Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago captivated spectators with dazzling sights and sounds. Among the innovators showcasing their celebrated products was a trio of Pittsburghers: George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. (1859-1896), George Westinghouse Jr. (1846-1914), and Henry John Heinz (1844-1919). A bridge engineer, Ferris built his famous wheel-shaped ride, this first one large enough to carry two thousand people at a time. Westinghouse’s alternating current illuminated the fair each night, prompting one visitor to call it “bewilderingly bright and exciting.” Less magnificent – but perhaps most popular of all – was the display of the H. J. Heinz Company. Food samples could be had, but it was Heinz’s free “pickle charms” that drew hundreds of thousands of curious collectors to the booth.

It was an unexpected journey for H. J. Heinz, from bankruptcy to toast of the fair. Scorned in the 1870s for his poor business practices, he rebuilt his company based on moral lessons his family embraced. He enshrined his favorite mottoes on signs and in stained glass windows of his impressive factory. The most frequently quoted maxim explains his basic philosophy: “To do a common thing uncommonly well brings success.” His favorite, which was posted in offices and hallways, better explains his rise from adversity: “Do the best you can, where you are, with what you have today.”

Heinz, in 1876. Heinz’s food processing factory, a marvel of modern amenities and advanced technology, was not begun until 1890. His popular catch phrase – 57 Varieties – was not conceived until two years later. Yet it was his vision in the previous decades that led him to those achievements. H. J.’s mother, especially, taught him a genuine respect for every person, and lived by her favorite principle: “Always remember to place yourself in the other person’s shoes.” This drive to succeed on a higher plane brought success and innovation. The ever-changing and evolving variety of Heinz’s early products both mirrored and shaped America’s tastes and eating habits.

H. J.’s parents, German immigrants Anna Margaretha Schmitt (1822-1899) and John Henry Heinz (1811-1891), married in 1843. Six years later, they settled in Sharpsburg, a few miles up the Allegheny River from downtown Pittsburgh. Sharpsburg’s residents tended gardens, and the Heinz family’s garden was sufficiently fecund to feed their children (soon to be eight) and provide extra for selling. In 1852, at the age of eight, first-born son H. J. began peddling the surplus in baskets door-to-door in the neighborhood. Two years later his parents gave him his own three-quarters of an acre and he began using a wheelbarrow to deliver produce. By the age of twelve, he had enlarged his tract to three-and-a-half acres and purchased a horse and cart to sell to customers.

His specialty was horseradish, the grated pungent roots of a perennial plant of the Brassicaceae family which includes wasabi, mustard, broccoli, and cabbages, used to season food. As Robert C. Alberts, author of The Good Provider: H. J. Heinz and His 57 Varieties (1973) explained, “Freshly grated horseradish made dull food palatable and good food – such as beef and raw oysters – better.” H. J. had long helped his mother harvest, scrub, scrape, grate, and bottle horseradish in vinegar. The job, rough on knuckles and eyes, created a market for prepared horseradish; however, competitors bottled horseradish in dark green and brown glass, allowing them to add fillers such as coal tar dyes, boiled dried apples, turnips, leaves, or wood fiber. H. J. wanted clear glass bottles to show he had the whitest, purest roots. His success at selling proved not only were customers willing to pay for convenience, but that a superior product would sell on its own merit if attractively packaged and properly promoted.

Meanwhile, H. J. also worked at his father’s brickyard, initiating a lifelong fascination with the popular construction material. In 1854, the ten-year-old helped make bricks for a new house and then assisted his father in building it. As one biographer explained, the house “was like a part of his own flesh and blood.” It was later moved to the Heinz plant, and then to Greenfield Village near Detroit, an assemblage of houses, offices, and workshops occupied by some of the country’s leading visionaries, among them Luther Burbank, Noah Webster and, naturally, Henry Ford. A letter in the collections of the historic house museum explains how much it meant to Heinz, “how he was aware of, and loved, each separate brick.”

