The story of William A. Turnier, the man who designed the Oreo cookie | Food Feature | Indy Week
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The story of William A. Turnier, the man who designed the Oreo cookie 

Schematic of a snack: William A. Turnier's 1952 blueprint of the Oreo design and the cookie today

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange • Photo illustration by JP Trostle

Schematic of a snack: William A. Turnier's 1952 blueprint of the Oreo design and the cookie today

Twelve billion times a year, a disc of vanilla cream is stamped between two chocolate wafers to produce the Oreo, the world's most popular manufactured cookie.

An American staple since 1912, the Oreo has a flavor that contrasts sweet cream and crisp chocolate cookies. Its texture is marked by a distinct decorative pattern: a small, circular border hatched with short, shallow lines and an interior ringed with four-leaf clovers. But the cookie, 491 billion of which have sold worldwide, still leaves some details in question.

"Who Made that Oreo Emboss?" read a recent headline on a New York Times blog.

"Bill, Chapel Hill, NC," answered: "My father is William A. Turnier. He worked for the entire 49 years of his working life at Nabisco. In 19[52] he was assigned the task of producing a new design for the Oreo."

It turns out Bill Turnier of Chapel Hill really is the son of the man who, by nearly all accounts, designed the modern Oreo. To many, Bill Turnier's comment wasn't breaking news. Cookie and design enthusiasts have long credited William A. Turnier as the cookie's artist—and no one else has publicly emerged to claim the title—but they've done so without knowing many details about his life.

Bill Turnier has those details—stories and memories of his dad, a former mail boy-turned-design guru who also put his imprint on the Nutter Butter and the Milk-Bone. And he has the proof: High above a closet door in Turnier's tidy brick home in east Chapel Hill hangs a framed copy of the blueprint for the Oreo's most enduring design, unchanged for nearly 60 years. In the corner, the printed name: "W.A. Turnier"

Nabisco confirms that Turnier worked for the company between 1923 and 1973 as a member of the engineering department where he created dies—basically high-tech cookie cutters—to stamp patterns. The company won't, however, say that he made the design. "We have no way of knowing who came up with the actual visual concept of what each new cookie/ cracker product would look like," wrote an archivist for Kraft Foods Corporate Archives, who wishes to remain unnamed, in an email to the Indy. The blueprint hanging in Chapel Hill leaves the mystery open to interpretation. Nothing appears under the box for "Designed by," but "Drawn by" reveals the name W. A. Turnier penned by hand on July 17, [19]52. The only other name on the document shows up as the scribbled initials of an overseer in the box for "Checked by."

William Adelbert Turnier was born in Edgewater, N.J., in 1908. As a toddler, he became ill with polio. "That was very significant," Bill Turnier says. "My father dropped out of school at age 16. Kids were mean to him because he had a limp." So Turnier took a job in nearby New York City as a mail boy at Nabisco, which also employed his father, Adelbert.

When Turnier arrived at Nabisco in 1923, the Oreo was already well into production. It launched in 1912 and is believed to have taken its name from the Greek word for mound, the shape the cookie is reported to have briefly mimicked. That's hard to imagine today, when a great deal of the cookie's appeal has to do with its combination of three flat discs—two parts cookie and one part cream—which can be playfully pulled apart and reassembled.

Folklorist Elizabeth Mosby Adler addresses this in her essay from the early 1980s, "The Oreo Syndrome: Creative Eating," which uses the Oreo to deconstruct highly individualized rituals that people develop with certain foods. "Each technique is personal," she writes of the multi-part cookie. "Do you scrape the frosting off with your teeth? Do you carefully try to lift it off, separating the filling from the cookie? Are you a failure when you painstakingly pry the cookie open, only to have the frosting split and stay tightly attached to both sides?"

Noted food writer Colman Andrews of The Daily Meal says the meat of the matter is in the cream filling. "It's the whole point of Oreos," he proposes. "The chocolate cookies, which aren't particularly good as chocolate cookies go, are just the excuse to eat the rest—like the bottom part of muffins, when all anybody really wants are the tops. The white stuff appeals to that part of us that can't resist swiping a finger through the frosting on a cake."

Taste and technique aside, a great deal of the cookie's attention centers on its emboss—the textures and shapes on the chocolate. According to Nicola Twilley of The Atlantic, since its inception the cookie has had three designs. The first image was sparse, the seemingly hand-drawn script for "OREO" appearing alone with the letters R and E slightly taller than the O's. Half circles scalloped the edges, and an X marked each quarter of the cookie.

In 1924, the center was filled with a ring of laurels, two turtledoves and a thicker, more mechanical Oreo font. Then, in 1952, the current cookie was created. Of that design, architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in the Times on the cookie's 75th anniversary, "It stands as the archetype of its kind, a reminder that cookies are designed as consciously as buildings, and sometimes better."

More by Emily Wallace

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