Heavy Metal Madness: Spam vs. spam

When I was growing up, we always seemed to have a can of the Hormel meat-product Spam® in the cupboard, though I’m not sure we ever ate any. Our can collection grew slightly in the early 1960s when most families in America put aside a few gallons of water, a first-aid kit, some powdered milk, and Spam® so they could survive the coming nuclear attacks. These stockpiles were mostly stored in basements, but living on the West coast (where basements are not as common), our make-believe bomb shelter was in a hallway that had no windows. So the Spam® cans sat in a linen closet. Every time I needed a towel, the cans were a subtle reminder that we would be among the lucky ones. We had enough food to last at least a week, which by all accounts would be plenty of time to get past the radiation effects of a nuclear bomb hitting Los Angeles. My father also had a gun so he could shoot less-prepared neighbors trying to steal our Spam®.

Spam® was first marketed in 1937. By 2001, Hormel had produced more than 6 billion cans and shipped them around the world. Hawaiians are the biggest consumers of Spam®, downing 6.7 million cans a year, or an average of 5.5 cans per resident per year.

Whether you actually eat it or simply store it for emergencies, Spam® has been a staple of American food larders since its introduction by Hormel in 1937. The Spam® logo and can are among the most successful package designs in history, and whether it was from tremendous insight, neglect, or chance, the Hormel Company managed to leave those things virtually intact for more than 60 years. That decision probably saved the brand from extinction, and when, in the e-mail age, the word "spam" took on an evil meaning, Hormel decided to stay the course and keep their brand front-and-center.

By 1941, when this ad ran, Spam® was becoming a staple for U.S. soldiers. By 1944, 90 percent of all Hormel canned goods were going to Uncle Sam for use as rations in World War II, resulting in the slaughter of 1.6 million pigs a year.

The Miracle Meat for Everyman
In 1891 George A. Hormel founded his meat-products company in Austin, Minnesota, specializing in pork processing. Being the man who introduced the world’s first canned ham, you can imagine the rapid success George enjoyed. By 1924 the company was slaughtering more than 1 million pigs a year and supplying people around the world with inexpensive canned meat products. One of Hormel’s early innovations was a distribution system of his own, which had salesman driving “Sausage Trucks” around the country delivering meat where needed.

By 1936, George Hormel had retired, and his son Jay was running the company. Always mindful of efficiency, Jay was looking for a way to use more of the pork “shoulder” meat that was not currently being consumed. (Why more people weren’t eating tasteless, boney pig shoulders is a mystery to me.) He came up with a way of grinding the meat to conceal the real texture and added other pork products and spices (salt seems to be the main ingredient) to give it flavor. Thus, Hormel Spiced Ham was born. It was sold in the shape of a loaf for easy sandwich slicing.

There was one small problem, however. The United States government agency that controlled meat products wouldn’t allow Hormel to refer to Spam® as “ham,” since it was not made from pork hindquarters. Because of this and the fact that other companies were coming out with similar canned meat products, Jay Hormel decided he needed a distinctive name for this new invention.

George Burns and Gracie Allen were the early spokescouple for Spam®, promoting it on their radio show. Around the same time, Hormel introduced Spammy the Pig as the official Spam® mascot. Hormel stuck to a consistent graphic look through many years of advertising, and used the distinctive Spam® typeface in almost all its promotions.

Jay Hormel used a New Year’s Eve party as an opportunity for naming the new luncheon meat. Hormel asked his party guests to “buy” their drinks by proposing a name for each cocktail they consumed. In addition, he offered a $100 prize to the person whose product name was chosen.

After three or four drinks, the brother of one of Hormel’s vice presidents, a New York radio actor named Kenneth Daigneau, submitted the name Spam®, presumably a contraction of “spiced ham.” It stuck, and Daigneau went home with the hundred bucks and a mighty hangover. As he awoke on the first day of 1937, it’s unlikely Daigneau knew that he had coined a brand name that would eventually be credited with helping to win World War II. (Nikita Kruschev once remarked that Spam® had saved the Soviet army from starvation.) And no one could have dreamed that an alcohol-induced, made-up word would become the title of a hit Broadway play or enter the lexicon as one of the most recognizable slang terms of the twenty-first century.

