HG Food Blog #4: Devil’s Advocate
By Will Honan on Monday, April 3rd, 2017
I’ve been collecting devils most of my life. For over 40 years I have been accumulating Underwood Deviled Ham brand logo items. There’s no way to know for sure but I’m reasonably certain that I own the largest assortment of Underwood ephemera on the planet.
It all started when as a small child I would ask my mother to cut out the little red devil emblem from the paper wrappers around the cans of the beloved (by some) ham spread. Over the years I’ve gathered everything from 19th century Underwood advertisements to original art people have created for me.
The William Underwood Company was founded in 1822 in Boston, Massachusetts. It packed foods in glass and later in steel cans coated in tin that became valuable to settlers during the Manifest Destiny period and later to Union troops during the Civil War. In 1863 it started canning deviled ham which remains its flagship product today.
Their devil logo was registered in 1870 and is the oldest food trademark still in use in the United States. It started as a demonic figure and later evolved into the much friendlier and more stylish version with which those in the know are familiar.
Underwood played a key role in food technology. It’s research in time-temperature dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1895 to 1896 lead to the development of food science as a profession.
One of the most prized pieces in my collection is a letter from 1911 typed on real William Underwood Company stationary from its headquarters at 52 Fulton St. in Boston. In the missive Mr. H.O. Underwood rejects Bangor, Maine’s Mr. James E. Dolan’s proposal to build a new factory.
Like many classic New England companies such as Humpty Dumpty, Underwood was swallowed up by a series of larger corporate entities. Eventually goliath B & G Foods acquired the brand and in 1999 moved deviled ham production to the B & M Baked Beans factory in Portland, Maine (you can’t miss it as you pass by on Interstate 295). Maybe Mr. Dolan’s wish finally came true nearly 100 years later.
As far as the ham spread product itself, you either dislike it or you agree with the century old Underwood tagline: “Branded With The Devil But Fit For The Gods.” To borrow a classic Maine idiom, I think that it’s “wicked good” on white bread with a touch of bright yellow mustard. And it’s hard to argue with the allure of the ridiculously simple ingredients listed on the back of the can: Ham and Spices.
I toured the production facility a few years back. It was fascinating to see the fresh hams curing and the giant chopping machines that emulsified them (the addition of ice to the process prevents the product from being sticky). Of course nobody would reveal the mysterious “spices” that were added but I guessed mustard powder as one. And the whole place was as clean as a whistle.
Is my Underwood collection valuable? I’m not sure of its monetary worth. But I know that it represents a significant part of American food history, science, pop art, and nostalgia.