Velvet was and is a Jewish Detroit original. It was invented and produced in Detroit, a product that made its way into thousands, if not millions, of homes in Michigan
For many, many years, those three boys stared at me when I was having lunch. “Pure” and “Delicious” looked friendly enough, but I never quite trusted that “Fresh” kid. He did look mischievous. I am referring to the three kids on the label of the Velvet Peanut Butter jar.
No offense to those parents who bought Skippy, Peter Pan or Jif peanut butter for their homes, but growing up, we had Velvet Peanut Butter. Long before the famous “Choosy Mothers Choose Jif” television advertisement, Velvet was the peanut butter of choice for many “choosy” mothers in Metro Detroit.
Velvet was and is a Jewish Detroit original. It was invented and produced in Detroit, a product that made its way into thousands, if not millions, of homes in Michigan. My wife, Pam, was raised in Northern Michigan, and her mom bought Velvet for her family in Boyne City.
I figured Velvet was a most worthy topic for a search in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. I found several great stories about Velvet and its founder, Paul Zuckerman.
One cannot write about Velvet without writing about Zuckerman. Born in Istanbul in 1912 to Joseph Zuckerman and Rose Popper, he grew up in Detroit during the Great Depression of the 1930s and was a great example of a self-made Jewish immigrant success story. He began classes at the University of Detroit at the age of 15 while working various jobs, including driving a truck, then working as a manager and buyer for a food wholesaler. Zuckerman, however, was a born entrepreneur, and he wanted to make a better peanut butter.
In the 1930s, peanut butter was not the product it is today; that is, a smooth, tasty spread that holds together in a jar. Today’s peanut butter is the result of years of experimentation by people like Zuckerman.
In 1944, Zuckerman introduced a “homogenized” peanut butter, trademarked as “Fresh. Pure. Delicious,” as personified by the three freckled-faced kids on Velvet’s label. In fact, those three kids stared at me again yesterday while I was shopping at our local market.
Velvet was a huge success. Zuckerman became a wealthy man and one of Jewish Detroit’s great leaders. Nearly 1,200 pages in the Archive mention Zuckerman and his wife, Helen, and their support for hundreds of good causes in Michigan and Israel.
The JN holds great stories about Velvet itself. For a fine history of Velvet see an article titled (go figure) “Fresh. Pure. Delicious.” in the Feb. 5, 2015, issue. The illustration for this piece is a c. 1940s Velvet label design with the now famous three kids. Another article from April 4, 2019, is about the reintroduction of Velvet to local Detroit stores after an absence of almost 25 years.
Velvet is enough of a Detroit gastronomic institution that legendary JN writer Danny Raskin wrote about it in his “Best of Everything” columns. In 1985 and repeated in 2004, Danny quoted journalist George Cantor about his rather elaborate production method for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Cantor insisted upon using Velvet for the perfect PBJ creation (Dec. 6, 1985; Feb. 6, 2004).
Yes, Velvet is a great Detroit tradition. But I’m still not sure that I trust that “Fresh” kid.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.