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.
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 into the mix. In fact, ketchup, 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 AD 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 (which was Jane Austen’s favorite kind) and mushroom ketchup (which, I am told, 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 recipe.
All that changed in 1834 when 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, sexual dysfunction, indigestion and darn near anything else you could think of. 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. His claims were published in newspapers and magazines throughout the country. Bennett took a bunch of theories that had been circulating in the medical community and created a popular craze.
“We knew an instance of a very severe case of dyspepsia, of ten years standing, cured by the use of the tomato. The patient had been unable to get any relief; he could eat no fresh meat, nor boiled vegetables. Reading an account of the virtues of the tomato, he raised some, and used them as food in the fall, stewed, and made some in a jelly for winter use. He was cured.”
- The Boston Cultivator, 1843
Around 1840, the medical profession decided to investigate the tomato pills and find out what was really in them. All of their research suggested that there was nothing related to the tomato in any of the pills or liquid medicines. Ironic headlines, such as “Tomato Pills Will Cure All Your Ills,” continued to appear in the press. But in the end the pill was unimportant, what was important was that Americans started eating more tomatoes.
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 the influential quack mentioned above and 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. And that dear readers, is why the Heinz sold his ketchup in a clear glass bottle.
“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 result was that commercial ketchups in the 19th century really 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 in color than anything else, coal tar was added to dye the ketchup red. To put this particular additive in its proper perspective one must understand that 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.
Mr. 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 all or 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.
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.
And What’s the Story Behind Those 57 Varieties?
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 neck of every bottle of Heinz ketchup sold? No nonsense there. It’s purely functional, it is important, and you probably never knew it!
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. And yes, I tested this to confirm that it is true! 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. What you need to do is tap the neck of the bottle, right on the number ‘57’ and that unclogs the mouth and lets the ketchup below freely flow.
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. In our modern world, 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 forward-thinking innovator, a man who believed, more than anything else, that good design was transparent.
And also, perhaps, tasted pretty good on a plate of French fries.