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This Week In Illinois History: Krafting Cheese (June 6, 1916)

This week’s slice of history is a uniquely American invention: processed cheese.

The United States patent for processed cheese was issued to James L. Kraft on June 6, 1916. Kraft was born in 1874. He grew up on a farm in Ontario, Canada, where he and his brothers developed a business delivering dairy products. He moved to Chicago in 1903 with only a few dollars in his pocket, rented a horse and wagon and started a cheese delivery service. He would buy wholesale and deliver to stores around the city.

As his business grew, Kraft brought in his brothers and built a cheese manufacturing plant in Stockton, Illinois, in the northwest corner of the state.

Kraft became curious about an issue that plagued his industry: cheese went bad, very fast, especially in the summer. He hypothesized this was caused by the same bacteria that produced the cheese in the first place. He began experimenting with different heating techniques to destroy the bacteria while preserving the cheesy flavor and consistency. He perfected the process in 1914 and patented it in 1916.

Kraft’s processed cheese could be packed into round cans or rectangular tins for easy shipping and storage. Because of its long shelf life, the U.S. government purchased five million pounds of it to feed soldiers during World War I.

Even though the cheese industry condemned Kraft’s creation as an abomination, by 1930, 40 percent of all cheese consumed in the United States was made by Kraft.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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