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What is Nabisco?

By A. B. Kelsey
Updated May 16, 2024
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Nabisco's history dates back more than 200 years and is full of many notable milestones and innovations. The Nabisco company actually began in 1792 when Pearson and Sons Bakery opened and specialized in “pilot bread,” a strong, durable biscuit sailors could take with them on extended sea voyages. Then in 1801, the Josiah Bent Bakery began selling “crackers,” named for the crunchy sound the snacks made when someone bit into them.

In 1889, businessman William Moore decided he could improve the efficiency and quality of these bakeries, so he united Pearson, Bent, and six others and merged them into the larger New York Biscuit Company. A year later, Adolphus Green decided to acquire forty bakeries in the midwest to form the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company.

In 1898, Green and Moore decided to combine their two companies along with the United States Baking Company to create the National Biscuit Company, a merger that resulted in 114 bakeries across the United States. Adolphus Green, a Chicago businessman and lawyer, was named president of this new company. Under Green’s direction, the National Biscuit Company quickly became the number one manufacturer and marketer of cookies in the United States.

At the beginning of his presidency, Green decided the National Biscuit Company, often shortened to NBC, needed a new idea that grabbed the public’s attention. He got it when his employees created a new cracker that was flakier and lighter than any of their competitors’ versions. The UNEEDA biscuit looked promising, but Green had to find a way to make sure it got to customers all fresh and tasty. So while other companies were selling crackers in bulk out of barrels, the National Biscuit Company created the Inner-Seal Package, an ingenious system of inter-folded layers of wax paper and cardboard.

Green decided that new packaging wasn’t enough, however. He decided to hire the Philadelphia advertising agency N.W. Ayer and Son to promote the product. The agency created the illustration of a wholesome, little boy clutching a box of UNEEDA Biscuits. The lad was wearing a raincoat and rainboots to demonstrate the moisture-proof nature of the package. The UNEEDA Boy was one of the first trademarks and helped UNEEDA to become one of the first mass-marketed products.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Nabisco focused on the expansion of its line of cookies. In 1902, Nabisco created the famous Barnum's Animal Crackers. Ten years later, Nabisco introduced America to Lorna Doones and Oreos, the latter quickly becoming the world’s best-selling cookie.

When Green passed away in 1917, the new president, Roy E. Tomilson, was faced with manufacturing food items during World War I. The rationing of sugar and wheat flour meant cookies weren’t as sweet as they used to be and the crackers had to be made with corn meal and rye. Advertisements depicted Uncle Sam holding the NBC products with the patriotic caption of “made as he says.”

In the 1920s, NBC continued to prosper, building numerous new bakeries, acquiring new companies, and expanding its product line to include breakfast cereal, ice cream cones, and pretzels. When the Depression hit, company growth slowed, but Nabisco still managed to market their new dog biscuits and introduce Ritz Crackers as the new prestige item.

In 1941, the word “Nabisco” replaced the letters "NBC" in the official trademark. The change was undoubtedly made to reduce confusion with the recently established National Broadcasting Company, which was also popularly referred to as NBC.

During World War II, Nabisco had to deal once again with the rationing of flour, sugar, butter, and oil. They managed to salvage production by altering and substituting ingredients. Nabisco was also commissioned to develop an emergency field ration for pilots and paratroopers and even supplied the military’s canine corps with dog biscuits. After World War II, Nabisco pioneered the use of railroad cars to transport bulk raw materials.

The 1950s marked the beginning of overseas expansion for Nabisco, which established partnerships with bakeries in Mexico and Venezuela. By the time the 1960s drew to a close, Nabisco was the leading manufacturer of crackers and cookies in the United States, Latin America, Canada, France, and Scandinavia. During the 1970s, Nabisco continued its growth. Sales reached the $1 billion US Dollars (USD) mark in 1971, and the $2 billion USD mark only five years later. In 1970, the company entered Asia by collaborating with a Japanese bakery.

In the 1980s, America’s growing obsession with health and body issues caused Nabisco some concern. The company decided to market low salt versions of their popular crackers and introduced “healthy snacking” with their SnackWells line. In 1985, Nabisco was acquired by R. J. Reynolds in one of the largest takeovers in business history.

In 1993, Kraft General Foods acquired the company’s ready-to-eat cereals, and in 2000, Philip Morris Companies, Inc. merged Nabisco with Kraft Foods, Inc. Despite these mergers, favorites like Oreo Cookies, Fig Newton’s, Barnum’s Animal Crackers, Honey Maid Grahams, Ritz crackers, Saltines and Wheat Thins are still some of the most popular snack staples in America.

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Discussion Comments

By anon218773 — On Sep 30, 2011

Why can't you buy regular Nabisco saltine crackers with regular salt and not sea salt.

By anon38313 — On Jul 25, 2009

I am looking for Nabisco "Fruitanas" which are square, thin biscuit cookies filled with raisins (or sultanas) etc. Are they still being made and distributed? If so, where?

By anon36816 — On Jul 15, 2009

Today I bought a snack size bag of animal crackers. I remember them as a crisp, neat cookie shaped like an animal. The ones I got today were a mess, broken cookies baked together, grainy, just awful. They ended up in my trash can and I'll never buy their products again as the wheat thins I also bought were not as thin as before or crispy and tasty. Their products have gone down to awful. V.F.

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