The Untold History Behind Everyone’s Favourite Condiment Bottle

The Untold History Behind Everyone’s Favourite Condiment Bottle

The Heinz ketchup bottle has become a mainstay of family dinners and greasy diners alike, and it’s for this precise reason that its iconic shape so often goes overlooked. The ketchup bottle’s familiar glass frame comes with a rich, fascinating history that, fortunately for us, Co.Design has been kind enough to dig up.

You see, ketchup wasn’t always the beloved friend to burgers it is today — and for good reason, it seems. In 1866, cookbook author Pierre Blot describe the quality of commercial ketchup at the time as “filthy, decompose, and putrid”. Tasty. Ketchup producers were forced to combat the short, two-month growing season by storing tomato pulp year-round, and the total lack of quality control and unregulated conditions in general did not an appealing product make — unless you find potentially mould, yeast, spores, and dead bacteria particularly tantalising. So when Henry J. Heinz finally managed to crack the secret to tasty preservative-free ketchup in 1904, he was naturally eager to show it off. And the glass bottle was born:

But the recipe to make his ketchup as pure as his horseradish eluded Heinz for nearly two decades. It wasn’t until 1904 that Heinz’s chief food scientist, G.F. Mason, was able to find a good preservative-free recipe for ketchup. Before then, Heinz used many of the same preservatives as his competitors, even coal tar to dye his ketchup red. By 1906, though, the nut had been cracked, and Heinz was producing five million bottles of preservative-free ketchup every year.

If there was one principle that Henry J. Heinz valued more than any other, it was purity and transparency. “It is always safe to buy the products of an establishment that keeps its doors open,” Heinz once famously wrote. That every bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup sold is see-through is no accident. It’s a design statement: purity through transparency.

This dedication to transparency, however, seems to get a little murkier when it comes to Heinz’s marketing strategy. You know those famed 57 varieties? All lies. Dirty, delicious lies:

Each bottle of Heinz ketchup somewhat mysteriously brags about the company’s “57 Varieties” in a small label wrapped around the neck. That there are actually 57 varieties of Heinz products has literally never been true. Inspired by an advertisement he saw on a train for a company that made “21 varieties” of shoes, Heinz combined his favourite number, 5, with his wife’s number, 7, to brag about his company’s own breadth of products. When he first began to put the “57 Varieties” label on his ketchup bottles, the H.J. Heinz Company already produced over 60 different products.

But don’t judge him too harshly yet. As Co.Design points out, Heinz really did keep the needs of the people close to heart. For instance, you’ve surely endured that embarrassing, futile battle with a full bottle of ketchup that simply refuses to budge, right? Well, it’s your own fault for ignoring Heinz ingenious labelling:

But despite common opinion, the bottom of a bottle of Heinz Ketchup isn’t actually the best place to thump it. If you apply force to the bottom of a bottle of Heinz, the ketchup closest to where you smacked will absorb most of the force of impact. It will flow freely, but the ketchup that is viscously clogging the neck and mouth of the bottle won’t, leaving you no better off than you were before. So while the substance of Heinz’s “57 Varieties” label may be just a fanciful whim on the part of the company’s creator, its positioning is deliberate. It’s a target. By simply tapping the label with two fingers, you create the optimal conditions for shear thinning, transforming non-Newtonian ketchup into a free-flowing liquid. Physics!

So the next time you find yourself face to face with the most venerated of ketchup bottles, take a moment to appreciate the trial, error, and dedication that went into making the beauty that sits before you. You can read the full fascinating history of the Heinz ketchup bottle over at Co.Design. [Co.Design]

Picture: Flickr/Willam Hartz, 57

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