General Seafood Corporation
Billionaire scientist and inventor Clarence Birdseye was not the first person to preserve fresh food by freezing it for later consumption; in the early seventeenth century, English philosopher–statesman Francis Bacon had experimented with stuffing chickens with snow. As early as 1908, West Coast growers routinely froze their fruits, using what was known as a "cold–pack" process (freezing drums of sugared fruit and berries in an ice–salt mixture), to preserve them for storing and shipping (mostly by rail) to distant markets. During the same period, East Coast users of the cold–pack process included ice cream manufacturers and "New York dressed" (cold storage) chicken and fish wholesalers.
Yet it is Birdseye who is considered the father of frozen foods, and his Birds Eye Frosted Foods Company—along with the discovery of household refrigeration—changed the world's food industry forever. Birdseye's personal contributions to the industry were two–fold. First, he perfected a rapid method for freezing foods that preserved their cellular structure and composition, thus retaining their freshness, taste, and vitamin content. Second, he was the first to package frozen foods to be sold directly to the end–user, or consumer market.
Birdseye was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Clarence Frank Birdseye, lawyer and legal scholar, and Ada Underwood. As a young boy, Birdseye already had developed a keen interest in natural history. At the age of five, Birdseye gave his mother a mouse skin that he had dressed. Before he reached his teens, his proficiency in taxidermy led him to insert an advertisement in a sporting magazine offering instruction in the art, under the auspices of the American School of Taxidermy. At Montclair, New Jersey, where he attended high school, his other enduring interest, food preparation, came to light when he enrolled in the cooking class.
Following a family tradition, Birdseye entered Amherst College with the class of 1910 (majoring in biology), but financial difficulties adversely affected his attendance, and he did not graduate. Nonetheless, during his tenure there, his imaginative schemes for meeting college expenses included the sale of frogs to the Bronx Zoo for snake food and the live trapping of 135 specimens of the comparatively rare black rat for a Columbia University professor's breeding experiments.
From 1910 to 1912, Birdseye was a field naturalist for the Biological Survey of the United States Department of Agriculture, work that led to his publication of a short monograph entitled "Some Common Mammals of Western Montana in Relation to Agriculture and Spotted Fever" (1912). A successful venture in marketing western furs during this period took him in 1912 to Labrador, Newfoundland, where he was associated for a time with the medical missionary Sir Wilfred Grenfell. Birdseye traded in furs in Labrador for the next five years.
During a visit to the United States, Birdseye married Eleanor Gannett on August 21, 1915; the couple had four children. In 1916 he returned to Labrador with his wife and their infant son. His changed domestic circumstances drew Birdseye's attention to the problems of food preservation. An avid fisherman, Birdseye preserved his catches in snow in the sub–zero winds. Impressed with the flavor and freshness of his frozen fish upon thawing them out—as though they had just been caught—Birdseye started to experiment with other indigenous species such as caribou and rabbit. He discovered that the meat from these animals, if frozen quickly and deeply, also retained its freshness and flavor until thawed out weeks later.
After perfecting a mechanical quick–freeze method for preserving food that would simulate the natural sub–zero climate he found in Labrador, Birdseye started his own company in New York in 1922, freezing fish fillets. Over the next several decades, his name and the Birds Eye logo became synonymous with retail frozen foods, in much the same way as the word "Kleenex" was used to indicate facial tissues.
Although his process ultimately made Birdseye very wealthy, he continued to work for his entire life. His last project (1953–1955) took him to Peru on an assignment to develop a new method of making paper stock from bagasse (crushed sugarcane stalks). While there, he suffered a heart attack that he attributed to the high altitude. He never fully recovered and died the following year in New York City.
Birdseye was a hands–on inventor and experimenter in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison. He was an original thinker and investigator, gifted with keen powers of observation and an enormous curiosity. He was also a capable businessman who held some 300 American and foreign patents. His early interest in the natural world never carried over into the business world but became a lifelong avocation nonetheless. Near the end of his life, he was coauthor with his wife of Growing Woodland Plants (1951).
