Hormel Food Corp. introduced Spam July 5, 1937, and the product experienced something of a coming-out party during World War II. Unlike other meats at the time, spam could be preserved for days on end, making it one of the few meat products that could be sent easily to soldiers overseas.
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Despite the plethora of early Spam ads aimed at housewives who wanted cheap, quick meals requiring almost no prep, some of the members of that target demographic were hesitant to eat meat that didn’t need to be refrigerated. But it didn’t take long for the U.S. military to find a use for the food innovation. Spam went global during World War II, when America shipped out over 100 million cans to the Pacific, where it made an inexpensive yet filling meal for U.S. troops. As TIME later noted, “Among fed-up fighting men from Attu to Anzio, Spam became one of the most celebrated four-letter words in World War II, gave birth to a flavorsome literature of tales, odes, jokes, limericks.” It remains popular in areas where soldiers were stationed, especially in Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines. Spam also became part of aid packages to devastated Europe and Russia. As the former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoir Khrushchev Remembers: “There were many jokes going around in the army, some of them off-color, about American Spam; it tasted good, nonetheless. Without Spam, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army. We had lost our most fertile lands.”
To keep up Spam sales postwar, the company hired singers to tout the product, and even had a radio show Music With the Hormel Girls. Whatever the reason, it worked: Hormel produced its billionth can in 1959, amid rising sales. And yet the Spam-eating Vikings in the 1970s Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit is the pop culture Spam reference most people will remember.
Spam spread throughout territories in the Pacific Ocean — such as the Philippines — thanks to soldiers stationed there, and it remains popular in many of those places. Hawaiians are said to be particularly fond of Spam.
The processed meat was sold throughout England as the country recovered from the second world war and Britons remained reluctant to spend money — Margaret Thatcher once referred to the product as a “wartime delicacy” — and it was at one time so common that Monty Python filmed a sketch poking fun at its inescapability.