Coupon And Food Stamp: An Overlapping History

John Howard

Over the years, coupons and food stamps have been a norm among consumers, using it as a way to purchase items or obtain discounts. While there are many types of coupons nowadays, approximately 120 years ago, there were only less than five types to choose from and use.

This article sheds light on the history and origin of the life-changing, money-saving pieces of paper many consumers use until this day.

The Creation Of The First Coupon (1887)

In 1887, the Coca-Cola company needed a unique way to promote the newly invented drink. The company’s co-owner, Asa Griggs Candler, started by giving away pieces of paper (now known as coupons) that consumers could exchange for a free glass of cola. The coupons were all hand-written and manually distributed by Asa Candler himself and his employees, through magazines, or mail. 

A year after initiating the coupon distribution, Coca-Cola reported selling an average of nine glasses each day. This strategy by Candler quickly caught everyone’s eye and changed the market status of Coca-Cola from ordinary drink to the most sought-after thirst quencher in just over a few years. 

Another Revolutionary Step (1909)

With the success of Asa Candler’s idea, many would think that other companies would soon follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, the next coupon distribution happened in the year 1909. Charles William Post was the second person known to use coupons as a means of marketing and promotion. He started by giving out one-cent discounts on grape nuts breakfast cereals, and luckily, the consumer population quickly took part in the trend. C.W. Post is an inventor, breakfast cereal and food manufacturer, and a pioneer in the prepared food industry. 

By seeing the positive outcome of coupons distribution, Post’s company eventually gave value to the role of coupons in the society, and soon, other companies did so, too. This timeline was also a vital step in the development of coupon utilization because businesses soon realized that these were not brand-exclusive and that anyone can make their version for the public.

The First Food Stamps (1930)

The Great Depression was a result of a stock market crash, a decline in production, low consumer wages, and an exponential proliferation of debt. This situation caused the collapse and fall of the economy by the 1930s, which led to the buyers not having the ability to purchase much and, at the same time, leaving farmers with an excessive supply of crops and livestock.

As Americans continued to find ways to save money, food stamps became their saving grace. In a bid to lighten the burden of The Great Depression, the government distributed food stamps. The government used catchy phrases like “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or go without!” played in different streets and public places in the U.S. back then. 

On the morning of May 1939, Ralson Thayer became the first recipient of the inaugural batch of food stamps in Rochester, New York. Thayer was a 35-year old World War I veteran that was immediately stopped by most reporters and photographers in which he told them, “I never got surplus foods before, but I certainly will now. The plan seems simple enough”. In exchange for his unemployment check, he received $4 worth of orange stamps plus free blue stamps that are worth $2.

Overall, the distribution of food stamps benefited both the consumers and the sellers. Within the first four days of the program, shelves were emptied and cleaned out. Sellers struggled to keep up with consumer demands, which meant that the food stamp distribution was 100% success.

Groceries And Supermarkets Started Keeping Up (1940)

Ten years after the distribution of the first food stamp, many decided to do the same in an attempt to attract customers and, at the same time, help sellers earn more. Coupons were given inside big city supermarkets because the people started settling for local groceries in their areas and no longer wanted to visit the city for supplies.

This strategy worked because consumers weren’t able to resist the deals that the big city supermarkets offer. The coupons were enough to level with the local grocers’ promos, which instantly lured consumers in to purchase from big-city markets as well.

The Nielsen Coupon Clearing House (1957)

Because of the overwhelming support and feedback from the consumers, the companies could no longer handle the fast-growing industry of coupons. In 1957, the Nielsen Coupon Clearing House came into the picture and was a significant catalyst in the continuous growth of the industry. The company served as a bridge or middleman between the suppliers and sellers. It also made redeeming coupons quicker while also making the overall process more accessible and more bearable.

The idea of having a company made to handle coupons was new and foreign to many, but seeing that it took away numerous burdens and time-consuming procedures made the population accept the concept more freely over time. Currently, the Nielsen Coupon Clearing House is part of the NCH Marketing Services.

Food Stamps Began Dominating American Households (1965)

By 1965, the government’s efforts to address the issue of hunger among the needy people came in the form of the “food stamp program.” This program aimed to give surplus food such as rice, beans, eggs, and many more to the people affected by the Great Depression. The food stamps and coupons reached American households through magazines or newspapers, which made it easier and more accessible to the majority of families.

During this time, more than 50% of all houses in the United States had access to the life-changing program and have been starting to purchase necessities through clipping coupons and food stamps. 

The Further Expansion Of Food Stamp Distribution (1970)

While food stamps were already popular years before, the industry got the most extensive exposure and expansion under the leadership of Richard Nixon, a Republican president. Nixon’s efforts, alongside other government official’s campaigns and trips, opened the eyes of the population to the grim reality of children starving.

In a message to Congress, Richard Nixon reiterated that allowing hunger and malnutrition to persist in their country is both “embarrassing and intolerable” and that he wants to work and finally end the ongoing problems in America regarding hunger. During Nixon’s reign as president, the food stamp program grew exponentially and became available to all qualified households.

