The Campbell Soup Company (NYSE: CPB) will celebrate its 150th anniversary of being in business in 2019. Founded in 1869 as the Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company in Camden, New Jersey by fruit merchant Joseph Campbell and icebox maker Abraham Anderson, it wasn't until 1897 that the company developed and began selling the condensed soups that would come to define the company's brand in the United States and the world.
What made Campbell's soups successful was the condensing process that John T. Dorrance developed in the late 1890s, which removed water from soup without removing flavor, where home cooks could simply add water to the company's new concentrated soup product and then heat it to be served. That innovation allowed Campbell's to use much smaller cans for their soup, which also made their soup more affordable to produce and ship, not to mention for consumers to buy. Previously, the company's uncondensed soups had cost consumers 30 cents for a large can, where its new condensed soup products, which were capable of making an equivalent amount of soup, could be sold profitably for just 10 cents a can.
In 1898, Campbell's introduced the red and white labels that became the company's trademark for its line of condensed soups, which included Tomato, Consommé, Vegetable, Chicken, and Oxtail. Of these first five soups, Tomato became the company's most iconic product, where in 2010, Andy Warhol's painting of a single can of Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup sold at auction for over $9 million.
Today, Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup is the company's second-biggest seller, with the company's ubiquitous Chicken Noodle soup having claimed the top spot in the years since its introduction in 1934, when it was originally rolled out as "Chicken with Noodle" soup. [On a side note, it became definitively named "Chicken Noodle" when famous radio performer Freeman Gosden flubbed the company's chosen name for the product, calling it "Chicken Noodle" on air. The company quickly adopted "Chicken Noodle" as the name of its newest soup, and the rest, as they say, is history.]
Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup is unique among American foods because of how little it has seemed to change over the 12 decades that it has been produced. Which is pretty amazing, considering that every single aspect of the product has changed over its 120 year history. Everything from the tomatoes, the way its made, the way its shipped, the cans, and even the labels have been changed incrementally over the years. But by far, the most noticeable change of all for American consumers has been its price.
The following chart show how the price of the iconic Number 1 "picnic" size can of Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup has changed since it first started to be sold in American grocery stores in January 1898, all the way through December 2018. The chart shows the history of the prices at which we've documented that American consumers have purchased it on a linear price scale, but if you would rather see it on a logarithmic price scale, please see this version of the chart.
Today, the average sale price that Americans pay for a 10.75 ounce can of Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup is about 8 times the cost of what they paid for its 1898 equivalent. If we do the inflation math over that 120 year period, it would seem the price has increased at an average annual rate of roughly 1.7%.
But that price hasn't risen steadily as you might expect. For the first 75 years of its history, the average price that Americans paid for a single can was mostly flat, costing within a few cents of the same 10 cents per can price that American consumers first paid for a can of Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup at the end of the 19th Century. In the last 45 years however, the cost of a single can has jumped eight-fold, which works out to be an average annual rate of increase of 4.7% during these last four and a half decades.
Much Ado About Tomato Soup
What can a single consumer food product say about life in America over the last twelve decades? Quite a lot actually, where we've really only scratched the surface....
- The Price of Campbell's Tomato Soup Since 1897 - We've come a long way since we first began researching and presenting the price of Campbell's Tomato Soup back in 2015!
- The Tomato Soup Standard - Which makes more sense to use for money - gold or cans of tomato soup?
- The First Ad Ever for Campbell's Condensed Soups? - A local grocer in Alexandria, Virginia advertised for a special demonstration in their store for how to prepare a "New Concentrated Soup" costing 10 cents a can on 12 January 1898. The ad we found doesn't mention Campbell's by name, but the circumstantial evidence that it was is pretty strong.
- War and Soup - Campbell's may have won an arms race within America's food industry for feeding American troops during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
- Early Advertising Milestones for Campbell's Condensed Soups - We track down the oldest ad we could find that mentions Campbell's condensed soups by name, their first super-discount sale, the first ad to feature an image of a can of Campbell's condensed soup, and the first announcement that Campbell's condensed soups would soon be sold at a highly successful regional grocer called A&P....
- Updated: The Price of Campbell's Tomato Soup Since 1897 - Filling in missing information and updating our price database through December 2015.
- Of Soup and Silver and the Zombie Apocalypse - Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup cost just a dime when it was introduced, at a time when dimes in the United States were made out of silver. We do the math to figure out how many ounces of silver it would take to buy a can of soup throughout its history.
- Soup and Recession - we examine how recessions have affected the price of Campbell's Tomato Soup.
- Soup and Steel Tariffs - In 2018, President Trump's Commerce Secretary used a can of Campbell's Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup as a prop in his pitch to sell the administration's plans to impose tariffs on Chinese-produced steel. We calculate what those tariffs could do to the price of a can of the company's soup!
- Tomato Soup, Oil and Inflation - We looked at the history of oil and soup prices after World War 2, and show why Campbell's Tomato Soup is no longer the consumer bargain it used to be.
- Celebrating 150 Years of the Campbell's Soup Company - We present 120 years worth of price data for Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup to celebrate the company's sesquicentennial.
Image Credit: Paweł Czerwiński