The History of the Heinz Ketchup Bottle

What do you think about when you see a bottle of Heinz Ketchup? If you’re like most people, you don’t pay close attention to it. But even commonplace objects have been designed, and simple questions about the design of something as unremarkable as a bottle of ketchup can have insightful answers.

So, what is the meaning behind the "57 Varieties" label wrapped around the bottle’s mouth, and why is it there? Why is a bottle of Heinz Ketchup transparent, instead of opaque?  Today, we associate ketchup with tomatoes, but according to Fast Co.Design, ketchup was actually around for hundreds of years before anyone even dreamed of using tomato.

The history of ketchup extends back to the 16th century, when British settlers in Fuji were introduced to a sauce used by Chinese sailors called ke-tchup. Local recipes for ke-tchup varied, but the first recipe on record dates back to 544 A.D. and instructs any manufacturer to, "take the intestine, stomach, and bladder of the yellow fish, shark and mullet, and wash them. Mix them with a moderate amount of salt and place them in a jar. Seal tightly and incubate in the sun. It will be ready in twenty days in summer, fifty days in spring or fall and a hundred days in winter." The original ketchup was in fact, fish sauce. But, when British traders headed back to England with a taste for the sauce, anchovies were taken out and replaced with walnut and mushroom ketchup.

As they experimented, the English enjoyed ketchup for 200 years before anyone thought of adding tomato. The resistance to tomato ketchup can be chalked up to the misconception among Europeans that tomatoes, which looked identical to deadly nightshade berries. Tomatoes were considered an ornamental curiosity for gardens ever since Cortez had brought them back from the Americas, but they weren’t meant to be eaten. Then in 1820, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of New Jersey, stood on the steps of the local courthouse and consumed a basket of tomatoes to prove they weren’t poisonous.

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In the 1830s that America realized tomatoes could be delicious. In 1834, an Ohio physician named Dr. John Cook Bennett declared tomatoes to be a universal panacea that could be used to treat diarrhea, bilious attacks, and indigestion. Soon, Bennett was publishing recipes for ketchup, which were then concentrated into pill form and sold as medicine. By 1876, tomatoes had undergone a remarkable turnaround in the court of public opinion. Tomato ketchup was popular and considered to be a tonic, a condiment that was healthier than normal ketchup.

But, at the time, nothing could be further from the truth. "Filthy, decomposed and putrid" were the words that cookbook author Pierre Blot used in 1866 to describe the ketchup being sold at the time. Prior to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the food manufacturing business could be described the same. The reasons ketchup was such vile slop are varied, but start with the shortness of the tomato season, lasting from mid-August until mid-October. However, by the late 19th century, Americans were used to expecting ketchup year around. A year’s worth of ketchup could not be made in two months, so manufacturers preserved tomato pulp to meet expectations.  Unfortunately, they did so with the same lack of quality control that was endemic in the food manufacturing industry at the time. The result was that ketchups in the 19th century were disgusting filth, and only got worse in processing. To prevent the ketchup from moldering further, ketchup makers filled their batches with harmful preservatives.

Then, because ketchup with the pulp sieved out is more yellowish than anything else, coal tar was added to dye the ketchup red. This was the state of ketchup when Henry J. Heinz released his first bottle in 1876. But Heinz was a visionary, believed that "heart power is better than horse power." Under his leadership, the H.J. Heinz Company was ahead of its time. The factories were models of progressiveness. Not only were Heinz employees given life insurance, death insurance, doctor services, but also access to dining rooms, medical stations, and gyms.

Heinz’s factories were such models of cleanliness that 30,000 visitors were allowed to tour the factory every year.  At a time when no one else cared, Heinz was obsessed with making his products as pure as possible. In fact, when Heinz began his career selling horseradish, he refused to sell it in the brown opaque bottles common at the time. Instead, he used transparent jars, so that buyers could see his horseradish’s purity for themselves before they gave him a penny.  It wasn’t until 1904 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. "It is always safe to buy the products of an establishment that keeps its doors open," Heinz once famously wrote.

Every bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup sold is see-through is no accident. It’s a design statement: purity through transparency. Each bottle of ketchup somewhat brags about the company’s "57 Varieties" in a small label wrapped around the neck. That there are 57 varieties of Heinz products has never been true. Inspired by an advertisement he saw on a train for a company that made "21 varieties" of shoes, Heinz combined his favorite number, 5, with his wife’s number, 7, to brag about his company’s 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. So "57 Varieties" has always been playful nonsense. But the small label that circles the mouth of every bottle of Heinz ketchup sold? It’s purely functional.

Naturally, ketchup is watery, because the tomato pulp that gives it consistency is sieved out. As a result, commercial ketchup makers add a small amount of xanthax gum to their ketchup recipes to thicken it. But this ingredient has another side effect: It turns ketchup into a thinning fluid. That ketchup is non-Newtonian is the main reason why getting it out of a glass bottle is so slow. Allowed to flow naturally, ketchup only travels at a speed of 147 feet per hour. The only way to speed it up is to apply force, which through the principle of thinning decreases the ketchup’s viscosity. This is why you have to thump a bottle of ketchup to get it flowing from the bottle. If you apply force to the bottom of a bottle of Heinz, the ketchup closest to where you smacked will absorb the force of impact. It will flow freely, but the ketchup that is clogging the neck and mouth of the bottle won’t, leaving you no better off than you were before. The solution is to trigger the shear thinning effect at the top, not the bottom. That unclogs the mouth and lets the ketchup below to freely flow.  

All in all, a bottle of Heinz isn’t just a container of ketchup. It’s a design classic because of everything besides the ketchup it manages to bottle up: not just the history of a condiment or an object lesson in physics but the guiding principles of a great man who believed, more than anything else, that good design was transparent.

Amanda Ciccatelli, Social Media Strategist at IIR USA in New York City, has a background in digital and print journalism, covering a variety of topics in business strategy, marketing, and technology. She previously worked at Technology Marketing Corporation as a Web Editor where she covered breaking news and feature stories in the tech industry.  She can be reached at Follow her at @AmandaCicc. 
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