A Campbell’s presentation tonight with a side of nostalgia

Interest on social media in historian Marisa Bozarth’s Campbell Soup presentation tonight at Riverton Library at 7 o’clock has been high.

Just writing about it brought back a flood of memories for me about Campbell’s. Sure, everybody has a favorite. Mine is tomato soup made like my mom, Phyllis McCormick, made it with a half can of water and a half can of milk.

Congowall by Congoleum

The height of gourmet eating was sitting at our Formica table in our Congowalled kitchen slurping tomato soup topped with a layer of crumbled Ritz crackers and, as a second course, a buttery grilled cheese sandwich.

You’d think I would be sick of the stuff. My mother brought home mass quantities of those dented silver cans with no labels, tied up with string that she bought from the employee store at Campbell’s Camden plant where she worked. It fell to me to write “TOM” on top of each can with a stub of a black grease marker she kept in a kitchen drawer.

When she was feeling really flush on payday, she sometimes brought home bags of my favorite Pepperidge Farm cookies and cans of Swanson’s Chicken à la King, products made by two companies Campbell’s acquired. At Christmas, my teachers always got the best presents from me – a small golden box of Godiva chocolates, available for half-price to Campbell’s employees.

Workers strike outside the Camden plant in 1952. PHOTO: Courier Post

I often waited for her at the Beideman Avenue bus stop, and when I was old enough, I drove to downtown Camden to pick her up when she worked night-shift, so I got to hear a lot about how her day went.

Tomato season brought longer hours and sweatshop conditions – literally – during the heat of many South Jersey summers. She knew all the recipes for those colossal cauldrons you’ll see in Marisa’s slide show. More than a few times she told me how a batch would be scuttled because it got double salt or worse.

She started out on the line sorting tomatoes and worked her way up to production, then quality control. The time/motion efficiency experts hired by Mr. Dorrance scrutinized and analyzed every task and dictated changes. She schooled the newly hired management “college boys” in soup making and they became her bosses.

The end of an era: Campbell’s Soup Plant Implosion, Camden, N.J. – November 3, 1991 PHOTO: Langan.com

She saw the end coming as layoffs of production staff followed opening new plants elsewhere – was it South Carolina?

But she hung on because now she was an executive secretary for one of the big shots and therefore part of management.

She was proud of her achievements at the Camden plant and thankful for the job that enabled her to raise two kids in the 1950s and ’60s. When she retired from Campbell’s we attributed the closing of the Camden plant to her leaving.

I wish I had listened better  because I am sure she’d  know plenty about soup production if she were here.

Please leave a comment if you have a Campbell’s memory. -JMc

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John McCormick

Teacher at Riverton School 1974-2019, author, amateur historian, Historical Society of Riverton Board Member 2007-2023, newsletter editor 2007-2023, website editor 2011-2023

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