From a 17th-century fish sauce, ketchup evolved into a patent medicine, a carcinogenic health hazard, and eventually, a non-Newtonian fluid. Here’s how ketchup’s rich history is reflected in the design of a bottle of Heinz.
What do you think about when you see a glass bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup on a table? If you’re like most people, you probably don’t pay very close attention to it. It is a means to a hot dog’s end, unremarkable except for its ability to spread a thick, sweet-and-sour tomato puree on some item of food. Otherwise, what is there to say? But even commonplace objects have been designed, and seemingly simple questions about the design of something as unremarkable as a bottle of ketchup can have remarkably deep answers.
How deep, then, is a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup, really? 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? And why does the bottle make such a point of emphasizing that it is specifically full of tomato ketchup, when ketchup is synonymous with tomatoes?
Although we most closely associate ketchup with tomatoes these days, ketchup was around for hundreds of years before anyone even dreamed of chucking a tomato in the bottle. In fact, that most American of condiments isn’t even American. It’s Asian.
The long history of ketchup in the Western world extends back to the early 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 prospective condiment maker to “take the intestine, stomach, and bladder of the yellow fish, shark and mullet, and wash them well. 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.”
By the time the British discovered ke-tchup, the recipe had been simplified into a pungent, amber-colored liquid made out of salted and fermented anchovies. In a very real way, the original ketchup wasn’t ketchup at all. It was fish sauce, pretty much identical to the fish sauce you can buy by the bottle in any Asian supermarket. When British traders headed back to England with a taste for the sauce, they attempted to re-create it, Anglicizing it with the addition of (what else?) beer. Eventually, anchovies were taken out of the sauce entirely and replaced with walnut ketchup (Jane Austen’s favorite kind) and mushroom ketchup (which tastes similar to Worcestershire sauce).
In fact, even as they experimented with every other variety, the English enjoyed ketchup for close to 200 years before anyone thought of chucking a tomato in the mix. The resistance to tomato ketchup can largely be chalked up to the widespread misconception among Europeans that tomatoes, which looked nearly identical to deadly nightshade berries, were poisonous. Tomatoes were largely considered an ornamental curiosity for gardens ever since Cortez had brought them back from the Americas in the 1500s, but they weren’t meant to be eaten.
The English enjoyed ketchup for close to 200 years before anyone thought of chucking a tomato in the mix.
Despite its status as a native fruit, Americans inherited Europe’s aversion to tomatoes. There were, of course, tomato advocates. In 1820, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, New Jersey, stood on the steps of the local courthouse and consumed an entire basket of tomatoes to prove they weren’t poisonous. By and large, though, it wasn’t until the 1830s that America got hip to the fact that 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, violent bilious attacks, and indigestion. Pretty soon, Bennett was publishing recipes for tomato ketchup, which were then concentrated into pill form and sold as a patent medicine across the country.
By 1876, tomatoes had undergone a remarkable turnaround in the court of public opinion. Tomato ketchup was not only popular, but because of the teachings of an influential quack promulgated by the patent medicine trade, tomato ketchup was actually considered to be a sort of tonic, a condiment that was actually healthier than normal ketchup.
At the time, though, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Filthy, decomposed and putrid.” These were the words that cookbook author Pierre Blot used in 1866 to describe the quality of commercial ketchups being sold at the time. Of course, prior to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (and as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle famously showed), the food manufacturing business as a whole could largely be described with these same memorable adjectives. But ketchup was particularly bad. In fact, when you opened a bottle, the contents could literally kill you.
The reasons ketchup was such vile, potentially deadly slop are varied, but start with the shortness of the tomato season. Lasting from mid-August until mid-October, ketchup could only be made fresh for two months out of the year. 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 yearly expectations. It wasn’t a bad strategy, except for the fact that they did so with the same carelessness, filthiness, and lack of quality control that was endemic in the food manufacturing industry at the time. Entire barrels of pulp were stored so badly that, when open, they were found to be filled with mold, yeast, spores, and deadly bacteria.
At a time when no one else cared, Heinz was obsessed with making his products as pure as possible.
The result was that commercial ketchups in the 19th century were disgusting filth from the get-go, and only got worse in processing. To prevent the ketchup from moldering further, ketchup makers filled their batches with harmful preservatives, including boric acid, formalin, salicylic acid, and benzoic acid. Then, because ketchup with the pulp sieved out is actually more yellowish than anything else, coal tar was added to dye the ketchup red. To put this particular additive in its proper perspective, coal tar is flammable enough to fire boilers, is commonly used to coat asphalt in parking lots, and in concentrations above 5% is considered a group 1 carcinogen. Still worse: Many ketchups were cooked in copper tubs, leading to a chemical reaction between the copper and ketchup that could actually make the concoction poisonous to consume. How bad were the ketchups of the time? In a study of commercial ketchups conducted in 1896, 90% of all ketchups on the market were found to contain “injurious ingredients” that could lead to death.
This was the sorry state of ketchup when Henry J. Heinz released his first bottle in 1876. But Heinz was a visionary, a morally strong man who believed that “heart power is better than horse power.” Under his leadership, the H.J. Heinz Company was truly ahead of its time. The factories were models of progressiveness. Not only were Heinz employees given free life insurance, death insurance, doctor and dental services, but also access to onsite cafeterias, dining rooms, medical stations, swimming pools, gymnasiums, and roof gardens. The workers were also encouraged to be meticulously clean. At a time when many factory workers didn’t even have running water at home, Heinz provided fresh uniforms, a free laundry service, and even an in-house manicurist to help them keep their nails immaculate. In fact, Heinz’s factories were such models of cleanliness and happiness that 30,000 visitors were allowed to tour the factory every year. Heinz felt he had absolutely nothing to hide.
Heinz wasn’t just driven to make his workers happy and healthy, though. At a time when no one else cared, Heinz was obsessed with making his products as pure as possible. It was a principle that had always guided Heinz in his business dealings. 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.
That every bottle of Heinz is see-through is no accident. It’s a design statement: purity through transparency.
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.
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 favorite 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.
So “57 Varieties” has literally always been playful nonsense. But the small label that circles the mouth of every bottle of Heinz ketchup sold? No nonsense there. It’s purely functional.
One interesting fact about ketchup that everyone should know is that it’s a non-Newtonian fluid. Naturally, ketchup is rather thin and 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 shear thinning fluid. In other words, how quickly ketchup flows depends upon the stress that is being placed upon it.
The positioning of the Heinz’s “57 Varieties” label is deliberate: It’s a target.
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 shear thinning decreases the ketchup’s viscosity, and thus increases its flow rate. This is why you have to thump a bottle of ketchup to get it flowing from the bottle. The concussive force makes it flow faster.
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. The solution is to trigger the shear thinning effect at the top of the bottle, not the bottom. That unclogs the mouth and lets the ketchup below to freely flow.
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!
Of course, these days, most ketchup is sold in squeeze bottles. Even Heinz’s competitors have figured out how to make ketchup that they aren’t ashamed to sell in transparent containers. Tomatoes are synonymous with ketchup, and you’d be hard-pressed to find even the most grotesque, lunatic quack recommending ketchup as a cure-all.
None of that matters, though. 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 non-Newtonian physics but the guiding principles of a great man who believed, more than anything else, that good design was transparent. And also, perhaps, tasted pretty good on a plate of fries.
Note: This post is heavily indebted to sources mentioned in this excellent Metafilter thread about ketchup’s history.