FEW products maintain their competitiveness, with virtually no design changes, for a full century. One thinks of Ivory Soap, perhaps, or the Sears catalog - or Fig Newton cookies. Fig Newtons, still a best-seller in the Nabisco line of baked goods, turn 100 next week, and the celebration, appropriately, will be in Newton, Mass. According to Nabisco's cookie historian, Dave Stivers, the Boston suburb lent its name to the mixture of figs and dough in 1891 at the inspiration of James Hazen, plant manager for the Kennedy Biscuit Works of Cambridgeport, Mass. Hazen liked naming cookies after local towns and had already christened a ``Melrose'' and a ``Brighton,'' for instance.
The Kennedy bakery and its fig creation were later absorbed by the National Biscuit Company.
At a time when Yankee ingenuity has its doubters, the genius that goes into an innovative cookie is worth considering. The Fig Newton took cookie technology to new 19th century heights. A mechanical wizard by the name of James Henry Mitchell devised the funneling machine - really a funnel within a funnel - that inserted fig jam into a caky tube.
Mitchell's basic concept stood the test of time, and mass production. Making cookies, apparently, is not like making computers, where design never stops changing. Apples or strawberries may be funneled in instead of figs, to see if the public will bite. But that's just tinkering.
For people who don't mind picking little seeds out of their teeth, figs will remain the filling of choice. And for those with a taste for commercial Americana, Newton will be a place to be May 7. Pop star Juice Newton will sing a few songs, and the celebrated ``Big Fig'' will be on hand to teach everyone his advertising jingle. But the biggest attraction will doubtless be a state-of-the-art, 100-inch-long Fig Newton.
Where else but in the USA?