His parents had hoped H. J. would become a minister but it was apparent he was destined for business and sales. At fifteen he became his father’s bookkeeper and assistant at the brickyard; when he turned twenty-one, he purchased a half-interest in the operation. Brickworks normally closed for the winter, but H. J. installed heating equipment so the factory could remain open and stockpile inventory for the spring construction rush. In 1868, he partnered in another brickyard with business acquaintance L. Clarence Noble. Later that year, H. J.’s father took an extended trip to Europe to visit relatives. H. J. surprised him while he was away by building a new, larger family home – brick, of course – and paying for it by collecting debts his father had written off as uncollectible.

The Heinz family’s old homestead was converted for food production, and twenty-five acres were planted in horseradish alone. In 1869, twenty-five-year-old H. J. married Sarah Sloan Young (1843-1894), known as Sallie, and, most importantly, decided to concentrate on growing and bottling food. He again partnered with Noble to create the Anchor Brand beginning, of course, with horseradish. They added celery sauce, pickled cucumbers, sauerkraut, and vinegar to the Anchor Brand line. Soon Heinz and Noble took over the house next door. In 1872, Noble’s brother E. J. joined as a partner, and the business became Heinz, Noble and Company. The partners leased a four-story factory in downtown Pittsburgh for offices, store, and warehouse. By 1875, their business had become wildly successful, especially notable since packaged condiments were mostly imported from Europe. The firm acquired 160 acres in and near Sharpsburg, a business office and vinegar factory in St. Louis, Missouri, and a branch distributing warehouse in Chicago.

The coordination of agriculture played a key role, from the quality of produce to its transportation and processing. The company needed cucumbers for pickles, tomatoes for ketchup, cabbage for sauerkraut, apples for vinegar, and fruits for jellies and preserves. The company made its largest commitment in 1875 to purchase the entire output of eight hundred acres of cucumbers and cabbage in Illinois at a set rate.

Heinz, Noble and Company had become one of the country’s largest makers of processed, preserved, and packaged foods. Despite such success, the company was short of capital and overextended. At first, the company seemed able to buck the economic depression that gripped the country in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873, but money was short everywhere. A phenomenal harvest of cucumbers in Illinois brought with it skyrocketing costs to pay for and process it. The firm’s ability to pay for it all crumbled when the Pittsburgh plant was closed on the landlord’s warrant, and H. J. himself was arrested on charges of fraud filed by creditors. He was released on bail, but the following day the sheriff placed a levy on the family’s personal belongings and again arrested him. Heinz filed voluntary bankruptcy.

Christmas 1875 for the Heinz family was anything but merry. H. J. and Sallie had no money for presents for their firstborn daughter Irene (1871) and son Clarence Noble (1873), named in honor of their business partner. Within a few weeks they even lacked money for food and begged to buy on credit. H. J.’s parents’ furniture and house were advertised for sheriff’s sale. As word of their problems spread, neighbors, friends, even relatives turned on them. H. J. wrote that Christmas Day, “I had not a true friend in the world. . . . A man is nowhere without money. . . . I feel sad and constantly worried.” Locals whom he owed harassed him and accused the family of having and hiding money. Perhaps worst of all, the Noble brothers blamed H. J. for the company’s failure – and told employees so. This was surely H. J.’s lowest point.

Nevertheless, the Heinz name signified quality food products, and the family knew how to cultivate and preserve. H. J. still had his talent for selling and attracting publicity but could not enter into a partnership until the bankruptcy had been discharged. Family members pooled what little they had left, including his mother, brother John, cousin Frederick, and wife Sallie, who raised fourteen thousand dollars by selling Young family property in which she had an interest. Because she had raised nearly half of the company’s capital of three thousand dollars, Sallie owned 50 percent of the new entity. In February 1876, F. and J. Heinz Company was launched with thirty-two-year-old H. J. as manager at $125 a month. He could not be a partner, yet without a doubt he was the guiding force of the enterprise. Neither did he ignore what had happened: H. J. carried a notebook marked “M.O.” listing his Moral Obligations to all creditors.

It was difficult to restore the business, let alone recapture respectability. No one would loan money to the company. Distrust, even hostility, caused H. J. physical and mental distress. The principals pinched pennies to buy back equipment of the bankrupt company. Once they had prided themselves on the impressive teams that pulled their wagons. Now they owned one blind horse. However, after that first trying year a steady stream of respectable profits offered hope.

The empire that Heinz would now invent – the kind that dominates global food growing, processing, and sales today – was unheard of until the late nineteenth century. Mass shipments of fresh meat and produce were impossible. Only canned and salted foods enhanced bland diets, particularly during winter months. Although the Industrial Revolution is associated with machinery, it was the expansion of the railroad and the advent of refrigerated freight cars that offered consumers greater access to fresh foods and raised the nation’s food and health standards.

H. J. Heinz embraced this, and other technologies, to create a demand for products that others had not thought to mechanize. Home preparation of horseradish, ketchup, jams, even vinegar, consumed long hours and hard work. Once H. J. learned homemakers welcomed the convenience of ready-made, store-bought products, he predicted that as the United States became more urbanized and industrialized, there was an untapped national market for prepared foods.

Groceries at the time displayed goods behind a counter that were fetched by grocers or clerks, so food manufacturers had to advertise to both consumers and to the grocers who purchased their comestibles. H. J. developed advertising that encouraged grocers to suggest Heinz products to customers, but also mounted advertising campaigns that encouraged customers to ask their grocers to carry the company’s provisions. He realized he needed to distinguish his products from those of the many competing picklers and makers of preserves. He designed eye-catching labels and developed distinctive trademarks. Long before the introduction of “57 Varieties,” the F. and J. Heinz Company marketed its products as the Keystone Pickle and Vinegar Works to create brand recognition.

Like automakers would do decades later, Heinz made products aimed at different price points. Keystone and Octagon were top-of-the-line, Standard second, Duquesne brand third, and Home Made at the bottom. Some products did not even bear the Heinz name. Others he named for his sons; Howard Catsup (the equivalent of Standard) was named for H. J.’s second son, born in 1877.

A decade after its founding, F. and J. Heinz Company was larger than ever. H. J., overseeing everything, worried he was working too hard, plus he had a dilemma. His brother John (1849-1921) was in charge of manufacturing, including gardens and agencies, but did not have the drive and passion of the founders. John’s irregular hours caused production to constantly fall behind. H. J. wrote that all he got was ingratitude and it “was driving more nails in my coffin than all other cares.” Finally, John withdrew from the company, allowing H. J. to take over his duties – in addition to what he was already doing. A year later, in 1888, their mother suggested the firm name change to H. J. Heinz Company. It was then that H. J. was able to launch his most ambitious plans yet.

The thousands of labor strikes and walkouts in the 1880s impressed upon H. J. to find a way to run a business that would eliminate the likelihood of such violence. He had studied the paternalistic ways of German factories and likewise wanted to build a community of workers who would be so content with their jobs that they’d never dream of rebelling against the company.

The first step was to start from scratch to insure that the Pittsburgh offices and manufacturing would be in one place. He chose a site a half-mile up the Allegheny River from downtown Pittsburgh, at the edge of Allegheny City, which had a large German population. The twenty-four lots already had buildings, including a sawmill, brewery, and church. The new buildings would portray solid architecture – constructed of glazed pressed brick in Romanesque style. Eventually seventeen red structures surrounded a grassy courtyard.

The plant not only processed food but also manufactured the packaging, from cans to boxes. It incorporated the latest innovations in motors, the most modern stables, and conveniences for the health and pleasures of employees, including a restaurant, dressing rooms, emergency hospital, gymnasium, rooftop garden, self-improvement classes (from singing to dressmaking), and carriage rides (during working hours!) through city parks. Employees enjoyed showers, private lockers, laundered uniforms, weekly manicures, and a suggestion box at a time when it was a luxury just to have rest rooms with running water (which were not always present in factories or even residences). He returned from a trip to Florida in 1898, Alberts wrote, “with an 800-pound, 14 1/2 foot, 150-year-old alligator and installed it in a glass tank atop one of his factory buildings so that his employees might share his pleasure in the sight.”

The company’s showpiece was the Time Office where employees checked in and out. The small square building was made of terracotta Pompeian brick, fitted with stained glass windows, and capped by a dome of gold leaf upon which perched a golden eagle. The move into the new buildings began in October 1890, although it took eight years to complete the complex.

Sales methods were rapidly changing at the time. Salesmen traditionally covered their territories by horse and wagon, delivering goods as they sold them. Heinz outfitted each with a team of sharp horses and a brightly painted enclosed wagon that served as a mobile billboard. Beginning in 1899, salesmen called on their accounts, from grocers to hotels, but now with a sample case and took orders to be delivered later.

To make sure the public knew the products, Heinz plastered his name on delivery wagons, billboards, and buildings. Always with an eye and ear for catchy advertising, in 1892 he was reading the signs on an elevated train in New York City when he was impressed by one advertising “21 styles of shoes.” He liked the idea of advertising a number of products; although he was making more than fifty-seven, there was something about that number, the sound, the long-held magic of the numeral 7 that stuck with him. He even put massive “57” signs made of concrete on hillsides. If there was a local outcry criticizing such a blight on the landscape, all the better; H. J. would then make a public apology for the misstep, earning favor and positive publicity.

Like other manufacturers and merchants, H. J. distributed trade cards to promote his products. Thanks to innovations in color printing that could be produced inexpensively, the front boasted bright colored illustrations, while the reverse described the products in a list or even a cryptic puzzle. These early advertisements revealed a consistent theme in Heinz’s marketing strategy: the use of adorable healthy children and wholesome young women conveyed the idea that Heinz foods were also healthy and wholesome.

The pickle pins given away at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair were one more example of H. J.’s showmanship and flair for promotion. The exposition’s exhibits were spread among four hundred buildings and structures on seven hundred acres. Food manufacturers exhibited in the Agricultural Building, at the southeast corner of the fairgrounds, almost completely surrounded by lagoons, and it alone offered nineteen acres of displays under roof. The main floor was devoted to foreign products and governments, while American food manufacturers such as Durkee and Company, Schlitz Brewery, Knox Gelatin, and Heinz filled the second floor. And that posed a problem.

After touring the fair and seeing the first floor of the Agricultural Building, weary visitors were not about to climb the long stairway to the upper level. H. J. attended the opening, and seeing only a straggle of visitors on his floor, headed to the nearest print shop. He made a small card with the promise that presenting it at the Heinz exhibit earned the bearer a free souvenir. He had workers hand them out and boys scatter them across the grounds. Throngs suddenly descended on the Agricultural Building, skipped the foreign displays, and climbed the stairs for their free souvenirs: a small green pickle made of gutta-percha (a substance derived from the latex of several tropical trees of the genera Palaquium and Payena which could be molded into various shapes) with a hook to serve as a charm. Police had to control the crowds and support beams had to be added. Foreign exhibitors filed a complaint, but American companies gave Heinz a dinner and an affectionately inscribed silver cup.

Heinz gave away one million pickle charms at the fair. The New York Times reported on the medals the company won – not to mention the sagging floor – playing right into H. J.’s belief that the best way to advertise your products and promote your name was by letting the public do it for you.

Heinz never missed the chance for positive publicity. After the Pittsburgh plant was finished in 1898, H. J. opened the factory to tours of the ultra-modern facilities, the first industrialist to do so; soon, any visit to the city must include the “Heinz pickle works,” from soup-filling to can-making to pickle-bottling. Each tour ended with complimentary samples of Heinz products and a pickle pin to take home. Tens of thousands of school children, senior citizens, church groups, card clubs, and foreign tourists visited the factory each year.

