Pumpkin spice wasn’t a thing before Starbucks

I try to eat healthy. But I’m a sucker for certain comfort foods. The list includes breakfast sandwiches and the annual Fall tradition of pumpkin spice lattes. I had my first of the latter this season in the morning before a drive up north. The leaves are changing colors, so it’s fitting.

Pumpkin spice is one of those things that feels timeless. Like apple cider and hot chocolate. So I was interested to learn that Starbucks invented the taste and concept in 2003. Wikipedia has a great article on the history of the pumpkin spice latte. It’s now Starbucks’ best-selling seasonal drink. They sold 200 million from 2003 through 2015.

Their success attracted copy cats. This includes other coffee chains. But also manufacturers of unrelated products, like air fresheners. You can see this in Google Trends. Interest in pumpkin spice increased almost 6x from 2004 to 2015. (Google doesn’t provide data from before 2004.)

It makes me wonder what other timeless cultural artifacts were marketing inventions. Santa Claus as we know him, which Coca-Cola invented, is another example. The tradition of diamond engagement rings, which De Beers invented, is yet another. But which traditions rooted in marketing are so old, we’ve lost their origins?

Not that this is necessarily bad. (Though I’d argue that the diamond engagement ring tradition has been bad for men, miners, and the environment.) I enjoy pumpkin spice lattes whether Starbucks makes them, another company makes them, or I make them. But it is good to know where our culture comes from. And how fast we can turn something new into an annual tradition.

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