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Seeing is Believing: The Story Behind Henry Heinz’s Condiment Empire

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Dressings for your dish. | Photo by Michael Rosenstein, CC. Click on image for license and information.

Do me a favor: Go open your refrigerator and look at the labels on your condiments. Alternatively, if you’re at work, open your drawer and flip through your stash of condiment packets. (Don’t look at me like that. I know you have a stash. Or you know where to find one. It’s practically Office Survival 101.) Go on. I’ll wait.

So tell me, what brands are hanging out in your fridge? (Or drawer?) Hellmann’s? French’s? Heinz? Even if you aren’t a slave to brand names and you typically buy whatever is on sale or the local supermarket brand, if you’ve ever eaten out or purchased a meal to-go that required condiments, you’ve likely been exposed to one of these brands for mayonnaise, mustard, or ketchup. And given the broad reach of Heinz, I’d be surprised if the company didn’t get a mention. So what are the origins of Heinz—the man and the brand? Why do we adorn our hamburgers and hotdogs with his products over others? It boils down to trust—carefully crafted trust, which obscures the image of Heinz as a food corporation and highlights a sense of quality, home-made goods.

Henry Heinz | Historical image provided by Heinz. Click on image for license and information.

Henry Heinz was born in 1844 to German immigrant parents near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father John owned a brickyard in Sharpsburg, and his mother Anna was a homemaker with a talent for gardening. Henry assisted both of them—in the brickyard before and after school, and in the garden when time permitted. He also sold surplus produce to local grocers. Henry proved to have quite a green thumb himself and at the age of twelve, he had his own plot, a horse, a cart, and a list of customers.

Henry’s gardening proficiency was in keeping with the times—most households were growing or otherwise making their own foods at home in the early nineteenth century, space permitting. The market for processed food was hampered by distrust in the quality offered:

Food quality and safety were growing concerns in the mid nineteenth-century cities. These issues were not new. Various local laws had mandated inspection of meat and flour exports since the colonial period. Other ordinances had regulated bread prices and ingredients, banning adulterants, such as chalk and ground beans. But as urban areas and the sources of food supplying these areas expanded, older controls weakened. Public anxiety about contaminated food, including milk, meat, eggs, and butter mounted. So, too, did worries about adulterated chocolate, sugar, vinegar, molasses, and other foods (356).

Contaminants included lead (in peppers and mustard) and ground stone (in flour and sugar). So it’s not surprising that people were hesitant about purchasing pre-packaged products. However, American society was on the brink of a social change that would make people more receptive to processed foods: industrialization was accelerating. As a result, an increase in urbanization reduced the amount of space available for gardens and livestock, incomes rose so that more people could afford prepared foods, and women’s roles shifted to allow for wage labor. In fact, between 1859 and 1899, the output of the food processing industry expanded 1500%, and by 1900, manufactured food comprised about a third of commodities produced in the US (350).

So what led the way for this adoption of packaged foods? Believe it or not, horseradish.

Horseradish was particularly popular among English and German immigrant communities. It was used to flavor potatoes, cabbage, bread, meats, and fish—and some people even attributed medicinal properties to the condiment. It was also extremely time consuming to make: the root had to be grated, packed in vinegar and spices, and sealed in jars or pots. The potential market for prepared horseradish existed, but customers were suspicious of the contents of the green and brown glass bottles that served as packaging. Turnip and wood-fibers were popular fillers, and the opaque coloring of the bottles made it hard to judge the caliber of the contents.

Heinz's Horseradish. | Historical photo provided by Heinz. Click on image for license and information.

Heinz understood this—and saw the potential for selling consumers, especially women—something that they desperately wanted: time. In his teens, he began to bottle horseradish using his mother’s recipe—without fillers—in clear glass, and sold his products to local grocers and hotel owners. He emphasized the purity of his product and noted he had nothing to hide because he used clear glass so you could view the contents of his product. His strategy worked: By 1861, he was growing three and a half acres of horseradish to meet demand, and had made $2400.00 by year’s end (roughly $93,000.00 in 2012) (356).

He made enough money to eventually buy his father’s brickyard. But in 1869, Heinz opted to shift his energies entirely to food production. The discovery of oil in the Allegheny Valley had propelled the region into an industrial hub, and Heinz’s produce sales grew with the increased demands created by the influx of workers and businesses that opened to cater to their needs. So Heinz took a partner, L. Clarence Noble, a member of a wealthy Sharpsburg family, and the two opened a factory in the basement of a former home of some Heinz family members. They hired two women and a boy to make and pack the product, which was still just bottled horseradish. They decided on an anchor for their logo—it being a solid and reliable example that their customers could depend on.