In 1900, the Heinz Company established a chemistry laboratory to monitor the quality of produce, accuracy of recipes, cooking procedures, cleanliness of the manufacturing processes, and uniformity of finished products. The “food technologists” also conducted research to improve nutrition, flavor, and appearance. Until the early 1900s, there were no laws to regulate food manufacturing. H. J. knew it was easier and better business to use pure ingredients that were properly packaged. He and son Howard eventually lobbied for laws to regulate the food industry; they were prime proponents of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

It was H. J.’s kindness to others that perhaps shaped his actions and company the most. A random line from his diary of February 6, 1884, reads, “It is more pleasant to remember others than to be remembered.” In an interview in 1900, Heinz was asked whether it was prudent business-wise to offer so many services and amenities to employees. “I have never given that side of the matter any thought,” he replied. “We are fully repaid when we see our employees enjoying themselves.” The reporter, not believing, pressed him. “Very well then,” H. J. continued, “if you don’t like the sentiment that attaches to the plan, I want you to distinctly understand that it is good business as well. It 221 pays,’ it increases my output. But I don’t want to put it merely on a dollars and cents basis.”

An advisory board of eight to ten men supervised daily operating procedures, yet H. J. still made his own decisions. In 1896, without consulting the committee, he raised the wages of women at the Pittsburgh factory by 12.5 percent.

It was this focus on people, with an eye on the bottom line, which led Heinz in three decades to build one of the country’s largest and most profitable businesses. In that time, H. J. Heinz Company became the largest maker of pickles, ketchup, vinegar, sauerkraut, and horseradish, and the second largest producer of mustard. At the time of his death from pneumonia in 1919, his company employed a workforce of sixty-five hundred, operated twenty-five factories, owned its own freight cars, and managed a branch company in London and agencies throughout the world.

Before his death, one last tangible connection with his humble beginnings remained. The family and company had long ago moved from Sharpsburg, but the family’s residence still stood. He had grated and bottled his first horseradish and launched his first business venture with Noble in the dwelling. Now he went back and arranged to have the house moved to the factory complex. Everything about the move was tenuous, from keeping it intact, to pulling it out of mud while being transported, to it being inundated with flood waters before it could be loaded on a barge. The journey five miles downriver was just as perilous, but it arrived to cheering crowds.

The “Little House Where We Began” remained for decades as a museum to the company and housed the many curios H. J. had collected on his travels. In the 1950s, the house was moved again, this time disassembled brick-by-brick and rebuilt at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. It continues to inspire visitors with H. J.’s remarkable story of achieving success by doing a common thing uncommonly well.


For Further Reading

Alberts, Robert C. The Good Provider: H. J. Heinz and his 57 Varieties. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Foster, Debbie, and Jack Kennedy. H. J. Heinz Company. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2006.

Skrabec, Jr., Quentin R. H. J. Heinz: A Biography. Jefferson, N.C. McFarland, 2009.

In addition to these books, early history of the company is online at Heinz Ketchup and H.J. Heinz Company history.


H. J. Heinz Company Collection

The H. J. Heinz Company Collection at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh contains more than ten thousand images made between 1864 and 1991. The photograph collection (MSP 57) contains 71 cubic feet (137 boxes) of images depicting work at the Heinz factory in Pittsburgh, products, equipment, employees, salesmen, and executives, mostly after 1900. The general collection (MSS 57) contains sixty-seven cubic feet (thirty-three boxes) of advertisements, correspondence, label books, pamphlets, scrapbooks, programs, postcards, and similar ephemera. To learn more, visit Senator John Heinz History Center.


Brian Butko is the author of nine books about two-lane roads and vintage places along them, including Greetings from the Lincoln Highway and Roadside Attractions, in addition to books on Pennsylvania diners, the Grand View Ship Hotel, and the Klondike ice cream bar. He is the director of publications at the Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh, where he is also editor of Western Pennsylvania History, the region’s oldest continually published magazine, established in 1918.