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Tins of Spam

The surprisingly eventful history of Spam

Image: Steve Cukrov /

You wouldn’t think there was all that much to say about a tin of mushed-up pork, but Spam has been on quite a journey since it was introduced in the 1930s. From being the unpopular staple food of Allied soldiers during World War II, to unwittingly lending its name to an avalanche of electronic junk mail in the 1990s, we take a look at the surprisingly eventful story of this lunchbox staple.

In the beginning

The story of Spam begins in 1936 when the meat processor George A. Hormel & Company of Austin, Minnesota was looking to boost sales of pork shoulder, which was seen as an offcut at the time. Some bright spark thought of combining it with water, sugar, sodium nitrate (for colour) and a heart-stopping quantity of salt. This gave birth to ‘Hormel Spiced Ham’. A year later, the name was shortened to ‘Spam’ after the word was thrown out during a brainstorming meeting.

Sales of the new product were slow and steady for the first few years, but a certain spot of trouble brewing overseas catapulted them into the stratosphere. On 7th December 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The next day, America declared war on Japan and its allies, Germany and Italy. America had entered the Second World War and so had Spam.

Spam goes to war

Feeding millions of troops was no mean feat. Delivering fresh meat to servicemen spread across so many areas was logistically impossible. Canned meat, on the other hand, could be boxed up and shipped out with ease in great quantities. Being preserved in a tin, it also had the added advantage of never spoiling, be it issued to troops in a steamy tropical jungle or to men in frozen foxholes in Northern Europe. Thus, wherever American servicemen went, Spam went too. It wasn’t, however, particularly popular.

Spam earned several derogatory nicknames during the war, including ‘meatloaf without basic training’, ‘ham that didn’t pass its physical’, and the play-on-words ‘Special Army Meat’.

Jay Hormel, the head of Hormel and son of the company’s founder, eventually kept a folder he called his ‘Scurrilous File’. In it, he stored the most abusive hate mail he’d been sent by servicemen who were livid at having to eat Spam three times a day. ‘If they think Spam is terrible,’ Hormel, a veteran of World War I, observed, ‘they ought to have eaten the bully beef we had in the last war.’

Feeding the Allies

It wasn’t just US troops that came to rely on Spam. In ration book Britain, the tinned meat was shipped over as part of the Lend-Lease agreement and became as much a staple in British homes as it did in US ones. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher later sang Spam’s praises, calling it a ‘wartime delicacy’.

Meanwhile, another ally also came to rely on Spam. The USA shipped millions of cans to the Soviet Union as part of their aid package to the country. Russian troops came to rely on Spam just as much as US servicemen and British housewives did. In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev observed: 'Without Spam, we wouldn't have been able to feed our army.'

Spam conquers Asia and the Pacific

After the war, Spam’s popularity waned in the USA, in no small part because returning soldiers who had been eating pretty much nothing but Spam for four years point blank refused to eat any more of it. On the Asian mainland and the islands of the Pacific, however, it was a different story.

Following the defeat of the Axis in 1945, the USA found itself in charge of islands and territories across the Pacific. Guam, the Philippines and Okinawa - to name but a few - were all under American occupation and with a hungry population to feed, Spam once again rode to the rescue. As a result, the meat was incorporated into local cuisines across the Pacific and Asia.

However, it was Hawaii that took Spam to its heart more than anywhere else. Restrictions imposed on the island’s inhabitants during the war meant that most of the country’s Japanese-owned fishing fleet was grounded, leading the population to switch to Spam pretty much overnight. So ingrained did Spam become in Hawaiian cuisine that the country now hosts an annual Spam festival, and a whopping seven million cans are sold there every year.

Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam …

In 1970, Spam was featured in a sketch by Monty Python. Alongside the Lumberjack Song and the Dead Parrot, a greasy spoon full of Vikings singing ‘Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam!’ became one of the comedy troupe’s most famous sketches. Spam was mentioned again in a song featured in the 1974 motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which in turn inspired Eric Idle to name his musical adaptation of the film Spamalot. As a result, many people mistakenly think the product is British.

While the Spam sketch may not have boosted sales, the enormous popularity and durability of Monty Python in the United States meant the word firmly lodged in the heads of a generation who were the first to embrace a technology that changed the world like nothing else since the Industrial Revolution - the Internet.

In 1993, 200 messages were accidentally posted to a Usenet newsgroup. Users began making jokes about the messages and eventually someone referred to them as spam because their repetitive nature reminded them of the old Python sketch. The name stuck, and it was soon being applied to the seemingly endless stream of junk messages that were a serious headache as email became increasingly popular in the late ‘90s. Spam had unwittingly entered the digital age. Hormel wasn’t best pleased with this new development, but in the end, they accepted there was very little they could do about it.

The future of Spam

From a way to boost sales of an offcut in the 1930s, to feeding Allied soldiers and being the name given to annoying emails, Spam has had a long and surprisingly eventful history. Who knows what the future holds? By rights, the future shouldn’t really hold that much seeing as we’re talking about a tin of processed meat here, but when it comes to Spam, you never quite know what will happen next.