There is perhaps nothing more quintessentially American than the fish stick.
Where else but in this nation could one freeze processed whitefish into a brick, cut it up into deep-friable strips, and ship it to a landlocked region like Kansas for immediate consumption?
But they weren’t always a mainstream hit.
“No one said, ‘I want a fish stick,’” Paul Josephson, who chronicled the rise of the fish stick in a 2008 paper, “The Ocean’s Hot Dog,” tells The Hustle. “What we see is that the manufacturers, through marketing, were able to create demand that otherwise wouldn’t be present.”
How did marketers transmorph a culinary oddity into an icon of the 20th century middle class?
A century of trying to make seafood happen
To understand the triumph of the fish stick, you have to understand that Americans have always been skeptical of seafood.
Many early American settlers fled Europe, where cheap fish was a dietary staple of the working class. And if the New World represented an escape from Europe, then it also needed to represent an escape from fish.
As William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth colony, wrote in a letter in 1623, “If ye land afford you bread, and ye sea yeeld you fish, rest you a while contented, God will one day afford you better fare.”
This distaste trickled through the centuries. In the 1800s, for instance, lobster was hardly the delicacy we know it as today. As Josephson wrote, lobster was a “trash fish” reserved for prisoners and servants.
Compared to other meats, fish always wound up in last place.
In 1910, the average American ate less than 7 lbs. of fish per year — well below beef (60 lbs.), pork (60 lbs.), and chicken (15 lbs.)
Zachary Crockett / The Hustle (data: USDA, via The Washington Post)
Part of this was an availability issue: fish spoiled easily, and transporting fish from the coast to the inland was close to impossible.
At the turn of the 20th century, seafood vendors began experimenting with industrial-scale freezing — but these efforts left a lot to be desired.
Fishermen froze their catches in massive blocks onboard ships. Hours later, when they tried to pry apart individual fish, the ice splintered into chunks. The public wasn’t interested in the end result. One 1926 newspaper noted the widespread “prejudice against cold storage fish,” especially among home cooks.
So the industry tried again — this time, by mincing up the frozen blocks and re-packing them into “fishbricks.” Picture a carton of ice cream, but with a heap of frozen fish inside.
The hope was that consumers would cut these fishbricks into smaller, cookable pieces. Though several major grocery chains agreed to carry fishbricks, they never caught on.
The reason that frozen fish — after failing for so long to achieve mass popularity — became a hit in the 1950s has a lot to do with World War II.
During the wartime effort, meat producers shifted their focus to feeding soldiers. On the homefront, legal restrictions and supply chain shortages meant that Americans had to ration their consumption of chicken, beef, and pork.
But there was one meat product that couldn’t travel well abroad — and that didn’t face the same restrictions: fish.
Suddenly, fish was the only widely available protein.
Seafood distributors wanted a new signature product to anchor themselves to America’s kitchens. It needed to be so simple, so inoffensive, and so universally palatable that even a nation of fish skeptics would embrace it.
A factory worker prepares to turn a block of frozen fish into fish sticks (Carmen Jaspersen / picture alliance, via Getty Images)
In the post-war years, a few struggling fish companies took one more stab at frozen fish.
Instead of serving frozen fish in brick form, they decided to try out a shape that Americans knew well, cutting the fish into rounded strips, like hot dogs or sausages.
And this time, it paid off.
How to sell an aquatic hot dog
In 1953, 3 separate companies (Gorton’s, Fulham Brothers, and Birds Eye) hit the market with their own version of fish sticks.
More than anyone else, Gorton’s — a small fishing company based in Gloucester, Massachusetts — turned this product that no one really wanted into a mainstream hit.
At Gorton’s, the task of promoting fish sticks fell on its newly minted director of advertising, Paul Jacobs.
A lifelong Bostonian and food marketer, Jacobs knew he had a challenging road ahead: when he joined Gorton’s in 1953, the company was fresh off its first loss in nearly two decades. It desperately needed a win.
But this didn’t scare Jacobs.
He started targeting home chefs with the claim that fish sticks represented a well-deserved break for the “harried housewife.” The appeal of the dish was its ease: all it took was a few minutes to heat up.
Jacobs soon convinced Parents Magazine — a then-influential line to the American middle class — to endorse Gorton’s fish sticks.
Paul Jacobs (far left) looks on as a frozen fish shipment arrives at Gorton’s in 1962 (Paul J. Connell / The Boston Globe, via Newspapers.com)
How did Jacobs create demand out of thin air? By pitching hard.
When Jacobs advertised fish sticks to grocery stores and other distributors, his rhetoric often turned lofty. The fish industry, he said, was engaged in a fight for supremacy against the beef and chicken titans — a fight he dubbed the “battle of the proteins.”
Jacobs even gave his fish stick speech a title: “The Fabulous Fish Stick Story.” In it, he told potential partners that fish sticks weren’t just a food — they were a “tribute to the ingenuity of the American businessman.”
Gorton’s started sending out mailers claiming that fish sticks had become the “the industry’s greatest contribution to modern living.”
One popular ad featured Catherine Feuerherd, the home economist who ran the initial taste tests for Gorton’s rival brand, Birds Eye.
Many of the tasters, she boasted, had insisted they “didn’t care for fish” — but once they’d sampled fish sticks, “they ate the new ‘sticks’ like mad and went away singing their praises.”
A 1955 ad in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram trumpets the “ocean fresh” quality of Birds Eye fish sticks (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, via Newspapers.com)
The ad campaign was big enough that customers decided to try out this futuristic new dinner dish — though, they didn’t exactly know what to do with fish sticks once they bought them.
But one of Gorton’s savviest strategies was to link fish sticks to post-war modernity. It wasn’t exactly clear why so many Americans distrusted fish. The preference might have had a lot more to do with culture than with taste.
As Josephson explains: “There are tastes that become a symbol of modernity, and wealth, and comfort, and civilization.” In the US, meat meant prosperity; fish didn’t.
Gorton’s broke that perception by driving home the phrase “modern luxury” in its ads.
All this high praise for what was ultimately a clump of frozen fish in the shape of a sausage might sound a bit over-the-top. But the marketing worked.
By the end of 1955, Gorton’s sales had jumped 27%, and fish sticks were selling ~64.4 million pounds per year.
The federal government steps in
Clever marketing exposed fish sticks to America. But there was another x-factor that gave the dish ubiquity: the U.S. government.
An early boon was the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act, which gave tens of millions of dollars to the US fishing industry. Passed in 1954 — one year after fish sticks hit the market — the subsidies bankrolled the seafood industry’s signature new product.
Fish sticks being prepped at a factory (Frederic Pitchal/Sygma, via Getty Images)
Equally consequential was the rise of school lunch programs, which first began to crop up in public schools following the passage of the National School Lunch Act in 1946.
Gorton’s immediately saw the high school cafeteria as a potential market for fish sticks. School lunches meant guaranteed sales — but by selling fish sticks to young kids, they were also minting a new generation of fish stick loyalists.
The company spent the 1950s lobbying school districts to put fish sticks on the menu — an effort that has paid off to this day.
In 2014, Gitta Grether-Sweeney, the director of nutrition for the Portland public schools system, told the Wall Street Journal that fish dishes, including fish sticks, appeared on her menu a couple times each month.
Though, she also admitted that kids weren’t exactly racing to the cafeteria to shove them down their gullets.
“They don’t come through and say, ‘Oh, it’s fish today!’” Grether-Sweeney said. But she was quick to add, “They do like it.”