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April 4, 2000

A public radio commentary

Upon marriage I received my wife's dowry: a can of Spam. The blue, rectangular tin has been with her for fifteen years. A friend gave it to her as a reminder of a Monty Python skit: {Spam1:} "What you got? Spam, eggs, Spam, Spam, bacon and Spam. Have you got anything without Spam? Well, the Spam, eggs, sausage and Spam. That hasn't got much Spam in it. I don't want any Spam." Spam was the brainchild, in 1937, of Jay Hormel. It began ten years earlier with an idea crazy for its time: Canned Ham.

In 1926 all meat products perished quickly, this suggested to Jay Hormel that he could make a fortune if he packaged meat to last forever. For three years Jay Hormel and his workers tried to make these crazy canned hams, but they couldn't seal the tin cans well enough. As his workers struggled Jay Hormel went abroad for the summer. In Germany he learned of Paul Joern, whose meat packing business had gone belly up, but who owed international patents on canning meat. Hormel asked Joern to come to Minnesota; he jumped at the chance to leave his business troubles.

Joern showed Hormel a secret way to solder the can shut to make what became "Hormel flavor-sealed ham." Where does Spam come into all this?

Well, Jay Hormel's crazy canned hams sold well - mostly because of a half million dollar advertising campaign - but within ten years every meat processor made canned hams, and Hormel began loosing market share. He realized that he needed a brand name he could copyright. He also noticed that his company wasted a great deal of meat by tossing out the shoulders of the hogs. So Jay Hormel devised a product using the shoulder - in fact the "mystery" of what is spam isn't very interesting, its meat from the shoulder, with some ham, salt, sugar, nitrates and water. Hormel couldn't call this "ham" because the government restricted "ham" to be a hog's rear-quarters.

To name his new product he held a party where he gave guests a drink for each name they offered. He recalls that "along about the fourth or fifth drink they began showing some imagination" and someone tossed out "spam." With that name Jay Hormel began an immense advertising campaign, even imploring his stockholders to have a "high style" ... "breakfast of Spam and eggs, [or] eat a Spamwich at noon ...." Today the word "spam" brings forth laughter, but it was - and is - a real success story: Five billion cans of Spam have been eaten since 1936.

To celebrate, the Hormel Company has built a Spam museum in Minnesota where you can see Spam through the ages, or eat Spam in the cafeteria, or buy a Spam hat, t-shirt, watch, golf ball, glassware, water bottle, mug .... {fade in Spam2: Monty Python's SPAM chorus}

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises