In 1869, the son of German immigrants teamed up with a friend and began selling horseradish in a clear bottle to show customers the product was pure and unadulterated. Sales went well until the devastating Panic of 1873. Within three years their company was no more. Embittered by bankruptcy, the man took a government job and cursed capitalism for the rest of his life.
Of course not. These vignettes are about Exceptional Americans. Exceptional Americans do not quit. Exceptional Americans pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again, Overnight successes can take decades. Colonel Harlan Sanders was 66 and flat broke when he took his pressure cooker and 11 herbs and spices, hit the road, and founded Kentucky Fried Chicken.
And so it went with Henry John Heinz. Bankrupted at 32, Heinz vowed to pay back his bills and went right back into the business of selling condiments and other food items.
Born on October 11, 1844, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Heinz's parents were from Bavaria.His father had a brickyard, and his mother used part of the land for her vegetable garden. At a young age, Heinz grew vegetables in the yard as well, developing a customer list. As a teenager, he sold horseradish, which became a top seller. He grew 3 1/2 acres of the stuff at age 16. His profits that year were $2,400,a small fortune when adjusted for inflation.
He turned horseradish into the first of a line of condiments offered by Heinz Noble and Company, which he formed in 1869 with his friend Clarence Noble. Vinegar, pickles, and other items were added to the product line, all sold in clear bottles. People were distrustful of processed food at the time, and for good reason. Companies often added lead and stone to their products to make them weightier.
The clear bottle was something Heinz got right with his first company. But he had overextended himself in a depression by buying huge stocks of cucumbers and cabbage. This was a lesson learned the hard way.
But what he also got right the basis of his new industry. He offered quality food at a good price. Women did not have to can their food. Heinz did it for them. This was revolutionary and American. Repeatedly, entrepreneurs in America succeed by offering convenience and quality products cheap.
"Protect the consumer by owning the product all the way from the soil to the table," he said.
Heinz had married the former Sarah Sloan Young on September 3, 1869, who like him was a child of immigrants, in her case Irish. Her family had money, which bailed Heinz out. He regrouped. In 1876, he took a job as a manager in a similar company owned by his brother, John, and their cousin, Frederick Heinz.
One of their products was ketchup, a tomato sauce imported from China by British settlers in the 17th century. But making ketchup was a laborious task. Jonas Yerkes had introduced bottled tomato ketchup in 1837. Heinz advertised ketchup in a bottle as a convenience. Advertisements read, "Blessed relief for Mother and the other women in the household!"
Heinz had his first hit since his horseradish sauce. Once again, a clear bottle sold the product by allowing people to see what exactly was in the bottle. However, the recipe for Heinz ketchup is a well-guarded secret.
Eventually, Henry J. Heinz paid off his debts and became a partner in F. and J. Heinz. In 1888, he bought his partners out.
Heinz bought a second-floor booth at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. When he offered the Heinz pickle charm for free, so many people lined up that they had to reinforce the floor. Three years later, he used his lucky number (five) and his wife's (seven) and began advertising Heinz 57 Varieties. His actual product line by then had expanded well beyond that number.
But it did prove lucky for him.
However, hard work was his true measure. He stressed quality. When Theodore Roosevelt championed the Pure Food and Drug Act, other food processors rose in opposition. Not Heinz. He felt such a law would protect people.
He also held factory tours, which boosted public confidence in Heinz foods.
Heinz was forward thinking in labor relations, basing them on Christian ideals. He went by seniority in promoting people, which was a revolutionary idea. He remembered each employee at Christmas, and gave a silver spoon upon the birth of a child of an employee. Small things, but they showed his appreciation for the people he hired.
When he died of pneumonia at age 74 on May 14, 1919, Heinz's company had 25 factories and 6,500 employees, selling 57 varieties -- and many, many more. His parents were born in Bavaria, but Henry John Heinz was indisputably and unapologetically American.
He had a mansion in Pittsburgh and hired an artist to paint a frieze for the library. Afterward, the artist showed off the work, and listed the men he had drawn: Michelangelo, Savonarola, Moliere...
“Stop,” Heinz said, “But, my good man it just so happens that I’m an American. My tastes and my money are all American-made and I have every reason to be proud of my country. Now will you be so kind as to just efface those foreign dignitaries, and put in their places a few good American faces such as Longfellow’s, Ben Franklin’s, Whittier’s and the like. It would please me much better.”
I am publishing the best of these tales, in Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.
Suggestions are welcome. Email me at DonSurber@GMail.com.