How ‘Bacon and Eggs’ Became the American Breakfast

Bacon and Eggs, Photo by Eric Colleary

Bacon for breakfast seems as American as apple pie. And certainly bacon has been a staple to the American diet since the colonial period. Pigs are relatively easy to domesticate, and the brining/salting process that preserves bacon allowed the meat to thrive in the days prior to refrigeration.

In recent years, bacon has had an enormous rise in popular culture with restaurants, festivals and home chefs doing all kinds of crazy things to it (chicken-fried bacon, or the all-bacon ‘merica burger anyone?). But bacon’s place in the American imaginary lies primarily in the classic American breakfast of bacon and eggs – with maybe a slice of toast or some potatoes to go with it. It is THE American breakfast – when traveling outside of the United States, one can find an American breakfast on menus to differentiate from Irish, English, and Continental breakfasts.

Believe it or not, though, bacon’s association with the American breakfast is barely a century old. Before this, the majority of Americans ate more modest, often meatless breakfasts that might include fruit, a grain porridge (oat, wheat or corn meals) or a roll,  and usually a cup of coffee.

Frying Bacon, Photo by Eric CollearySo how did bacon become associated with the American breakfast? Let me introduce you to the grand-daddy of public relations and advertising, Mr. Edward Bernays.

The Austrian-born Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and was quite good at using psychology to get people to buy a product or an idea. He was the guy who was hired by the Aluminum Company of America to use the American Dental Association to convince people that water flouridation was safe and healthy to the public. His campaign for Dixie Cups scared people into thinking the glasses they were drinking out of were unsanitary, and could be replaced by disposable cups. Bernays was hired by President Coolidge to help run his re-election campaign in 1924, and encouraged Coolidge to invite the country’s leading vaudevillians to the White House for a meet-and-greet over pancakes. This was one of the first known political pancake breakfasts that are now so popular among presidents and council members alike.

In the 1920s, Bernays was approached by the Beech-Nut Packing Company – producers of everything from pork products to the nostalgic Beech-Nut bubble gum. Beech-Nut wanted to increase consumer demand for bacon. Bernays turned to his agency’s internal doctor and asked him whether a heavier breakfast might be more beneficial for the American public. Knowing which way his bread was buttered, the doctor confirmed Bernays suspicion and wrote to five thousand of his doctors friends asking them to confirm it as well. This ‘study’ of doctors encouraging the American public to eat a heavier breakfast – namely ‘Bacon and Eggs’ – was published in major newspapers and magazines of the time to great success. Beech-Nut’s profits rose sharply thanks to Bernays and his team of medical professionals.

In this video clip, an older Bernays recalls the Beech-Nut campaign:

VIDEO: Bernays on Bacon and Eggs


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9 Comments on “How ‘Bacon and Eggs’ Became the American Breakfast
  1. I enjoyed reading this article. I love bacon and eggs – every morning. I always assumed bacon and eggs was an age old tradition. Not so. You’ve piqued my interest to read more on this. Thank you!

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  6. Bernay’s has also been associated with “Engineering consent” of the masses would be vital for the survival of democracy. Bernays explains:

    “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

  7. Eric, this is fascinating. I’ve been intrigued (and less influenced than most) by advertising since I was a little girl. I remember when I was about ten my dad picked up the magazine I’d been reading and said “I don’t know why you and your mother buy these; they’re nothing but advertising.” And I replied “But I *love* advertising!”

    I knew that people now get swept up in the latest food trends (don’t get me started!), but I didn’t realize it went as far back as this.

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