A Brief History Of Spam From Margaret Thatcher to Your Mailbox via Monty Python

Spam is a four-letter word we all love to hate. Ever wondered where it came from, though? 

Of course you haven’t. The only response our brains are hardwired to produce at the sight or sound of the word ‘spam’ is to hit the delete button.

Not today though. Today we take a quick, fascinating trip through history that begins with a German immigrant in America at the close of the 19th century, takes us through the smoke and dust of the Second World War, and features Monty Python, Margaret Thatcher, and a 500 billion dollar food processing empire.


Read on!

What is Spam?

The most common usage of spam today is to mean unwanted messages, emails, and phone calls. However, this usage of spam became popular the world over only with the advent of the internet. 

Until the 1970s, the only thing spam meant was canned pork shoulder that you ate when you had little time or money to cook anything else.

So what happened in the 1970s, you ask?

Monty Python happened.

Blimey, you say. That makes as much sense as a British accent.

Let’s go back a few years to make more sense of that little bit of knowledge.

In 1891, George Albert Hormel, the son of German immigrants to America founded Hormel Foods with a simple, but for its times revolutionary, idea in mind – meat could be packaged, stored for longer, and sold over longer distances by adding salt, spices, and few chemical preservatives and stuffing the entire cocktail thus concocted into a tin can.

George Hormel did not invent canned food – it had been around for at least half a century before Hormel went into business. But he certainly went after it with a vengeance and a lot of capital.

Hormel Foods became the first company in America to produce canned ham. By the 1930s, Hormel Foods was being featured in prestigious American magazines like Good Housekeeping, signaling the arrival of a major food processing giant.

Thus things stood until two historical events in the 1930s led to the birth of Spam – the Great Depression, and the start of the Second World War.

The Great Depression led to a crash in purchasing power of people. This forced Hormel to find a solution to a particularly vexing food processing problem – that of the low sales of pork shoulder. Of all the cuts of pork, the shoulder was usually the least in demand, as it was considered the most inferior cut. Hormel figured that canned and processed pork shoulder made a little more palatable in taste with the addition of spices would sell more as it would fit most peoples’ budget.

At about the same time, the Second World War broke out and the US  was faced with the uphill logistical task of feeding its vast army fighting a tenacious enemy in the trenches of Europe, the deserts of North Africa, the jungles of Burma, and the islands of the Pacific. Delivering fresh meat to an army spread out across such a wide terrain was next to impossible.

Enter George Hormel and his Hormel Foods. Hormel solved the problem of low sales of pork shoulder by mixing it with salt, water, potato starch, and a dash of motley spices to create a new recipe that was more palatable than just plain old pork shoulder. The result was cheap, affordable, and easy to eat canned pork.

Thus in 1937, Hormel unleashed upon an unsuspecting world this new line of canned pork that it gave the short and punchy name Spam. Why they chose that particular name is a side-story we’ll dig into in a while. For now, suffice it to say that the name stuck, and Hormel struck gold. 

Like many entrepreneurs of the era, Hormel had the advantage of showing up at the right place at the right time. Spam soon became a staple part of the American soldier’s diet abroad. 

By 1945, the US Army alone was buying upto 65% of Holmer Food’s output.

As the Second World War ended, bleeding Europe and its people dry, food shortages and food rationing became widespread. Holmer’s canned Spam stepped in to feed starving Europeans, soon spreading from American army barracks to dining tables across Europe. From the UK to Russia, in food rationing hit post-war Europe, American Spam became the foundation upon which the continent rebuilt itself from the ashes it had reduced itself to.

So important was Spam to Europe in the middle of the twentieth century that the Russian President Nikita Khrushchev remarked that without Spam, Russia would’ve been unable to feed its army, while Margaret Thatcher called it a “wartime delicacy”. Mrs. Thatcher in fact, would later recount how as a teengaer in war time England, opening a can of Spam was an act filled with excitement and anticipation for the taste of this newly arrived delicacy. 

In 1959, 22 years after beginning production, Hormel Foods rolled out the one billionth can of Spam.

Great, But How Did Spam Come to Be Known as SPAM?

As the post-war years of shortages and rationing gave way to the baby boomer age of abundance, Spam began to fall out of favor, and people’s dining tables pretty fast. 