World War I had interrupted Birdseye's search for a commercial application of his findings. After returning to the United States, he became the purchasing agent for the United States Housing Corporation (1917–1919) and assistant to the president of the United States Fisheries Association (1920–1922). In 1922 he resumed his experiments with quick–freezing, establishing himself in the corner of an icehouse in New Jersey. Encouraged, he formed Birdseye Seafoods, Inc., in New York, with a $20,000 stock subscription. His own capital investment consisted of $7 for an electric fan, buckets of brine, and cakes of ice. The first successful product was dressed fillets of haddock, frozen brick–hard in square containers made from old candy boxes. However, the general public proved disinterested, confusing his product with regular "cold storage" fish. Families were disinclined to know the detailed effects of scientific freezing upon the microscopic cellular composition of fish tissue and the benefits thereof, and soon his new company went bankrupt.
Undaunted, Birdseye started a new company, General Seafoods Corporation, with a $60,000 stock exchange in 1924. Located near a reliable source of fresh fish in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the company also housed laboratories for research and development. With a small group of associates, Birdseye perfected his novel process for quick–freezing, which consisted of packing dressed fish in cartons, then freezing the contents between two refrigerated surfaces under pressure (the "double–belt freezer," which later used refrigerated metal plates) that allowed the heat exchange to be accomplished directly and evenly upon the foods. By 1928 he was able to apply the technique to meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish in commercial quantities. He coined the word "quick–freeze," and referred to his products as "frosted foods." The missing element, public acceptance, appeared after 1929. In that year the Postum Company, skilled in the distribution of consumer food products, together with the Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation, acquired all patents and assets of Birdseye's company for a reported $22 million ($20 million for the patents and $2 million for the assets). Subsequently, the Postum Company purchased the Goldman Sachs interest and adopted the name General Foods.
In the 1940s, Birdseye invented a machine capable of quick–freezing loose vegetables individually and a process for preserving foods by quick–drying that he called the "anhydrous method." Neither was developed commercially. He also invented a reflector, an infrared heat lamp and a recoilless harpoon gun.
Social and Economic Impact
The scientific principle of freezing foods was already known when Birdseye began his first experiments. However, he was able to perfect and then apply this principle to consumer needs, thus bringing about the birth of the retail frozen food industry. Timing was perfect: his "frosted foods" market coincided with both the development of home refrigeration and freezing units, as well as with the onset of the Great Depression (1929), during which time the preservation of food for future use became of paramount importance. Of additional importance was the new availability of frozen fruits and vegetables on a year–round basis nationwide—previously available only during the harvesting season (with the exception of states where year–round growing occurred, such as in California) unless canned or bottled for later use.
Chronology: Clarence Birdseye
1886: Born in Brooklyn, New York.
1910: Attended Amherst College.
1912: Traded furs in Labrador, Newfoundland.
1922: Founded Birdseye Seafood Inc.
1924: Developed quick–freeze process for freezing food; founded General Seafood Corporation.
1928: Developed the double–belt freezer.
1929: Sold patents and assets and became the frozen food division of General Foods Corporation.
1930: Birds Eye Frosted Foods appeared in retail markets, creating the birth of the retail frozen food industry.
1934: Birds Eye Frosted Food contracted with American Radiator Corporation to provide retail frozen food display cases.
1956: Died in New York City.
Parallel in time, during the 1920s, farmers represented 27 percent of the population, and hydroponics (the growing of plants in water) had been invented. The U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Bureaus of Home Economics and Dairying during these years. Interest in the preservation of surplus crops and meats heightened on a commercial level but had not yet trickled down to the end–users, or consumers. Families began purchasing refrigerators during the 1920s, just as facilities for transporting, storing, and displaying the frozen foods were being developed. An article appearing in the September 1929 issue of the Ladies' Home Journal, entitled "A New Food Vision," featured a photograph of Birdseye's belt freezer and speculated what the food stores of the future would look like.
