil candles would turn the candles into a white, lard-like substance.  They called this invention Crisco vegetable shortening (the vegetable was cotton).

Proctor and Gamble launched Crisco in one of the brilliant marketing campaigns of the 20th Century.  P&G positioned Crisco as a new type of food, clean and pure, a product of science, healthier and safer than lard.

Crisco, The Story of CriscoIn 1912, P&G released a beautifully-written and gorgeously-illustrated cookbook with hundreds of recipes using Crisco.  This cookbook, The Story of Crisco, was printed in numerous languages to target niche ethnic markets.  Jewish homemakers in particular were early adopters of Crisco as a kosher product.

P&G gave away the cookbook with their product and mailed it all over America, which was a very big deal at the time.  The Story of Crisco was treasured by early 20th Century homemakers and stands to this day as a monument to food marketing genius.

P&G paid celebrity chefs to lead cooking classes featuring Crisco to establish the credibility of the brand.  The company claimed in advertising that Crisco would instill good moral character in children.  They paid scientists to produce research that supported their health claims.  Crisco hammered away at the health theme for decades.

Crisco was a pioneer of print media during WWI, radio in the 1920’s, and television in the 1930’s.  The dual marketing strategy was to promote the purity of Crisco while subtly undermining lard.

The lard industry, controlled by a consortium of good old boys, mistakenly believed they held an eternal monopoly on shortening.  Lard industry leaders failed to recognize the threat from Crisco in time, or to successfully defend and promote their product.  Lard was demonized to the extent that even today the word lard itself invites disgust.  Eventually, Crisco completely replaced lard in the kitchens of America.

Crisco’s product health claims were seriously challenged in the 1990’s when scientists revealed the truth about trans fats.  Despite numerous product reformulations, Proctor and Gamble divested itself from the Crisco brand in 2001.

The Crisco campaign of the 20th Century was enormously effective in shaping attitudes and beliefs among consumers.  Lard, a wholesome product that had been loved by Americans for centuries, was utterly destroyed in the marketing arena by an imitation food that was created in a lab and manufactured from cotton.

Modern food companies are even more sophisticated and more effective in their food marketing messages.  We are bombarded constantly with these highly compelling messages.

As a consumer, it can be difficult to know what to believe, to know the real story behind the advertising.  But the closer we eat to home, to local farms, and to our own backyard gardens, the easier it is to know the truth about our food.

(I found the following vintage advertisements for lard on the site   It is no wonder lard lost the advertising war!)

Lard, a happy family (newsblaze)

All You Need is a (LARGE) Spoonful!

All You Need is a (LARGE) Spoonful!


7 responses

  1. Another great article, Justin. I enjoy and look forward to your posts and the interesting way you bring the past to the present.

  2. Recently, there was a flurry of articles about the movement to ban all transfats. Since I’m a Crisco user, I wondered if it would be among the products removed from shelves if the legislation ever passed. In fact, Crisco has been reformulated and bears the “O Transfat” label on the can I have. The trick is that it’s “O Transfats per serving.

    Still, it seems Crisco will be around for a while. I’m really glad. I buy perhaps one can per year, for pie crust. That’s the only thing I use it for, but I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

    My “Come and Take It!” flag would be emblazoned not with a cannon, but with a can of Crisco!

    Great post, and a really interesting history. I was thinking back to grade school. It’s a fact that one of the greatest insults we could hurl would be to call someone a “lard-butt”.

    • I think your viewpoint is shared by a lot of people. If they tried to outlaw Crisco and bring back lard for cooking, there might be a riot in the streets. And that that shows how well Crisco marketers have done their job. It is interesting, as you note, that Crisco still contains trans fats, even after all the product reformulations, but they are able to say “zero trans fats” through a trick of labeling.

      These days, you would be hard pressed to convince anyone that lard is healthier than Crisco. However, for all those decades that Crisco was made from cottonseed oil, even beyond the trans fats, Crisco was full of the chemical pesticides and fertilizers sprayed on cotton. Cotton got a very heavy dose of chemicals. Moreover, cotton was sprayed with a chemical defoliant just before harvesting, and that defoliant was an extremely harsh toxin. The residue of this chemical cocktail was in every container of Crisco back then, on top of all the trans fats. But food companies have never had to label for chemical residue.

      I think it would be impossible to say that, especially during the ’70’s and 80’s, Crisco was healthier than home-rendered lard from pastured porkers. For this article, I was thinking more at the history of Crisco, and how good their marketing was.

      Thank you so much for your comment! I am so interested to know what you think about this, and especially about your Come and Take It flag! I think our Come and Take It flag would have a big laying hen on it! Have a wonderful day!

  3. Good Morning Justin,

    My wife and I were just married this past February and recently moved to the coastal bend area from Austin to start our lives together-living as natural as possible. I listen to your radio show regularly, and have even had a few “driveway” moments where I had to stay tuned in-even though I had arrived home. We also subscribe to your blog.

    Now to my question: We are wanting to know if you have a recommendation on home pest control. I realize that is not your area of expertise, but we have grown to trust your recommendations/opinion.

    We are located in Bee County just outside the city of Beeville. We see a lot of scorpions, spiders-standard bugs, and we have poultry, dogs and cats who help keep the unwanted bugs away from the inside of the house, but we still get a few surprises occasionally. Any advice/recommendations are greatly appreciated!

    Thanks for your time!

    Best Regards,

    Nick Ottensman

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Hello Nick! Congratulations to you and your wife on your marriage and your move! Thank you so much for your wonderful comment. I have had my own drive-way moments over the years, and I can’t tell you what it means to me to know that I helped create a drive-way moment for you. Thank you.

      Our house is in the middle of our “pioneer” farm. We have tastefully cleared much of it, but it is still pretty wild out here, and our house is surrounded with grass, trees, brush, and other foliage. We have every kind of bug known to South Texas living around (and sometimes inside of) our house.

      I think the easiest, most effective, and most cost-efficient way to keep down the population of bad bugs around your house is to encourage beneficial predators. Lizards, frogs, and toads are great to have close to the house. You can encourage them by planting native shrubs and flowers densely around the base of your house, with plenty of native leaf mulch, and leave a few shallow pans of water that the toads can climb in and out of to drink.

      The foliage and leaf mulch provides a sanctuary for the beneficial predators. A single toad can eat over 10,000 bugs during a summer, and some frogs can eat up to 1,000 bugs in one day. Also, encourage your mud daubers. Mud daubers only eat spiders, and there is no chemical or poison as effective as mud daubers in keeping down the spider population. If you want to wash their nests off the side of the house, wait until the holes open at the top, which means the babies have flown out. Mud daubers never reuse old nests. A wasp nest somewhere in the vicinity of your house is also great to keep down bad bugs, but wasps can be a pest as well.

      One thing that may help is to re-calibrate your state of mind regarding what is an acceptable level of bug problem. The bugs are pretty bad in South Texas, and are hard to get used to. Despite our best efforts, we still get few bugs in our house, and even a scorpion every now and again. However, even if we gave our house a severe chemical treatment, we would still eventually get some bugs. And the bugs would come back worse, because all our beneficial predators would be killed also.

      I think this would be a great topic for a future segment. Thank you so much for your wonderful comment! I am wishing you and your wife the very best! Justin

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