A while back I read the book The Devil in the White City and became obsessed with World’s Fairs. I would pepper conversations with bits of trivia like, “Do you know when Juicy Fruit was introduced? The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair!” or “Guess how PBR became PBR! By the beer winning an award at the World’s Columbian Exposition! Blue ribbon!” Boy am I lucky that I surround myself with people who patiently humor that level of obsessive nerdiness.
I love the idea of World’s Fairs being the epitome of culture and innovation. These were the places where everything was built to impress, where companies unveiled their newest products and inventions, and where so many people experienced foreign cultures for the first (and maybe only) time in ages where international travel wasn’t available to the everyman. Theoretically incarnations of these fairs and expositions still exist, but they garner nowhere near the attention they once did. The hype over the fairs started to wane after the sixties. The US isn’t even part of the official organization anymore, and now that our news reaches us instantaneously we find out about inventions while they’re still in the idea stage and don’t even exist in any tangible form yet. This nature of immediacy takes away a lot of the wonder and marvel that made World’s Fairs so successful.
My fascination with World’s Fairs was reignited when I decided to look up a lighter from the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair, “A Century of Progress.” I had found it in a drawer last time I was visiting my family and was curious to know if it was worth anything.
I’m willing to bet that it was given to my grandfather by his sister, the afore-mentioned (Great) Aunt Marcella. She had a postcard from this World Fair in her scrapbook.
Anyway, I was mostly just searching the lighter out of curiosity. It’s worth a little, but not worth enough to encourage me to part with it. While sifting through other postings of World’s Fair memorabilia one item in particular caught my eye:
A pickle…pin. Of all random things. Heinz was already an established company by the time the World’s Columbian Exposition came along, but founder H.J. Heinz thought a booth at the World’s Fair would boost sales during a time of economic depression. Unfortunately his display, though elaborate and well thought-out, suffered from a poor location on the second floor of the Agricultural Building, which was at a far end of the enormous fairgrounds. With so much to see and do at the fair, the majority of people who even made it to the Agricultural Building perused the foreign food exhibits on the bottom floor and left without going upstairs to the gallery. Heinz had carved oak booths with all of his sauces displayed (well over the 57, even then) and pretty girls handing out samples, but barely anyone was coming to them.
Heinz decided to generate some foot traffic on his own by printing up cards offering a free souvenir when presented at his booth. He hired boys to distribute them around the fair and even scatter them on the ground, assuming curious folks would pick them up. Heinz banked on not only drawing people into his exhibit, but also getting the public to help advertise by wearing his brand. It was one of the first attempts at using the public to do so. His idea paid off – the cards brought in a ton of people looking for their free souvenir: a little pickle made of a resin-like pre-plastic material. The original pickle had a hook on it and was meant to be attached to a watch chain, and later incarnations were lapel pins.
Heinz’s plan was so successful that the foreign food vendors on the first floor got their knickers in a twist and filed an official complaint with the fair authorities on grounds of unfair competition. His fellow exhibitors on the second floor, however, threw him an appreciatory dinner and gave him an inscribed cup in thanks. According to the folks at the company, Heinz wrote in his diary about the World’s Columbian Exposition, “A great hit. We hear it from all sources.”
The pickle pin promotion is one of the most successful advertising promotions in history. Heinz distributed the pins at at least 4 subsequent World’s Fairs, including by robot at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, TN. The pin was also available at the factory tour in Pittsburgh. In 1969 a gold version of the pickle pin was given away to celebrate the company’s centennial. The pickle pin is still in production today, and you can get one by writing to the company via their Contact Heinz page.
Other fun food stories from the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893:
I would love for the World’s Fair to return as the event of the century, but I probably would have better luck hoping for a time machine to take me back to one of the major historical ones. World’s Columbian, preferably, although I would love to see A Century of Progress as well. Of course, that time machine would best be unveiled at a World’s Fair, so I probably shouldn’t hold my breath.