It took more than fruits and veggies to create that jar of apple-carrot puree—the development of baby food required a century and a half of innovation. Open up for the airplane!
1. Germans Find the Formula for Success
The 1860s marked a turning point for the diets of children. In keeping with the view that science could do everything better, the decade saw what Robertson’s Book of Firsts credits as the first processed baby food formula: In 1865, Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies, a delightful mixture of "wheat flour, cow's milk, and malt flour," hit the market courtesy of Baron Justus von Liebig, a German chemist whose work contributed to everything from organic fertilizer to Marmite.
2. Babies Get Their First Taste of Soup
Liebig, and the competitors who eventually copied him, provided a handy substitute for breast milk. Harold H. Clapp and his wife Anna created the first canned baby food, Clapp’s Vegetable Soup, in 1922. The Clapps whipped up the soup—a concoction of beef broth, vegetables, and grains—for their sick daughter, and when the tot recovered, the couple began selling it through pharmacies. Clapp’s Baby Foods eventually expanded its flavor options to include 14 varieties of “Junior Foods” such as liver soup and vegetables with bacon, 17 varieties of strained baby food, and pre-cooked cereal. Yum.
3. Pablum’s Canadian Roots Take Hold
In 1930, a trio of pediatricians at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children were part of a team that created Pablum, a dry, vitamin-rich formula initially developed to help get kids with rickets a heavy dose of Vitamin D. The Mead Johnson Company began marketing the creation in 1931, and Pablum soon dominated the baby food scene. Parents loved that Pablum’s texture was easy on infants’ stomachs while packing plenty of vitamin A, B1, B2, D, E, and iron.
4. Dorothy Gerber Strains Herself
When a pediatrician advised Dorothy Gerber to feed her 7-month-old daughter, Sally, strained vegetables in 1927, Gerber did the straining herself. She quickly realized that her husband’s canning company could do the job much more easily. When plant employees began asking for samples for their own tots, the Gerbers knew they had hit on a good thing.
5. Parents Meet a Familiar Face
As the Gerbers’ business took off, they needed to market their strained wares. Gerber held a contest in 1928 to find a face for the brand. The winning entry was a simple charcoal sketch of a happy baby by Dorothy Hope Smith. By 1931, Gerber had adopted the sketch as its official trademark, but the baby’s identity remained a mystery for four decades. In 1978, teacher and novelist Ann Turner Cook revealed that she was the model for the Gerber baby. Cook’s family had been neighbors with Smith when she was a baby, and the iconic sketch was based on her face.
6. Baby Food Brings Prisoners Home From Cuba
Baby food played a surprisingly central role when John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro negotiated terms for releasing prisoners following the Bay of Pigs invasion. JFK negotiated a contract with Castro to bring the prisoners back to American soil; in return, Castro and the people of Cuba received $53 million worth of medicine and, yes, baby food.
7. The Epic Failure of Gerber Singles
Not every idea Gerber has launched worked out. In 1974, the baby food behemoth produced Gerber Singles. These individual jars of mushed meat were aimed at capitalizing on the notion that adults had tasted their own children’s food and decided that it wasn’t too bad. The main issue with that marketing ploy is that baby food made for adults doesn’t exactly scream “adult” anything, and labeling it as “single” was rubbing salt in the wound. It was quickly taken off the shelves.