The Good Provider


Despite their apparent prosperity, the partners had overextended themselves and were in serious trouble. The Jay Cooke banking panic had tightened credit, and times were hard. Throughout 1875 Heinz, who owned three eighths of the company, was frantically busy in a scramble to meet payrolls, obtain loans, renew notes, and cover the ever-larger, ever-faster checks that were drawn on him when a bumper cucumber crop came in at Woodstock—one thousand dollars a day throughout October. Heinz endorsed his life insurance as collateral, borrowed from friends, and mortgaged his house, the house he had built for his parents, and his father’s brick kiln. All were lost when Heinz & Noble Company filed for bankruptcy in December with assets of $110,000 and liabilities of $170,000. On January 13, with an empty kitchen at home, Heinz called on three grocers “to trust me for groceries on my honor, and I would pay as soon as I could make something after I would get matters straightened up.” He was refused. In his private diary (made available for this article) he wrote: “Bankruptcy changes a man’s nature. I feel as though every person had lost confidence in me and I am therefore reserved.”

The following month his brother John and cousin Frederick, operating with three thousand dollars of borrowed capital, set up in the food business under the name F. & J. Heinz. Henry J. became their manager, with the private understanding that when discharged from bankruptcy he would own half the company. They barely weathered the first year. “Very close run for money,” he wrote in August. “Can’t see how to get along and not a man or friend will give us a cent, even on chattel mortgage.” Pittsburghers had admired his superb teams, matched for size, breed, and color. Now he wrote: “Bought a cheap $16 horse to help us out of a pinch. He is blind.”

The upturn came in 1879. The depression was over. The company made a fifteen-thousand-dollar profit; a Pittsburgh bank discounted $2,500 of the company’s paper without an endorser (“This is gratifying”); and Heinz gave each of his best workers a fifteen-dollar Christmas bonus “for faithful efforts and good success.” He paid off with interest, out of his salary, a dozen of the names on his Debt of Honor list—his three-eighths share of the old company’s debt. He felt prosperous enough to lend a bankrupt friend five hundred dollars with which to buy back his stock at sheriff’s sale, and on his tenth wedding anniversary he bought his wife Sallie an oil painting entitled Sweet Hour of Prayer .

The Heinz products increased in variety, volume, and reputation: tomato ketchup in 1876, red and green pepper sauce in 1879, cider vinegar and apple butter in 1880, and then other “fruit butters,” chili sauce, mincemeat, mustard, tomato soup, olives, pickled onions, pickled cauliflower, sweet pickles (the first ever marketed), baked beans with tomato sauce. In April, 1880, Heinz drew up a contract with the pickle growers around La Porte, Indiana, in which he supplied the cucumber seed and contracted to buy the harvest. Important Idea Number Three was born: To improve the product in glass or can, you must first improve it while still in the ground.


In the summer of 1886 Heinz sailed from New York on the paddlewheel City of Berlin with his wife, his sister Mary, and his four children (Irene, fourteen years old, and three younger sons). He took with him six folding chairs, six dozen oranges, two dozen lemons, a bundle of blankets, and, in the hold, several crates of Heinz products. A muscular, energetic little man (129 pounds) with sparkling eyes and bristling red “side choppers,” he carried a pocket diary, a notebook, and a steel tape measure, which he whipped out on any occasion for recording interesting heights, widths, and distances.

He landed in Liverpool, looked around, and wrote: “I have learned little in this city which I can utilize in America to advantage.” In the two weeks he spent in London he visited, tape measure in hand, the Crystal Palace, the Albert Memorial, and the Smithfield Poultry and Dead Cattle Market. He copied the inscription from John Bunyan’s tomb, collected a white pebblestone from the grave of John Wesley, and spoke to a class at a Free Methodist Sunday School. He called on food brokers, glassmen, a pickle factory, a malt vinegar factory, and the offices of Crosse & Blackwell (“an immense house”). The Houses of Parliament, unfortunately, were closed to visitors, “owing to several attempts in blowing up the buildings.”

On June 16 Heinz brushed his whiskers, donned his best frock coat (made for him in Philadelphia by an English tailor), and put on a shiny new top hat. He picked up a Gladstone bag containing “7 varieties of our finest and newest goods,” hailed a hansom cab on Great Russell Street, where he had rooms, and directed it to Piccadilly Circus. He was calling on “the largest House supplying the fine trade of London and suburbs and even shipping.” The gold letters on the window, under the coat of arms, read: “Fortnum & Mason, Ltd., Purveyor to the Queen.”