I am embarrassed to admit that until recently it never occurred to me that Oscar Mayer was a real person. After all, Betty Crocker, who played a much larger role in the kitchen of my childhood, was a fictional character. In fact, I didn’t even think about him as a fictional person. Oscar Mayer was just a pair of words in a jingle. [WARNING: Clicking the video below may produce an ear worm.]
Imagine my surprise when he started popping up in Sigrid Schultz’s papers as a successful Chicago businessman who had been a friend of her father’s and who she viewed as a uncle of sorts.
Mayer emigrated from Bavaria to the United States in 1873, at the age of fourteen. He started working in Detroit as a butcher’s boy, then moved to Chicago.* With the dream of opening his own business, he asked his brother Gottfried, who was still in Germany, to study sausage-making. In 1883, he opened his first store, Oscar F Mayer and Bros. From that small beginning he went whole hog into the meat business. (Sorry. Sometimes I can’t help myself.)
There was a thriving market for high-quality sausages in Chicago. Soon the brothers became more than a neighborhood butcher. They used a horse-drawn wagon to deliver sausages throughout the city, taking what was then the unusual step of creating brand names for their products so that customers could ask for them by name. By 1904, Mayer employed eight salesmen who covered a territory with more than 280 grocery stores. Fifteen years later, the company purchased a farmer’s cooperative meat-packing plant in Wisconsin that allowed them to triple their sales.
All this makes me wonder whether there was a Sara Lee? A Chef Boyardee? A Mrs. Butterworth? (For the record, Colonel Sanders was for real.)
*Which was, after all, hog butcher to the world.