Peanuts are thought to be native to Peru and/or Brazil and were certainly used as food by native peoples as long as 3500 years ago. By the 15th century they were being grown as far north as Mexico. The Aztecs enjoyed a form of peanut butter, mashing peanuts to a paste.
Peanuts arrived in the United States by a circuitous route, after the Spanish conquistadors carried them back to Spain and traders later introduced them to Asia and Africa. Africans were the first people to introduce peanuts to North America beginning in the 1700s.
The first patent for peanut butter was issued to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (the creator of Kellogg’s cereal) for a process that created peanut butter from raw peanuts. However, his product was not marketed commercially for some years and the Sanitas nut butter eventually released was made from boiled rather than roasted nuts.
Around the same time, others were also experimenting with nut butters. The earliest reference to peanut butter in America is in the Los Angeles Times in 1897, where it is described as “a new product which has recently appeared on the market in the East”.
By 1898 a man called George B. Lane was making small quantities of peanut butter in Kokomo Indiana and in 1899 we find advertisements for new brands including Peanolia and Healthall. However, most accounts suggest peanut butter was introduced to the wider American public at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.
It was no accident that the Australian Sanitarium company began manufacturing peanut butter in the 1890s. The company was (and still is) owned by the Seventh Day Adventist church and is named after the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium run by the Kellogg brothers, also Seventh Day Adventists. Sanitarium’s founder, Edward Halsey, had been a baker at Battle Creek and no doubt brought the recipe with him.
Australia was an important outpost of the Adventist church and Ellen White, one of the church’s founders, spent nine years in Australia from 1891 to 1900. The Adventists advocate a vegetarian diet that avoids the consumption of meat coupled with intake of legumes, whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables. Originally simply called ‘nut butter’ the Sanitarium product was advertised in 1898 along with cereal products including Granola.
Dairy farmers objected to the use of the term butter – and indeed newspaper articles in 1899 proposed the spread as an alternative to dairy butter. As a consequence, some States eventually introduced regulations requiring the product to be called peanut paste – a headache for manufacturers who had to produce two labels.
Perhaps the strangest use of the product is in recipe for Peanut Butter Soup published in The Dawn, Sydney in 1901.