With the onset of the depression later in 1929, Birds Eye eased the burden and kept the growth trend continuing by contracting with a commercial credit company to finance retailer display cases, allowing grocers to make monthly installments on the equipment. In 1934, Birds Eye contracted with the American Radiator Corporation to manufacture cost–effective freezer display cases for local grocery markets and leased them to retailers for approximately eight dollars a month. Articles and recipes devoted to the new trend in frozen foods began to appear regularly in The Times and other publications. By 1943 food writer Clementine Paddleford described the variety of quick–frozen, box–packed meals as "wartime savers of storage and shipping space." For those who could not afford free–standing home freezers (old–fashioned iceboxes were still common through the 1940s), another article promoted the rental of neighborhood frozen–food lockers for storing freezer foods. (The mass production of free–standing home freezers was put on hold during World War II but resumed on a large scale in the 1950s, coinciding with the introduction of frozen "TV dinners.")
The new technology created a competitive market, and, according to Paddleford, 60 varieties of frozen food were available to the public in 1943, packed by 140 companies and sold under 72 brands in 30,000 stores across 48 states. Advertisements from that period show that Penguin brand "frozen–fresh" peas sold for 21 cents, while Birds Eye brand frozen cherries sold for 30 cents. Exulted Paddleford in a 1943 Times article, "cardboard and plastic film are all it takes," to package one million pounds of frozen peas, whereas "some 269,196 pounds of steel and tin" were required to store the same amount of peas in cans. These were important considerations during the wartime years, not to mention the improved taste and freshness of the frozen foods, compared to the canned ones. In 1944, Birds Eye had leased the first insulated railroad cars designed to transport food nationwide. The refrigerated shipping industry was thus born. Within a few years, quick–frozen foods had revolutionized food distribution and had brought about sweeping changes in national eating habits. Additionally, it had effected fundamental improvements in American agriculture through stimulating the seed industry to refine varieties for quick–frozen products, introducing quality controls in field production and stabilizing prices, which brought millions of acres of farmland into more profitable use.
Although Birdseye died in 1956, he lived long enough to appreciate the thriving success of his revolutionary ideas. His company remained at the forefront of frozen food technology, being the first to offer foil overwraps on boxed vegetables, which held moisture ten times better than waxed paper, and also was the first to introduce vegetables and sauces to which meat was added, for the health–conscious consumers. Since the mid–1990s, Birds Eye has introduced 57 new items on the frozen food market, and the familiar "Birds Eye" logo remains prominent in both small groceries and supermarkets worldwide.
Sources of Information
"A Man Named Birdseye." 23 November 2001. Available at http://www.birdseye.com.
Bernstein, Leilah. "Times Past." Los Angeles Times, 24 January 2001.
Flatow, Ira. "Analysis: History and properties of absolute zero; experiments and discoveries relating to the science of cold and freezing." Talk of the Nation/Science Friday (NPR), 14 January 2000.
Hoffman, Gene. "Visit with Clarence Spurs Insights into Frozens' Future." Frozen Food Age, October 1999.
"In the Beginning." Frozen Food Age, August 1997.
Stelljes, Kathryn Barry. "Timeline: A Legacy of Research." Agricultural Research, December 1999.
There really was a Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956).If he hadn't visited the Arctic, there may never have been frozen TV dinners. Now he is recognized as amajor innovator in the food industry.
As a young scientist working in the frozen North, it didn't surprise Birdseye to note that freshly caught fish, when placed on the Arctic ice and exposed to the wind, immediately froze solid. What did surprise Birds-eye was that the fish, if thawed and eaten much later, retained all of its fresh characteristics. This discovery was to create a new food industry and make Birdseye a millionaire. The youthful Birdseye had the courage to thaw out the rock hard fish weeks later and cook them for dinner, as an experiment. At the time, this was a real risk. He could have become very ill by eating "rotten" fish; but he didn't. Instead, the young naturalist found that the fish tasted almost the same as if they had been fresh, and with the same texture.
