Philadelphia Cream Cheese is not from Philadelphia. It’s not made here now, nor was it at any point in its 135-year history. The archetype of the thick spread that’s become part of the American breakfast canon was first developed and produced in upstate New York.
In fact, the “Philadelphia” in the name stems not from location, but from reputation.
In 1880, when New York cheese broker Alvah Reynolds pitched New York dairyman William Lawrence on creating better branding for his new product — which was richer, creamier and fresher than the more common Neufchatel cheese — Philly was widely considered the country’s top spot for high-quality dairy.
Thanks to location dissonance, myths about the brand abound. “It was invented by someone in Philly and then stolen,” or “It’s actually from Philadelphia, N.Y. (Pop. 1,947),” read histories in various reputable cookbooks and culinary magazines. Only recently has the real origin story of what is now a $500 million-plus brand sold by Kraft Foods come to light.
Jeffrey Marx is a 62-year-old rabbi at a Reform congregation in Santa Monica. He’s also the world’s premier authority on cream cheese history. It’s a status he stumbled onto, really; while researching his own family history (a prodigious undertaking he’s been working on since age 12), he accidentally unearthed the true narrative of bagels’ best friend.
Investigating a claim by some cousins that two of their Lithuanian immigrant ancestors, Joseph and Isaac Breakstone, were responsible for introducing cream cheese to America, Marx discovered it was mostly specious. He began to write a footnote to his 31,000-name genealogy tome, but kept delving further and further into the story.
He read through docket after docket of case law from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the various owners of the Philadelphia Cream Cheese trademark were zealous about protecting their brand rights — and finally finished his footnote 10 years later. It was published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Food, Culture and Society under the title “The Days Had Come of Curds and Cream: The Origins and Development of Cream Cheese in America.” [Full article available for a fee here.]
Details of those origins boil down to this: By the mid-1800s, many American dairy farms were producing a fresher, un-aged version of what in Europe was known as Neufchatel. Surrounded by fertile grazing land and an early hub of American commerce, Philadelphia was known for its cheeses of this kind. It was in Chester, N.Y., however, that dairyman Lawrence boosted the cream content in the recipe used at his factory and created something new.
At first, Lawrence simply referred to his new product as “cream cheese.” It sold modestly well — well enough to attract the attention of a wily cheese distributor, Reynolds, who repackaged it under the boastfully resonant moniker “Philadelphia Cream Cheese.”
“Alvah Reynolds was a marketing genius,” says historian/Rabbi Marx. “He decided to give the cream cheese a name of its own. He was one of the earliest individuals to brand a food of any kind.”
Reynolds was a pioneer of a practice that’s now so omnipresent it’s considered de facto: he created a unique identity for a product, making it into a brand that stands alone without any reference to its manufacturer.
Back in the 1880s, Philadelphia Cream Cheese sold so well that Reynolds brought several other dairies on board and began producing cheese to vend under the label at multiple locations (all of which were in upstate New York). In 1903, he sold the rights to the flourishing brand to Cooperstown, N.Y.-based Phenix Cheese Co. In 1928, Phenix merged with Chicago’s Kraft Cheese Company, which had become a household name due to the success of its processed cheese sold in tins (aka Velveeta).
The combined company, now called Kraft-Phenix, supplied around 40 percent of all cheese consumed in America.
That merger was only the start of a surging corporate food conglomeration trend.
In 1930, a behemoth called National Dairy Products Corp. bought out Kraft-Phenix. For the next eight decades, the name of the company that owned Philadelphia Cream Cheese changed from National Dairy to Kraftco to Dart & Kraft to Kraft General Foods to the Altria Group to Mondelez International and then back to Kraft Foods Group, under which it is sold today.
Thanks to the brilliance (or subterfuge, depending how you look at it) of a brand name, corporate consolidations made no difference to consumers — with the packaging and logo of Philadelphia Cream Cheese remaining the same, there was no impetus to pay mind to any of the name changes or mergers.
Of course, times are changing. The pendulum is swinging back toward consumers caring about food’s exact provenance. Noticing this, many large corporations are making efforts to appear small. The tactic is especially prevalent in the alcoholic beverage industry, which is scrambling to react as independently produced craft beer eats up market share (see: Shock Top beer — it’s made by Anheuser-Busch — or Not Your Father’s Root Beer, which is made by the company that also owns Four Loko) .
Kraft doesn’t yet have to worry about this kind of threat. Philadelphia Cream Cheese outsells its nearest competitor (Borden) more than 10 to 1, with approximately 58 percent of American households reporting they reach for the silver-boxed brand most often. Philadelphia Cream Cheese is also extremely popular in the U.K. and throughout Europe, especially Spain, where “Filadelfia” is a commonly used synonym for “cream cheese.”
As for a connection between cream cheese and Philadelphia, it appears there finally is one. It can be found at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall, which houses a collection of Breakstone Dairy containers.
These consumer antiques were a part of the personal collection of Jeffrey Marx, who began collecting them when he realized that his cousins’ cream cheese claims weren’t pulled out of thin air. His Breakstone ancestors didn’t invent cream cheese, but they did manufacture it at their dairy, which was founded back in 1897. Moreover, thanks to all the consolidation, several techniques developed by the Breakstone brothers were incorporated into the manufacture of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, techniques that noticeably changed its texture to the one we recognize today.
These contributions will be covered in Marx’s third academic paper, which is about how two penniless Lithuanian Jewish immigrants created a dairy and then played a critical role in disseminating the schmear throughout American society.
How did cream cheese get paired with a bagel to begin with? And why is it considered a staple of Jewish culture? Marx is on it — that’s the planned subject of his fourth paper. Stay tuned.