Food companies usually have the R&D department to thank for a product that wins its way into American stomachs. In the case of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup, the thanks must also go a radio actor named Freeman Gosden.
Don’t know him? Well, if you lived in prewar America, you would. Gosden voiced the Amos character on Amos ’n’ Andy, one of the most popular radio shows of the 1930s. Broadcast from WMAQ in Chicago, the program—a minstrel show that subsequent generations would later realize was in poor taste—had no shortage of sponsors. In those early days of broadcast, it was common for actors to read for the commercial breaks, too. This is how, during one show in 1938, Gosden extolled the virtues of a fine flavor from Campbell’s soup called Noodle with Chicken.
Only Gosden didn’t call it that—he flubbed his line and called it Chicken Noodle.
At home, in the teeth of the Great Depression, millions of Americans thought that a 10-cent can of Chicken Noodle soup sounded awfully good. Within days, grocers besieged the Campbell Soup Co. with orders.
That left headquarters in quite a fix. “Because the show was so popular, [with] that one live spot, we had so many orders coming in—for a soup that we didn’t even make,” related Campbell’s corporate archivist Sarah Rice. “Finally, we stopped trying to fix it, and we printed new labels.”
Which is to say: The soup itself never changed—only the name.
Introduced in 1934, Noodle with Chicken Soup was the brainchild of corporate chef Ernest Lacoutiere, who’d been hired to raise the culinary stakes for the company. Not that it needed a ton of help. Campbell’s was already a well-established brand in the U.S. In 1891, a fruit merchant named Joseph A. Campbell started the Jos. Campbell Preserve Co., selling canned goods including mincemeat, jellies and tomatoes. Four years later, the company branched into soups—especially its proprietary invention, condensed soups, which removed the water and made the cans less costly to ship. When Campbell’s condensed tomato soup won gold at the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris, the medal became a centerpiece of the can labels.
Thirty-four years later, Noodle with Chicken (with its chunks of meat and 32 feet of noodles in each can) was engineered as a helping hand to cash-strapped homemakers of the 1930s. Yet even after America regained prosperity, consumers never forgot their beloved Campbell’s Chicken Noodle.
“The recipe is Depression era—it was to help the home cook in times of economic strife,” said Rice, who added that the soup’s attributes have never fallen out of favor. “It’s wholesome and filling, it’s palatable and nutritious—and it’s affordable. All those aspects are timeless.”
In fact, though Campbell’s soups have labored under consumers’ recent skepticism over processed foods, Chicken Noodle is still the No. 1 selling soup in the U.S. Every January alone, Americans purchase half a million cans each day.
Strange that Campbell’s has a largely forgotten radio actor to thank for much of this. As Rice readily admits, back in the early 1930s, Noodle with Chicken wasn’t really selling so well—but Chicken Noodle was an overnight hit. “That one little marketing switch took off like wildfire,” she said.