Mr. Peanut Page 4
Today, Planters Peanuts is part of Altria's Kraft Food division, a multibillion-dollar enterprise based in Chicago. Its promotional products, including a comic strip, Broadway playbill, and automobile, are now prized memorabilia. Mr. Peanut remains the most recognized trademark among all snack foods. And it all can be credited to Amedeo Obici, an Italian immigrant who realized his American Dream in Wilkes-Barre at the turn of the century.
William C. Kashatus, Paoli, is a regular contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage.
And it all began with a peanut.
Because of its association with slaves of African descent in the South, the peanut is considered by many Americans to be an import from Africa. Although the peanut - known as goober or goober pea below the Mason- Dixon Line - did cross the Atlantic Ocean with the slaves, it's actually native to South America. Early Spanish explorers discovered South American Indians eating cacohuate ("earth chocolate").
The peanut was gradually transplanted to West Africa as a food and fodder crop. Slave traders realized peanuts could provide inexpensive but nutritionally sound food for Africans being transported to North America aboard slave ships. Peanuts were eventually sown in Virginia for livestock, and ultimately became a staple.
The peanut owes its fame to African American scientist, botanist, educator, and inventor George Washington Carver (1864–1943). In the early twentieth century, Carver proved the peanut (sometimes called groundnut and earthnut) could free the South from its dependence on cotton and restore nitrogen to soil which had been depleted by the cultivation of cotton. In the 1890s, when Carver initiated his research, the peanut was not recognized as a crop, but within fifty years, by 1940, it ranked as one of the country's six leading crops and the largest crop, after cotton, in the southern states.
The son of a slave, Carver successfully demonstrated the ecological and environmental benefits of peanut cultivation and later found new uses for the overabundant foodstuff. He discovered hundreds of derivatives - both edible and inedible - of the peanut, such as cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, dye, plastics, soap, wood stains, linoleum, cosmetics, and medicinal oils. He did not, however, develop peanut butter. Claims for inventing peanut butter were made by Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Montreal, Canada, in 1884, J. H. Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1897, and Ambrose Straub, a physician in St. Louis, Missouri, who patented a peanut butter machine in 1903. The Aztec Indians of South America were known to have mashed peanuts into a paste, or butter, several hundred years earlier.