Spam®, Spam®, Spam®, Spam®
I suspect you all know the story of the Monty Python Spam® sketch, even if, like me, you’ve never seen it. In it, a chorus of Vikings at a restaurant chant “Spam®, Spam®, Spam®, Spam®” in response to the fact that everything on the menu comes with Spam®, and you can’t order anything without the Spam®.

Far be it from me to question British humor, but it is important to point out that Spam® is a particularly popular food item in that rather chilly country, and during World War II, when meat was heavily rationed there, a can of Spam® was a rare treat. And if you’ve ever eaten Bovril, you know that the Brits will take their meat in any form as long as you can spread it on a piece of toast or make it into a tasty soup.

Through the 1940s, Hormel advertised Spam® with rhyming slogans like these. By playing off the unusual name, Hormel quickly established the brand Spam® as something fun and part of the lexicon.

But it isn’t entirely fair to credit Monty Python with the concept of singing Spam®, Spam®, Spam®, Spam®, over and over again until it became side-splittingly funny (in that British sort of way). Hormel itself, in a 1940 singing radio commercial, used the tune of “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean” with these words:

Spam®, Spam®, Spam®, Spam®.
Hormel’s new miracle meat in a can.
Tastes fine, saves time.
If you want something grand,
Ask for Spam®!

Early promotions for Spam® also included the “Hormel Girls” dancing troupe (which went door-to-door distributing free Spam®), Spammy the Pig, and the slogan “Cold or Hot, Spam® Hits the Spot.”

By 1941, Hormel was pitching the concept of Spam® burgers (top), which are now the main image on Spam® cans (bottom). Between the two Spam® factories in the United States, Hormel can produce up to 44,000 cans per hour, and its warehouse in Austin, Minnesota, can store more than 20 million cans of Spam®.

But it took Monty Python to popularize the concept that Spam® was everywhere, and that you couldn’t escape from it.

It’s difficult to find a reference to the very first use of "spam" or “spamming” as a term for unwanted e-mail. But according to an excellent history written by Brad Templeton, it most likely appeared in Multi-User Dungeon groups (MUDs) in the early 1980s. These pioneering online communities were comprised almost exclusively of computer programmers and hobbyists, and occasionally someone would write a program that repeatedly filled your screen with the word "spam" (or some such similar nonsense). "Spam" in that context wasn’t a reference to unwanted e-mail, but to useless information that took up needed space.

Templeton credits a posting made by the Phoenix legal firm Canter and Siegel on April 12, 1984, as the genesis for widespread adoption of the term spam. The firm posted an "ad" (promoting a supposed U.S. green-card lottery) to virtually every USENET group at the time. While not the first of such postings to be referred to as spam, this particular posting (which was enabled by a rogue programmer hired by the law firm) was so pervasive that it caused lots of chatter in the USENET communities, and the term took off from there.

Hormel exploited the Spam® brand by connecting it with existing dishes, resulting in Spam®wiches, Spam® ‘n’ Eggs, Spam® Fritters, and Spam® ‘n’ Salad, among many others. The Spam® trademark is registered in more than 100 countries, and because of the products long shelf life (with no need for refrigeration), it has been a staple in poor and less-developed countries and was often included in food aid packages.

It was logical that the word spam would carry over into the world of unwanted mass e-mailings, though that problem existed long before the term came about. The first commercial e-mail to be sent to a large group of users (who had not requested it or did not necessarily want the information) is widely attributed to Digital Equipment Corporation. On May 2, 1978, an employee of DEC (now owned by Hewlett-Packard) sent an email announcing a new product to several hundred people on what was then the ARPANET, an early, government-sponsored version of what we now know as the Internet.

Thus, the first spam e-mail was not about Viagra or lower mortgages, but rather:


TUESDAY, MAY 9, 1978 – 2 PM

THURSDAY, MAY 11, 1978 – 2 PM


The message was met with much resistance from the ARPANET community and was considered a violation of both the rules and the spirit of the network. But you know the rest of the story. The community lost and commerce won.

After World War II, the canned meat industry had a bit of a problem convincing returning soldiers that Spam® and other products could appear on the kitchen table as well as the mess-hall table. So ads like this one, from the American Meat Institute, were run in major magazines in 1947. Note the reference to canned-meat “chefs” (in quotes).

