In a glass display case at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh is a collection of pickle-themed pins and charms whose cutesy appeal betrays little of the remarkable role they played as emblems of the Heinz empire’s fundamental marketing principle: to have the public help spread the brand’s name.
It all began at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair: a gigantic display of the United States’ might and splendor, with Beaux Arts structures spread across sprawling gardens and an artificial pool as the central showstopper on the nearly 700-acre fairground, organized to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival to the “New World” in 1492. Chicago was throbbing with excitement, and visitors arrived from all over the country to marvel at the magnificence of it all. On just one of the fair days, over 750,000 people were in attendance.
In this grandiose atmosphere, a middle-aged pickle and condiment supplier from Pittsburgh named Henry John Heinz began wondering how he might promote his little operation from a stall tucked deep within the second floor of the fair’s Agricultural Building. There was so much to see and do that fairgoers were unlikely to bother climbing a flight of stairs to visit the upper-floor booths. So the Pennsylvanian purveyor of briny goods came up with the idea to reel people in with the promise of a freebie. He recruited some local boys to distribute gilded handouts advertising that whoever visited the Heinz exhibit would receive a free souvenir, in the form of “a novel watch charm.” It worked, perhaps better than the fair organizers (or Heinz himself) might have hoped. People started filing up the stairs, resolved to claim their gift. The crowds grew so large that the police had to be called in to maintain order, and urban legend suggests that at one point the floors of the exhibit space were in danger of collapsing from the weight of excited attendees clamoring for a free pickle tchotchke.
Thus the first pickle charm briefly stole the spotlight at the 1893 fair. It was a 1.25-inch charm made of gutta-percha (an early form of plastic) and shaped to look like a pickle. It was meant to adorn a pocket watch chain, and had the Heinz name on it. Many fairgoers wore their charm, providing free publicity to Heinz. Over a million pickle charms had been distributed by the fair’s end, five months later. The popularity of the pickle charm led to other pickle-related souvenirs being issued by Heinz over the years, including the more modern and even more coveted pickle pin. The design of the charm and the pin has altered very little over the years, making its appeal truly timeless.