Questions also began to be raised about its low nutritional content and high percentages of fat, salts, sodium and sugar.

In this time of the swinging sixties and sexy seventies, Spam, once the lifeline of armies and shattered nations, came to be a symbol of all things cheap, inferior, and ubiquitous. Teenagers no longer felt excitement and anticipation upon opening a can of Spam, as Mrs. Thatcher had done a few decades ago, but rather revulsion and boredom.

Spam was everywhere, and people were sick of it.

And then in 1970 came the iconic Monty Python episode titled “Spam”. 

How Monty Python Killed Spam and Invented Spam

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a popular TV show that aired in Britain in 1969. The show became a cultural phenomenon that had an impact way beyond its time and place. The popular programming language Python, for instance, was named after the show. 

“Spam” was its 45th episode that captured the dinner table zeitgeist of the times by talking about the one thing that was on everybody’s minds and menus but which no one was talking about – Spam.

The episode featured a couple who head to a local cafe for a quiet meal together, but are disappointed to find that every item listed on the menu is some form of Spam. As the waitress rattles off the Spam-filled menu, the word Spam is repeated endlessly, evoking a sense of despair and humor, symbolic of the ubiquity of Spam in real life.

“Egg Spam

Bacon and Spam

Cheese and Spam

Brandy and Spam

Sausage and Spam….”

And so on.

The scene then cuts to a group of Vikings who begin repeating the word “Spam” in a sing-song voice. As the episode ends and the end credits roll in, the last name of every member of the cast was replaced with the word Spam.

The whole episode, in short, was just an endless repetition of the word Spam.

The episode was an instant hit as it captured on camera a feeling, a collective mood, that was everywhere but had so far lacked articulate expression.

And this folks,  was the exact moment in the history of mankind that the word Spam began to be associated with things that are of inferior quality, ubiquitous, and hence unwanted.

As computers and the internet began to find their way into peoples’ lives beginning with the mid-70s, this meaning of Spam carried over to unwanted electronic messages. 

George Hormel had, in 30 short years, spammed the world with Spam and given birth to spam as we know it today.

The rest, as they say, is history.

What Does Spam Stand For?

Now, for the little question of the origins of the word Spam. Why exactly did Hormel Foods call its proprietary canned food Spam of all things?

Hormel itself tried to keep the origin of the name secret. But as the popularity of Spam spread, so did theories about its name.

The most commonly accepted explanation is that Spam is short for Spiced Ham. During the Second World War, Spam picked up a number of other expanded names, among them “Special Army Meat”.

It is unlikely that Holmer put a lot of thought into coming up with the name Spam. Hormel Foods in fact had a knack for coming up with names for their products that were casual, irreverent, and not too imaginative.  For instance, one of their popular offerings was a sauce called Not-So-Sloppy Sloppy Joe’s Sauce. The sauce was meant as an accompaniment to the Sloppy Joe sandwich, a ground beef sandwich popular in early 20th century America.  As you can guess, Hormel probably didn’t  hire a team of Don Draper type Mad Men copywriters at 200 dollars an hour to come up with THAT name. 

So spiced ham is likely the most common explanation for the name Spam.

Either way, the name was catchy, punchy, pithy, and it stuck.

Spam Today

While forgotten in Europe, Spam continues to be popular in the US. 3.8 cans of Spam are sold in America every second. By 2012, 8 Billion cans of Spam had been sold worldwide. Hormel Foods continues to thrive as a 130-year old food processing company, raking in over 500 billion dollars in annual revenue. 

The town of Austin, Minnesota, where Hormel Foods was founded in 1891 by George Hormel is home to a Spam Museum and holds annual Spam festivals. The town itself is known as Spam town. 

Spam has percolated deep into the cuisines of various cultures. For instance, a popular Hawaiin dish is called Spam Musubi that has grilled Spam between two blocks of rice, much like Japanese Omusubi or riceball dishes. Hawaii, in fact has one of the highest per capital consumptions of Spam in the world. 

So much history behind Spam. Think of all this the next time you click on that delete button and relegate something to your Spam folder. 

Photo by Hannes Johnson on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s