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The Sweet Potato Casserole: A Thanksgiving Side Born from a 20th Century Social Experiment

The Thanksgiving Page That Started as a 20th Century Social Experiment

Thanksgiving is a time when families and friends gather to celebrate and give thanks. Along with the iconic turkey, there are several side dishes that have become synonymous with the holiday. From warm yeast rolls to cranberry sauce, these dishes have become an integral part of Thanksgiving traditions. But have you ever wondered how some of these side dishes became so popular? In this article, we will explore the fascinating history behind one particular Thanksgiving side dish that began as a 20th century social experiment.

The origins of Thanksgiving

Before we dive into the social experiment, let’s take a quick look at the origins of Thanksgiving. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was concerned that the last Thursday in November 1939 fell on the last day of the month. He worried that this would shorten the time for Christmas shopping and potentially impact the economic recovery from the Great Depression. To address this, Roosevelt proclaimed that the second-to-last Thursday would become a day of thanksgiving, and thus Thanksgiving as we know it today.

How marketing brought us a popular Thanksgiving page

Among the many side dishes enjoyed at Thanksgiving, one stands out for its unique origin story: sweet potato casserole. This delicious treat, consisting of a sweet potato pie mix topped with roasted marshmallows, has become a beloved tradition on Thanksgiving tables across America. But how did this combination come about? The answer lies in clever marketing.
According to the New York Times, marshmallows were served in baskets as a Thanksgiving dessert as early as 1901. Advertisers took note of the trend and began to see the potential of incorporating marshmallows into recipes. In 1915, a sales and advertising magazine conducted a case study titled “Advertising New Uses for an Old Product,” using Bunte Brothers marshmallows as the old product.
Prior to this, marshmallows had been marketed primarily as a dessert. However, the magazine highlighted several ways that marshmallows could be used as an ingredient. This marked a significant shift in the perception of marshmallows.
In 1917, the Angelus Company published its Marshmallow Cookbook, which included what is believed to be the first recipe for sweet potato casserole. This marked a turning point for the dish as it gained popularity and became a staple on Thanksgiving menus across the country. The successful marketing campaign and inclusion of the recipe in the cookbook solidified sweet potato casserole’s place in the Thanksgiving tradition.
While marshmallows are a common ingredient today, it is interesting to reflect on a time when they were considered a novelty. The evolution of sweet potato casserole demonstrates the power of marketing and how it can shape our culinary traditions.


As we gather around the Thanksgiving table each year, it’s worth appreciating the stories behind the dishes we enjoy. Sweet potato casserole, which began as the result of a social experiment and clever marketing, has become a beloved part of Thanksgiving traditions. It serves as a reminder of how our culinary traditions evolve and adapt over time.
So as you enjoy your Thanksgiving feast, take a moment to appreciate the journey of the sweet potato casserole and the role it plays in bringing people together to celebrate this special holiday.


1. What is the social experiment behind the Thanksgiving side dish?

The social experiment refers to the marketing campaign that led to the popularization of sweet potato casserole as a Thanksgiving side dish. It involved introducing marshmallows as an ingredient in various recipes, including the sweet potato casserole, and changing the perception of marshmallows from a dessert item.

2. How did marshmallows become associated with sweet potato casserole?

Marshmallows became associated with sweet potato casserole through a marketing campaign in the early 20th century. Advertisers recognized the trend of incorporating marshmallows into recipes and promoted their use as an ingredient. The inclusion of a sweet potato casserole recipe with marshmallows in a marshmallow company cookbook further solidified the association.

3. Is sweet potato casserole a side dish or a dessert?

Sweet Potato Casserole is a versatile dish that can be served as a side dish as well as a dessert. Traditionally, it is enjoyed as a side dish with the Thanksgiving turkey. However, with its sweet and decadent flavors, some people also enjoy it as a dessert after the main meal.

4. When did sweet potato casserole become popular?

Sweet potato casserole gained popularity in the early 20th century, specifically after the publication of a cookbook by a marshmallow company in 1917. The inclusion of the sweet potato casserole recipe in this cookbook helped to popularize the dish and establish it as a Thanksgiving tradition.

5. Are marshmallows still a common ingredient in sweet potato casserole today?

Yes, marshmallows are still a common ingredient in sweet potato casseroles today. The combination of creamy sweet potatoes and toasted marshmallows remains a popular and iconic element of this classic Thanksgiving side dish.

6. How have perceptions of marshmallows changed over time?

The perception of marshmallows has evolved over time. Initially marketed primarily as a dessert item, marshmallows underwent a transformation in the early 20th century. Through aggressive marketing campaigns and the introduction of recipes that included marshmallows as an ingredient, the perception shifted and marshmallows were recognized as a versatile ingredient that could be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Sweet Potato Casserole is an example of this expanded use of marshmallows.

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