February 7, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
William Underwood

In 1819, at the age of 32, William Underwood walked from New Orleans to Boston. He had landed in Louisiana two years earlier, hoping to parlay his experience as a tinsmith in England into a canner in America. After New Orleans did not work out, he set off for Boston. On foot. This sort of determination would serve him well in his attempts to establish the new industry of canning in America.

Food preservation began during the Napoleonic Wars when French foodmakers discovered heated food could be sealed in jars and safely eaten later on the battlefield. Commercial applications quickly sprang up in France and England, and, eventually, the United States.

Once in Boston Underwood joined up with his brother James. Here they started preserving local delicacies such as cranberries and broiled lobsters in a shop on Russia Wharf. He sold tomatoes, an exotic food in 1820s America, that he grew from English seeds in his yard. The early Underwood products were processed totally in glass bottles. By all accounts the Underwood cannery was America’s first successful canning operation.

William Underwood discovered a prejudice against American canned goods in his new country and was forced to ship most of his food to South American and Far East markets. He overcame this resistence by stamping “England” on his containers and gradually he built his American market. Canning was expensive and time-consuming but as developments in machine cutting and soldering advanced cans became the main vehicle for Underwood’s processed foods. Underwood canned meats went to sea and travelled west with the wagon trains and eventually to battle in the Civil War.

The canning business was run by Underwoods for almost 100 years after William Underwood’s death during the Civil War. In 1868, three years after the founder’s death, Henry Oliver Underwood introduced the “red devil” trademark for the company’s line of deviled meat spreads. The devil, a heavily-muscled, horned demon, was assigned No. 82 (the list went past one million in 1974). It is the oldest food trademark in the United States.

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