The Good Provider

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Pittsburgh, God knows, was no fourth-century Athens, but around 1900 it did have a remarkable group of industrial leaders. The Pittsburgh barons exercised their power and made their fortunes in coal and coke, iron and steel, aluminum and oil, glass, rails, and heavy machinery. Five of them were commanding figures in their time and are legends in ours: Carnegie, Frick, Westinghouse, Mellon, and Heinz. Allan Nevins has called such men the architects of our material progress. They have been called other things as well, all except H. J. Heinz.

Henry John Heinz chose in this most unlikely location—a city built among hills and based on the heaviest of heavy industry—to work at the primary business of feeding people. For fifty years he was a dominant force in developments that changed agricultural practices, the processing of food, and the kitchen habits of the nation. Heinz founded a giant corporation in a new industry, and he carried its products and philosophy to four continents with a promotional flair that probably has never been surpassed.

The diet of Americans in 1869, when twenty-five-year-old Henry Heinz and a still-younger partner named L. C. Noble founded their company, was of a tiresome monotony seven or eight months of the year. The staples were bread, potatoes, root vegetables, and meat, often dried, smoked, or salted. Cucumbers and pickles were the only salad in winter, and in any case, leaf salads were considered unmanly. There was little movement of foodstuffs from one region to another, except for the shipment of meat, and each part of the country had its marked variations and limitations in diet. The grocery store had no produce section; fresh vegetables and fruits were sold in season only. Grapefruit was unknown outside Florida, and an orange was something found in a Christmas stocking. Tomatoes were an exotic Mexican fruit, long grown and admired as “love apples,” for which the nation was just beginning to acquire a taste. In the relatively new art of commercial preservation in cans and bottles, the food was laced with chemicals that caused digestive disturbances, if not worse. (The 1911 Britannica devoted thirty-two columns to the adulteration of food.)

Henry J. had become a food merchant at the age of twelve, and his first triumph had to do with food adulterants. Living in Sharpsburg, a small town on the Allegheny River six miles above Pittsburgh, he peddled the excess produce of the family garden to his neighbors, first in a handbasket, then in a cart, graduating to a horse and wagon, four acres under cultivation, and thrice weekly trips to call on Pittsburgh grocers. His specialty, however, was horseradish, the pungent white root that was consumed in vast quantities because it sharpened the appetite, made dull food palatable, and supposedly possessed medicinal qualities, especially for grippe and catarrh. Horseradish would keep only if grated, and bottled in vinegar—a chore that made the eyes smart. A local trade had grown up in horseradish, always in green bottles and sometimes with adulterants that looked like, but were not, grated horseradish. Henry J. bottled his product in clear glass and peddled it as the whitest and best-quality root—look, no leaves, no wood fiber, no turnip filler! When sales rose, he filed in his mind the first two of the Important Ideas that were to make him rich. Important Idea Number One: Housewives are willing to let someone else take over a share of their kitchen operations. Important Idea Number Two: A pure article of superior quality will find a ready market through its intrinsic value— if properly packaged and promoted.

By 1875, their sixth year of operation, Heinz and Noble had, in the words of a contemporary analyst, “built up the business with a rapidity seldom witnessed.” Already their company was one of the country’s leading producers of condiments. They had moved from the two-story Sharpsburg house that served as their headquarters and manufacturing center (it is now enshrined in Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan) to an office and storeroom in the city. They had one hundred and fifty “operatives” in season; one hundred acres of garden along the Allegheny River (thirty in horseradish); twenty-five horses; a business office and vinegar factory in St. Louis; and an annual capacity of three thousand barrels of sauerkraut, fifteen thousand barrels of pickles, and fifty thousand barrels of vinegar. And they had a new contract: a commitment to pickle the produce of some six hundred acres of cucumbers near Woodstock, Illinois.