Wednesday, January 27, 2016

H.J.Heinz: Food and Progress

"Urban life in America on the eve of World War II was already recognizably modern; you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment, with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional. We’d be annoyed at the lack of television and Internet — but not horrified or disgusted. 
"By contrast, urban Americans from 1940 walking into 1870-style accommodations — which they could still do in the rural South — were indeed horrified and disgusted. Life fundamentally improved between 1870 and 1940 in a way it hasn’t since." -- Paul Krugman Reviews ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’ by Robert J. Gordon 
Krugman's point about the book under review is that technological change made enormous differences in American life and the economy between 1870 and 1940. These changes continued to accumulate until around 1970; however, since that time, few really revolutionary inventions have been introduced (yes, that includes the Internet and personal computers, according to these experts). And thus the pace of change has slowed.

The biography is titled The Good Provider:
H.J. Heinz and his 57 Varieties
, written by Robert C. Alberts
and published in 1973.
I have read only Krugman's review, not Gordon's book, but I found it completely fascinating to think about his points as I read a biography of H. J. Heinz (1844-1919), a "captain of industry." The industrial food processing corporation founded by Heinz contributed to the changes in American life starting just about 1870.

In the 1940s home mentioned in the review, specifically in the pantry, you would have found lots of packaged foods -- those that were being invented in the period of high technological innovation, many of which still exist today. Examples: Post or Kellogg's cereals, Campbell's soup, Jello, Hershey chocolates, Oreos, AND some of Mr. Heinz's 57 varieties of pickles, relishes, catsup, canned beans and more. Like other technological innovations, these made a big difference in the labor people needed to do to put meals on the table, and also to the nation's economy.

The Good Provider: H.J. Heinz and his 57 Varieties is a fairly fast-paced book (with a few draggy chapters). One appealing feature is that in the early 1970s, when he was researching the book, the author could still interview quite a few people who actually worked for Heinz himself.

As I read, I was struck by the numerous economic and industrial innovations that Heinz introduced in his huge factory in Pittsburgh and throughout his growing food empire -- not just the innovations that made it easier to prepare food in one's home. Here are the ones that I find the most interesting:
  • Heinz developed many mechanized food processing methods, owned plants for making cans and jars to use, and worked with farmers to ensure consistent raw materials for his canning plants.
  • He made sure to develop clear and consistent recipes and methods for his foodstuffs.
  • He developed new concepts in product identity like distinctive containers, logos, and labels.
  • He was a genius at marketing innovations, particularly tastings and giveaways such as little pickle charms that were first introduced at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.
  • He built very modern plants, and offered plant tours to convince people of the value of his methods and his care and cleanliness; as time went on he incorporated new methods of quality control and flavor control, hiring scientists to contribute to the effort.
  • He used technology for product distribution, like owning railroad cars.
  • He developed nation-wide and international facilities and distribution of his products.
  • His labor practices were unusually fair; though women workers earned half as much as men, his treatment of women was nevertheless exceptional.
  • He cooperated with the pure food & drug movement rather than opposing it as many other food manufacturers did a century ago (and still do in fact).
Maybe I'll read Gordon's book about the economy and learn about Krugman's summary: "that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication." I'll be curious to learn if the changes in food processing also figure in Gordon's book.

UPDATE, Jan 28: I bought the book by Gordon, and found in his introduction this very interesting quote summarizing the changes in food during the 19th through the mid-20th century:
The Mason jar, invented in 1859 by John Landis Mason, made it possible to preserve food at home. The first canned meats were fed to Northern troops during the Civil War, and during the late nineteenth century a vast array of branded processed foods, from Kellogg’s corn flakes and Borden’s condensed milk to Jell-O, entered American homes. The last step to the modern era, the invention of a method for freezing food, was achieved by Clarence Birdseye in 1916, though his invention had to wait for decades to become practical at home until in the 1950s the electric refrigerator had finally progressed enough to be able to maintain a zero temperature in its freezer compartment. (Kindle Location 242-247).
I plan to continue reading this quite-long book, and will probably blog about it again! 


~~louise~~ said...

What an enlightening post, Mae. I would have thought things were moving more quickly since the "invention" of the world wide web but from the looks of it, I would be dead wrong!

I have done a few posts on Heinz and as you read, he was quite the inventive tycoon.

Thank you so much for sharing these revelations, Mae. Very interesting...

Mae Travels said...

Thanks, Louise. It's amazing to read this serious economist's analysis of how little has been changed recently, compared to 100 years ago!