Free-Standing Inserts (1972)

In August 1972, George F. Valassis implemented the usage of FSI. He originally wanted to call the FSI as flag-wavers because these coupons were placed separately from the paper and looked like small flags waving at the readers. The FSI was another way to promote coupons from several companies effortlessly. People nowadays could find these coupons in the Sunday newspapers, especially if they subscribed to a particular publication.

Coupons In Periodicals (1980)

The good thing about the industry of coupons is that it continues to grow. By 1980, coupons became an essential part of periodicals. Periodicals are any publication that’s issued at a regular schedule. It can be daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly). Since coupons started dominating the local newspapers, it comprised ⅔ of every issue and showed an 11% growth in both consumer and manufacturer ratings.

People Continuously Benefited From Coupons (1982)

In the year 1982, approximately 22 million Americans were using coupons as a means to save money and buy surplus food to feed their families. One out of ten American citizens were able to benefit from this program, which is why the government was able to distribute almost $119.5 Billion worth of coupons and food stamps. One feature of the food stamp that many don’t realize is that it always helped supply the low public welfare benefits.

Internet-Delivered, Printable Coupons or “E-Coupons” (1990)

The internet became an instant sensation in the year 1990 because of the opportunities it gave the people, the convenience, and the ease of use. 1990 was also the year that the coupon industry took a step further and used the internet to continue the programs. Coupons became available online wherein anyone had access and could print copies of cents-off coupons, free items, savings, and many offers.

Sellers also benefited from this innovative invention, because they could already post their coupons on their websites. The program became a way for manufacturers to create a strategy that targeted the price-sensitive consumers. 

They were able to present product prices to the population in such a way that people couldn’t ignore it. Both old and new consumers can easily log onto the site, input their area zip code, and get any coupon available for several stores nearby.

When printed out, coupons looked like bar codes, which cash registers could easily read and transfer information to the main computer. The coupon industry skyrocketed to a distribution of more than 3 billion each year. It was used as a price-strategy for companies through discounts and deals. 

The e-coupons were used as a way to collect vital information like demographic data. However, the citizens could only use these coupons for food used to prepare meals at home, not the ready-made ones in restaurants.

Budget Increase (2007)

Thanks to the internet, more and more people have gained easy access to coupons and food stamps. The distribution of coupons exponentially increased in only over a few years, and the government saw how rapidly the industry was growing. This growth prompted the government to release a bigger budget for coupons. Overall, the budget released for the year 2007 was $30.4 Billion.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program a.k.a SNAP (2008)

Because of the growing stigma around the phrase “food stamp,” the government decided to rename the program to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or what people know as SNAP. The distribution budget immediately rose from $30.4 Billion to $71.8 Billion. SNAP has continued to help American citizens since the Great Depression.

SNAP beneficiaries are easy to enumerate because mostly the elderly and young population comprise this group. Minors made up 47% of the overall population, while the seniors (60 years old or older) made up the remaining 8%. The other 41% of Snap beneficiaries were those from households of poor people. SNAP made its way to mobile phones, and sellers used gadgets as a way to promote and distribute coupons to the population.

SNAP Continues To Dominate The Industry (2010)

Thanks to the success of SNAP in mobile phones, the government continued to push through with the program. According to an article released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, SNAP benefits made up more than 1/10 of the overall purchases made at groceries, supermarkets, and retail stores. 

An Increase In The SNAP Budget (2011)

The continuous success of SNAP paved the way for several more programs that could be a way to help the poor community. That’s why the government also increased the distribution project and made it to a whopping $71.8 Billion. 2011 was a year that had all conveniences combined: the use of the internet, easy access to coupons through mobile phones, and the eagerness of the population to obtain discounts and savings.

The Future Of Online Coupons (2017)

During this timeline, more consumers have turned to online coupons to get numerous discounts on the products they’re buying. Coupons were no longer exclusive to surplus food, but it can now be used for any product, as long as the company or business relays these coupon codes to the public.

For the year 2017 alone, approximately more than 96% of online shoppers used coupons in their purchases and checkouts. Since its establishment in 1990, the internet has been a vital part of the coupon industry. 75% of the success in the coupon industry is due to the internet, which gave convenience and easy access to both manufacturers and consumers. The population no longer needed a middle man to manage the coupons.

Consumers And E-Coupons Today (2018-2020)

With the technological advancements that the population has these days, it’s impossible to see anyone having a hard time trying to get coupons for their next grocery trip. People have become accustomed to the fact that you can easily purchase products through coupons. These coupons, whether in paper or on mobile phones, have continuously given Americans benefits and necessities for many years.

However, President Donald Trump proposed that the government should cut the budget for food stamps in half. Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, compared this proposal to the former Blue Apron program. This statement caused an uproar of criticism from the people, especially the welfare and administration critics. If President Trump decides to push through with the plan to cut the program in half, the beneficiaries will no longer have access to a variety of food while also limiting their choices.

Whether the government continues with the decision or not, everyone should acknowledge the fact that coupons have been and still are an essential tool for Americans to survive. These coupons have aided the people through the great depression, and it will also undoubtedly help Americans get through the current coronavirus pandemic.


Coupons have come a long way since Asa Candler decided to make it as a way to promote and advertise products. Despite the constant changes in the economy of the United States, coupons have and will always continue to be a vital part of how the poor society survives.