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Meet the Lawyer Who Brought Cranberry Sauce to the Thanksgiving Table

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 22, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Cranberry sauce, tart, tangy, and deliciously red, is a staple of the Thanksgiving table. And, sorry foodies, nothing is better than the canned stuff. Shiny, wobbly, still bearing the marks of the tin can, it's the perfect side for topping turkey, spreading over a biscuit, or just eating on its own.

But canned cranberry sauce didn't come to us straight from the pilgrims. (Shocking, I know.) It was popularized more than 100 years ago by one very enterprising lawyer.

Marcus Urann, the Man With the Cranberry Plan

The history of canned cranberry sauce begins with one man: Marcus L. Urann, the farmer and businessman who would go on to found Ocean Spray. But before Urann made canned cranberries a regular part of your Thanksgiving meals, he was a humble lawyer "with big plans," according to a recent feature by Smithsonian's K. Annabelle Smith writes:

At the turn of the 20th century, he left his legal career to buy a cranberry bog. "I felt I could do something for New England. You know, everything in life is what you do for others," Urann said in an interview published in the Spokane Daily Chronicle in 1959, decades after his inspired career change. His altruistic motives aside, Urann was a savvy businessman who knew how to work a market. After he set up cooking facilities at as packinghouse in Hanson, Massachusetts, he began to consider ways to extend the short selling season of the berries. Canning them, in particular, he knew would make the berry a year-round product.

Urann's canning method, which he developed in 1912, meant that cranberries could be consumed well beyond their six-week harvesting period, helping them grow from a niche crop into a the more than 5 million gallons of jellied sauce sold today.

The King of Cranberries

But Urann still had to sell the product to the public. Urann "had the savvy, the finances, the connections and the innovative spirit to make change happen," according to Robert Cox, an academic who has written about, yes, "cranberry culture." "He wasn't the only one to cook cranberry sauce, he wasn't the only one to develop new products, but he was the first to come up with the idea."

Urann's legacy wasn't just all business, bogs, and berries, though. There's at least one significant legal twist as well. When Urann convinced his competitors to join him in a grower's cooperative, which would later become Ocean Spray, he was at great risk of violating federal antitrust laws.

To get around the problem, Urann got himself a good lawyer, John Quarles. Quarles turned to the Capper-Volstead Act's antitrust exemptions for agricultural associations in order to save Urann's scheme.

The rest is history. And Thanksgiving dinner.

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