The other members of the Heinz product family—celery sauce, mustard, and sweet and sour pickles—were integrated backwards as Heinz and Noble worked to minimize waste and expenditure. Because vinegar played such a large role in the production process, the company moved to manufacture its own vinegar—also under the banner of high quality that could be trusted to be unadulterated. And Heinz experimented constantly to add products that would utilize the existing capabilities of the company:

In the first five years of business, horseradish root, vinegar, cucumbers, onions, cabbages, and a few spices were the firm’s core ingredients. Its early product line, which soon broadened to include sauerkraut and pickled cauliflower, developed directly from inventive reliance on these makings. New products such a gherkins and mustard were combined to create still other goods. Chow chow, a chutney-like spread, was made from gherkins, onions, cauliflower, and mustard” (361).

The success of Heinz and Noble was intimately tied to their guarantee of an unadulterated product. And their reputation was such that customers came to expect high quality products from the Anchor-marked brand.

Business would continue to grow until 1875 when Heinz and Noble would fall under the effects of the Panic of 1873. The economy was depressed, credit was tight, and Heinz was short $3,000.00 to pay creditors and employees. On top of that, the growing season had been a good one, and there was no shortage of production goods—just hands to make them with. In November 1875, Heinz bounced a check, and it was a short step to December from there, when he and his partner filed for bankruptcy.

The story doesn’t end there, however, because we haven’t talked about ketchup. Heinz would struggle for a few years—he didn’t even have money for groceries in 1876—but ketchup would save the day. He went to his brother John and cousin Frederick for a loan, and launched another food-processing company. So it was that F&J Heinz was born. This time his family was heavily involved and they focused on the same products that had made Heinz and Noble a success. But sales lagged.

Heinz saw a market in ketchup just as he had done for horseradish. Ketchup was an immensely popular addition to fish, meat, vegetables and gravies since the 18th-century. It was a British staple that had been imported to the United States, and was well established by the 19th-century as a kitchen necessity. However, it lacked consistency and quality assurance. In addition, “overcooking, spoilage, and large quantities of camouflaging spices often destroyed taste and appearance” (373). Heinz utilized his reputation for delivering an unadulterated product of high and consistent standards—in a clear bottle, of course—to seize the market.

What Heinz seemed to understand was that people needed to feel that there was no trade-off with packaged foods. Women in particular, who would be the primary purchasers of these items, needed a product they could trust in a trade for the time they might spend in meal preparation for their families. A clear bottle suggested to consumers that Heinz had nothing to hide, unlike competitors who relied on opaque bottles to mask the caliber of their goods.

All of that from a clear bottle.

Cited:
Koehn, N. (2011). Henry Heinz and Brand Creation in the Late Nineteenth Century: Making Markets for Processed Food Business History Review, 73 (03), 349-393 DOI: 10.2307/3116181

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Hasufin 6:12 pm 03/26/2012

    This is a topic which is dear to my heart: every year, I haunt farmers’ markets and bulk spice stores, where I buy the ingredients for various foods I make and can. I’m not selling any of it: I’ve looked into the possibility and concluded that it would be prohibitively difficult to get access to a certified commercial kitchen or any of the other licenses necessary. Even so, I find that I can go through a truly remarkable amount of produce in making condiments especially.

    I note that the timing of Heinz’ business ventures is, interestingly, exactly in the time between the invention of canning and the founding of the FDA; the gruesome descriptions in _The Jungle_ make the fillers listed above rather familiar.

    Today, there’s an increasing sense of being disconnected from our food, hence the modern emphasis on foods being “wholesome” and “organic”, and the various panics about corn syrup, hormones, etc. This seems to be fueling a swing back toward homemade foods – or, more accurately, factory-produced foods that can be convincingly homemade.

    I should mention that, ironically, while using clear jars definitely increased confidence in Heinz’ products, those jars reduced the quality: tinted glass protects the contents from sunlight, which breaks down numerous important nutrients. That’s why apothecary jars are traditionally brown glass.

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  2. 2. DougAlder 9:10 pm 03/26/2012

    @Hasufin it is also why beer sold in clear bottles should be avoided – it goes “skunky” very quickly from the action of UV

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  3. 3. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 3:13 pm 03/27/2012

    Hasufin, I’m impressed. My parents can make some of the various achars and S has tried his hand at pepper sauces, but I’ve not made anything myself.

    You’re right about the timing. Government regulations were just beginning to gain momentum—they’d been difficult to enforce previously and the public was getting tired of eating fillers like wood fibers. One of the reasons Heinz moved to making his own vinegar was that the public felt that most vinegars were poisonous (and they probably were).

    And yes, my favorite beer comes in a dark colored bottle.

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