The Foods That Built America: How Heinz, Kellogg's, Coca-Cola and Hershey's owe their existence to terrible wars
History channel's 'The Food That Built America' focuses on the historical circumstances and changing social conditions that helped these major food brands become household names
Although food brands like Heinz, Kellogg, Coca-Cola, and Hershey are household names, they could only make a mark for themselves in the market in the 1900s because of factors like the post-Civil War era, rapid urbanization and the after-effects of World War I.
History channel's new three-part nonfiction miniseries 'The Food That Built America' sheds light on the personal struggles that food innovators and visionaries behind these brands had to go through. It also details the historical circumstances and evolving societal conditions that helped make their new-age ideas a reality and become the business moguls they are today.
Here is a look at some of those factors:
Industrial Revolution and urbanization
When the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 between the North and South, primarily over the enslavement of African-Americans, subsided, it ushered in one of the most important eras of the nation's history — the Industrial Revolution.
"I look at those early days of burgeoning industry and I think this is an amazing opportunity," food expert and TV personality Adam Richman says in the first episode of the miniseries. "You know, who doesn't wanna be successful. Who doesn't wanna change the world and make quite a bit of money doing it? I think that's the brass ring. You might come up with this great iconic American brand or the brand that shapes America."
However, the growing trend of working in factories as opposed to farmlands also meant that a large number of people were migrating to cities at a time when mass food production was not even a concept, let alone be in vogue.
"Before industrialization, when people lived on farms, they were pretty nearly self-sufficient. But all the people who lived in cities — for the first time in the history of the United States — they gotta be fed by somebody else," says HW Brands, Professor of History, University of Texas.
With rapid urbanization came the need to feed the masses as people in the cities did not have space to grow their own food. The end result — packaged foods.
Lack of food preservation
To fulfill the requirement of mass food availability, local vendors flocked to cities with supplies but without the means to preserve or store bulk amounts of the products. As a result, the masses would often end up with rotten protein, vegetables, and grains.
"The state of food in America was pretty deplorable. Remember, there is no refrigeration," said Andy Masich, a historian at the Heinz History Center. "Grocers often didn't care where their products were coming from. They were selling spoilt meat, fish that was a little bit off. When people brought things in barrels you never knew what you were gonna get."
At a time when pickles were colored with copper to make them look green and detergent liquids were poured in milk to enhance its white color, it was difficult for people to trust the food they were buying for daily consumption.
Such conditions called for innovators like Henry Heinz to market his product in clear bottles to gain the trust of the public and Will Kellogg to come up with a wholesome breakfast option that came out of a box.
America — the world's most powerful economy
With the boost in industrialization, unemployment in America declined. This ushered in a golden era where the average middle-class man who earns roughly $400 a year — enough to fulfill his daily needs and have the luxury of spending money elsewhere — was looking to try out new products.
"The United States by the 1900s has the most powerful economy in the world. And the current working class developed. When you walked out each day, you had money in your pocket. This, all of a sudden, meant that there were people who were gonna find things for folks with cash in their pocket to spend money on," Brands says in episode two.
With their target customers no longer limited to the aristocrats and noblemen, budding entrepreneurs were able to confidently take chances on new inventions with the hope of creating the next trendsetter in the market.
World War I
The United States joined World War I in 1917 — four years after millions of lives were lost in Europe and the continent was quickly running out of resources. With the decline of food production overseas, American food suppliers seized on the opportunity to make their brands international.
"It's a watershed period that transformed the 20th Century into the American century. In Europe, people are starving and that's when big American food companies joined to help produce more food and have it sent overseas to our allies," says Libby O' Connell, historian, museum of American history.
As a result of major food brands expanding their shipments to war-torn Europe, revenue from American food exports increased from $190 million before the war to $510 million during the period of conflict.