Spam® had many competitors, including these three similar products. But despite clever names, companies like Armour changed packaging frequently and never enjoyed the success that Hormel had with Spam®. The combination of a distinctive, fun name with consistent, colorful packaging proved to be a winning formula.

That’s Spam® with a Capital S
In the early days of the use of "spam" as a slang word, Hormel tried to stop what it perceived as copyright violations and to re-direct people into calling spam “unsolicited commercial e-mail,” or UCE. But the spam was out of the can, so to speak, and it well could be that the luncheon meat will become less known than the junk e-mail term.

There were many varieties of canned meat, but the sandwich-ready rectangular shape of Spam® and similar loafs made life easier for housewives. At first considered a luncheon meat, Spam® was soon promoted as appropriate at every meal and advertised as being good cold or hot.

Rather than give up a good brand, Hormel has moved on, and it’s even promoting the Monty Python Broadway show SpamAlot with a special commemorative Spam® can. The company, is, however, trying to protect the brand Spam® in cases where it’s used in commercial products, including software blocking and filtering programs.

Soviet Union leader Nikita Khruschev wrote in his memoir that during World War II, “without Spam® we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.” Here, Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia from 1991 to 1999, enthusiastically receives a complimentary can of Spam® during a visit to the United States.

Hormel has a strong anti-spam policy of its own, and has the following to say about the use of its trademark Spam® as a negative term (worth reading for some interesting comparisons):

“You’ve probably seen, heard or even used the term ‘spamming’ to refer to the act of sending unsolicited commercial email (UCE), or ‘spam’ to refer to the UCE itself. Following is our position on the relationship between UCE and our trademark SPAM.

“Use of the term ‘spam’ was adopted as a result of the Monty Python skit in which our SPAM meat product was featured. In this skit, a group of Vikings sang a chorus of "spam, spam, spam…" in an increasing crescendo, drowning out other conversation. Hence, the analogy applied because UCE was drowning out normal discourse on the Internet.

“We do not object to use of this slang term to describe UCE, although we do object to the use of the word ‘spam’ as a trademark and to the use of our product image in association with that term. Also, if the term is to be used, it should be used in all lower-case letters to distinguish it from our trademark SPAM, which should be used with all uppercase letters.

“This slang term, which generically describes UCE, does not affect the strength of our trademark SPAM. In a Federal District Court case involving the famous trademark STAR WARS owned by Lucasfilm Ltd., the Court ruled that the slang term used to refer to the Strategic Defense Initiative did not weaken the trademark and the Court refused to stop its use as a slang term. Other examples of famous trademarks having a different slang meaning include MICKEY MOUSE, to describe something as unsophisticated and CADILLAC, used to denote something as being high quality. It is only when someone attempts to trademark the word ‘spam’ that we object to such use, in order to protect our rights in our famous trademark SPAM. We coined this term in 1937 and it has become a famous trademark. Thus, we don’t appreciate it when someone else tries to make money on the goodwill that we created in our trademark or product image, or takes away from the unique and distinctive nature of our famous trademark SPAM. Let’s face it. Today’s teens and young adults are more computer savvy than ever, and the next generations will be even more so. Children will be exposed to the slang term ‘spam’ to describe UCE well before being exposed to our famous product SPAM. Ultimately, we are trying to avoid the day when the consuming public asks, ‘Why would Hormel Foods name its product after junk e-mail?'”

Go to page 2 for more gelatinous fun!

Posted on: August 22, 2005

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com.

3 Comments on Heavy Metal Madness: Spam vs. spam

  1. Another British trait is pedantry: Bovril is not a paste supposed to be eaten with a spoon, it is to be mixed with hot water to create a soup or savoury drink. You are perhaps confusing this with Marmite, a gooey yeast-based product, that (arguably) tastes like meat and is spread on bread or toast. (Incidentally Marmite has a great non-changing label, almost the same since 1902, and amusing advertising campaign based on whether you love it or hate it. http://www.marmite.co.uk/)

    I’m surprised the country that invented SPAM and various other monstrosities doesn’t import them by the van load!

  2. I appreciate the clarification on Bovril. I had a friend from South Africa who use to eat it by the spoonfull, but I see from further research that she was not in the norm!

    Thanks for the comment. A correction will be made as soon as possible.

    Gene Gable

  3. A bat of putter,
    A sablespoon of peam,
    One egg or anutter:
    A spamlike dweam.

    H.S. Hastings

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