Unexpectedly Intriguing!
June 16, 2015

How much has it cost to buy a typical can of Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup since it was first produced sometime in 1897?

Our latest project, in which we've documented the actual prices at which American consumers could buy a Number 1 can of the iconic product in each month since 1897 at discounted sale prices from their local grocers as documented in their ads in local newspapers, is incomplete, but we have enough data to provide the overall picture of the price history of a product that has been a top seller among all grocery items sold in the United States almost from its very introduction to the U.S. market.

The chart below reveals the data that we do have spanning the period from January 1898 through June 2015 and its trailing twelve month moving average, while also explaining just what we mean by a "typical" can!

Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup - Unit Price per Can - January 1898 through June 2015

Here's the same information again, but this time, with the vertical axis changed to be in logarithmic scale and without the can trivia.

Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup - Unit Price per Can - January 1898 through June 2015 - Logarithmic Scale

Although we suspect that some of our readers might like us to produce a chart showing this data after it has been adjusted for inflation, we would point out that those readers have missed the entire point of why anyone would document the actual prices that consumers paid for a single consumer product over 117+ years of its history - especially a product with the price history we've revealed....

Future Analysis

We're just rolling out the visualization of the data we have available today - we're not finished building the dataset yet! When we do finish however, we'll have solid data spanning the entire 20th century and the 21st century to date that can provide some really intriguing insights into the economic history of the U.S. Not to mention a database that can be tapped to explore the price history of other grocery items, which we'll make available after we've filled in as much missing data as we can.

About the Data

Our primary focus has been to identify the discounted sale price of Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup - the price that Americans who might be casual or frequent shoppers at their local grocers or supermarkets would pay, without any manufacturer's coupons, reward programs, or other special requirements, such as a discounted price that would apply only if the consumer's bill reached a particular threshold or if the purchase of other items was required.

We also focused on the "regular", "Number 1" or "picnic"-size can of Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup that has been continuously produced since J.T. Dorrance first formulated Campbell's condensed soup in 1897. Campbell's had been producing non-condensed tomato soup that it sold in a quart-size can for a number of years before its condensed soup version was brought to the market, which was also advertised in late 19th and early 20th centuries, and which was ultimately replaced by the condensed version, which would feed the same number of people (after water and heat was added, of course!)

Other than the size of the can, almost nothing about Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup has been a constant over the food's history. Everything about it has changed incrementally over time: the tomatoes, the recipe, the can, the label, where its made - everything about it has been tweaked or adjusted in some way in an extraordinarily competitive and challenging business and economic environment.

And yet, it is as much of a constant as we suppose anything made by and for people can be, because of all that!

Filling In the Missing Data

We would like to request your assistance to help fill in the missing months where we don't yet have a documented source to reference the price of the regular/typical/picnic/10 oz./10.5 oz. or 10.75 oz. tin/can of Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup. Here is the list of months we're missing, starting with those in the 19th century:

  • 1897: All months
  • 1898: February, March, April, October

During our project, we believe we found the first advertisement that ever appeared for Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup, which appeared in a local newspaper as the product was first being introduced to what would prove to be a key growth market. Curiously, the grocer's ad omits the name of the famous soupmaker, but provides enough information to identify the product, while subsequent advertisements for the grocer would appear to confirm the mysterious condensed soupmaker's identity as the Campbell company!

We have data spanning each month of the next 95 or so years before we began running into blanks in the available archive data we were accessing:

  • 1993: May
  • 1994: April
  • 1995: June, July
  • 1996: May, June
  • 1997: April, June
  • 1998: April
  • 2000: February, May, June, July
  • 2001: January, September
  • 2002: February, March, August
  • 2003: April, May, June, July, August, November
  • 2004: April, May, June, July, December
  • 2005: July, December
  • 2006: February, March, April, May, June, July, December
  • 2007: April, May, June, July, August, October
  • 2008: March, April, June, July, August, December
  • 2009: January, March, April, June, July, December
  • 2010: June
  • 2011: April
  • 2012: May, July
  • 2013: July

While we could easily interpolate the missing data, we would very much rather be able to directly cite actual sources for the information we don't yet have - particularly where we have consecutive months of missing data during periods of significant changes in prices.

Nearly all of the missing data occurs during the last 20 years, with the biggest gaps concentrated in the period from 2000 through 2009. As it happens, this period coincides with the decline of the newspaper industry in the United States, which might partially account for the disappearance of many of the newspapers where grocers had previously advertised their product sales.

Beginning in mid-2009 however, we're grateful for the rise of "extreme couponing" as a pastime for a number of American consumers that, along with blogging, has proven invaluable for documenting in real time the kind of discounted price data we were seeking as part of this project.

Data Sources

Our primary sources comprise a number of library archives of microfilmed newspapers that have been digitized and, thanks to automated optical character reading technology, are also searchable - including the Library of Congress' Chronicling America, Newspapers.com, NYS Historic Newspapers, and the Town Crier of Tewksbury-Wilmington, North Carolina.

Beyond that, we extracted discounted price data from a number of coupon bloggers and discussion forums, including Springs Bargains, Hot Coupon World, Common Sense with Money, Hip2Save, Wild for Wags, and the Krazy Coupon Lady!

Tomato Soup - Source: PNNL.gov - http://www.pnnl.gov/news/release.aspx?id=4178

Image Source: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.


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