February 7, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Henry Heinz

Henry Heinz looked around at his company exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The hand-carved antique oak glistened with polished oil. The small pagodas at each corner - graced by four international beauties - were stocked with a dizzying variety of free Heinz food samples. A trade paper had raved, “the Heinz exhibit is most comprehensive, showing every variety of sauce, relish and preserve put up, many of them being original with the firm.”

The pavilion had everything - except visitors. Heinz thought a bit and left for the nearest print shop. He designed a small white card promising the bearer a free Heinz souvenir when redeemed at the Heinz Company Exhibit at the fair. He directed his men to hand out the cards and hired boys to scatter the tokens by the thousands around the fair grounds.

The souvenir in question was a small charm one and one-quarter inches long shaped like a pickle, emblazoned with the name Heinz. And the people stampeded. The next day the New York Times reported, “It has just been discovered that the gallery floor of the Agricultural Building has sagged where the pickle display of H.J. Heinz Company stood, owing to the vast crowd which constantly thronged to procure a watch charm.”

Fair officials had to call on Chicago police to regulate the crowds until the supports of the gallery could be strengthened. Other exhibitors filed an official complaint with fair authorities, charging unfair competitive methods. All told Heinz gave away one million pickle charms at the fair. The Saturday Evening Post lauded the promotion as “one of the most famous giveaways in merchandising history.”

By the time of the Chicago Exposition Henry Heinz had been selling food for 41 of his 49 years. At the age of eight Heinz sold the surplus from his mother’s garden in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh. By the time he was 12 Henry was cultivating his own three-and-one-half acre plot. At an early age Heinz showed an intuitive sense of seed and soil, drawing on his German heritage.

Heinz specialized in bottled horseradish, a delicacy of the area. The food was prized as an appetite sharpener and hailed as a medicinal marvel. But its allure was not obtained without tedious kitchen preparation and a legacy of scraped knuckles. Heinz’s bottled, prepared horseradish - packaged in clear bottles for housewives to inspect for any trace of fillers - anticipated the desire for processed foods that was eventually to engrain his company in 20th century kitchens around the world.

Despite his success in the horseradish business Heinz was primarily a brickmaker until he was 25, first in his father’s brickyard and then as owner of his own brick factory. In 1869 he married and decided to forego all non-food business interests. His Anchor Brands started with horseradish and gradually expanded to include sauerkraut, pickles and vinegar.

By 1875 Heinz and his two partners had “built up the business with a rapidity seldom witnessed,” reported a commentator of the day. But it was too much too fast. A bumper cucumber crop left Heinz strapped for cash and the firm went bust. His parents’ house and furniture went to a sheriff’s sale; Heinz had to beg for credit for groceries for his family.

The stigma of bankruptcy did not settle long on Heinz. He was shortly back in the food business, managing a company started by his brother and cousin. His debts paid off, Heinz was solvent again by 1879, a year ahead of his self-imposed schedule. A small dervish of a man the restless Heinz now set out to expand the business.

An inveterate traveler, the Pittsburgh food merchant sailed to England in 1886 with dozens of jars of pickles, chili sauce and other condiments. Brazenly he marched into the leading London grocer of the day, Fortnum & Mason, and sold all his samples. Heinz products were quickly staples in every pantry in the British empire.

While riding a New York elevated train in 1892 Heinz studied a car placard that advertised “21 styles” of shoes. He reckoned the phrase would work for his own products. Although there were more than sixty of them at the time, Heinz hit on the number 57. Within a week the sign of the green pickle with the “57 Varieties” was everywhere Heinz could “find a place to stick it.”

He ordered New York’s first electric sign, a six-story, 1200-light display that advertised “good things from the table” from Heinz. Enthralled New Yorkers gathered nightly to watch the mechanically orchestrated lines of flashing lights, each of which cost $90 a night to burn.

His most successful promotion was the Heinz Ocean Pier at Atlantic City. Jutting 900 feet into the Atlantic Ocean the pier was popularly known as “The Crystal Palace by the Sea.” An estimated 50 million people visited the pier, most of whom left sporting their tiny Heinz pickle pin. Finally, in 1944 when the amusement pier seemed to be outliving its novelty, a September hurricane tore apart the pier casting the “5” from the giant “57” into the sea.

By 1900 Heinz had dwarfed his competitors. “Any one of our present buildings in Pittsburgh - there were 17 - is as large as the entire plant of any other concern in the same business in this country,” boasted a company statement. Heinz invited the public to visit his plant, one of the first industrialists to open his doors to factory tours.

In an era of reviled sweatshops Heinz proudly showed off his operation where Heinz girls stuffed pickles and peppers into glass jars and in their off hours enjoyed a paneled wood locker room, a library and a swimming pool. All food handlers enjoyed a free weekly manicure.

In an age when Americans began to turn away from home-grown foods concern grew over the quality of pre-packaged food products. Practically alone in the food industry Henry Heinz stood in favor of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and helped shepherd it into existence, generating priceless favorable publicity for his firm.

Into his seventies Heinz left much of the business details to his son and devoted himself to the national Sunday School movement. Still globetrotting, he had little time to enjoy his private museum collection and ten greenhouses at his Pittsburgh mansion. He was busy making plans for their expansion when he was stricken by pneumonia and died in 1919 at the age of 74.

Fifty years later in 1969, on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the food processing firm by Henry Heinz, company officials quietly dropped the celebrated “57 Varieties” trademark. At the time the H.J. Heinz product list numbered more than 1,100.

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