Alphabet Soup Has Been Around Longer Than You Might Expect

Alphabet soup (aka Alphaghetti, Alphabet pasta, and ABC Chowder) is a warm and fuzzy symbol of nostalgic retro Americana. But, believe it or not, the playful food isn't an emblem of 1950s kitsch. Alphabet soup carries much more history (and cultural significance) within its scattered lexicon.

Campbell's Tomato A to Z's is an iconic American children's product, and the brand also carries another popular canned pasta, Campbell's SpaghettiOs, which dropped in 1965. While Campbell's undoubtedly popularized alphabet soup in the public sphere, it's not considered the inventor of the product. Competing food manufacturer Heinz also made alphabet soup for a time. But that's not even where it started.

Flashback 30 years prior, and U.S. President FDR had just rolled out the New Deal legislation of the 1930s. This influential era established a host of new federal programs and organizations known for their acronyms, which many journalists and politicians found confusing and difficult to keep straight. As such, they criticized FDR's New Deal as "alphabet soup politics." Many of these agencies continue to function, such as the FCC, FHA, SEC, and FDIC, and some folks still colloquially refer to them as alphabet soup organizations. But, perhaps most importantly, this criticism also places alphabet soup much earlier on the chronological timeline. By the 1930s, alphabet soup would have already been cemented in the public psyche well enough to inspire the gastronomic insult.

Some light reading on history in every bowl

The earliest known mention of alphabet soup is actually from 1867. America had been a country for less than 100 years, the Civil War had just ended, and Raleigh news outlet the "Tri-Weekly Standard" saw it fit to report on a much lighter topic: a fun new food. "The latest culinary novelty is alphabetical soup," reads the article (via the Library of Congress). "Instead of the usual cylindric and star-shaped morsels of macaroni which have hitherto given body to our broth, the letters of the alphabet have been substituted. These letters of paste preserve their forms in passing through the pot." By the 1880s, "alphabet soup" started appearing in print en masse, and the dish quickly became a popular culinary icon at the turn of the century in America.

A humor writer in a 1922 issue of New York's "The Evening World" joked that alphabet soup manufacturers probably argued over which shapes were apostrophes and which were commas. Before that, a 1908 issue of "The Daily Press" ran a spoof story titled "The Soup That Talked," in which a man sits down at a diner to find that his bowl of alphabet soup spells out the word "POISONED." Today, foodies looking to add fun to their bowl can get a bag of dried alphabet pasta for a couple of bucks on Amazon.