Clarence Birdseye was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 9, 1886. He attended Amherst College, with the intention of becoming a biologist. But he didn't graduate. Instead, he went to work for the U.S. Biological Survey as a field naturalist. His supervisors sent him to the Arctic to do research on the ways of the native Americans who lived there, and even to trade some furs.
The combination of ice, wind, and low temperatures in the Arctic froze anything left exposed almost instantly. Birdseye soon realized that such quick freezing of certain foods kept large crystals from forming. Slow freezing attempts had resulted in the formation of large crystals, transforming the food so that it could never be eaten. But if the freezing was accomplished quickly enough, there was no damage to the cellular structure of the food.
As a young scientist, Birdseye was making notes on his fascinating discovery. He also realized that he had the germ of a new business that could be very profitable. Throughout his life, Birdseye was a skilled businessman. He did more than create the modern frozen food industry. He also obtained almost 300 patents for various inventions, many of them in the fields of incandescent lighting, wood pulping, and infrared heating.
Birdseye Seafoods was Born
Birdseye knew that he had discovered something very important, but he wasn't certain what. All he knew for sure was that he had the beginnings of what could be a very profitable business. A careful man, he continued to work in various federal departments from 1917 to 1925, while perfecting his freezing methods. All the time he knew that the public would clamor to pay for all the various types of foods they could enjoy if they didn't have to be obtained fresh. He knew that frozen foods would be in demand if he could figure out exactly how to accomplish the freezing.
In September 1922, while still employed by the government, Birdseye returned to New York City and formed his own company, Birdseye Seafoods, Inc. The company was far from an immediate success, as Birdseye continued his experiments with fish filets. He would freeze them, then thaw them, at his plant headquarters near the Fulton Fish Market in New York. He didn't have to eat every experiment because he already knew that the food would be safe to eat. He was trying to perfect a way to ensure the flavor and texture of the food.
The Final Secret
At last Birdseye discovered the secret to safely freezing food. After two years of experimentation, he tried wax-packing dressed fish and other foods in cartons then freezing them between two flat, refrigerated surfaces under pressure. The "double plate" freezer was the solution. This technique quickly froze the foods solid with almost no damage at all to their cellular structure. Foods packaged and frozen in this new way were almost exactly the same when thawed weeks or months later. Birdseye quickly applied for, and was granted, a patent on the exclusive method.
Birdseye knew he had found the answer to safely preserving foods for an indefinite time, an answer that could make him a fortune. With this new technique safely patented, he decided to form another company. On July 3, 1924, he formed the General Seafood Corporation with some rich partners who believed in his process.
General Seafood was the beginning of a food industry that has since become massive. A look in the refrigerated section of any local grocery store will reveal a stunning variety of delicious frozen foods. There will be many types of fish, the food item that started it all, and dozens of meat and poultry foods as well as French fried potatoes, milkshakes, and complete breakfasts and dinners. There are even pizza combinations and other specialty frozen foods waiting for consumers. Recently, chain hamburger and hot dog companies began supplying their products in frozen form to supermarkets. This huge industry began with the discoveries of Clarence Birdseye.
Birdseye was a hard worker who was always thinking of new ideas. Even as he was perfecting his freezing techniques, he was also working on other food items. In the late 1930s, he perfected and patented a new food dehydrating process. However, he was so busy with his frozen food ideas that he didn't begin marketing the dehydrating idea until 1946.
Birdseye Built a Successful Company
Company success didn't happen overnight. The first retail sale of frozen foods occurred on March 6, 1930, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Birdseye called it the "Springfield Experiment Test Market." In his frozen food cases he included 26 different types of fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables. He posted a number of rather questionable signs on the frozen food display with words like "50 Below Zero," but people bought the new items. They loved the idea that they could take home, thaw, and eat foods that were otherwise not available to them at a reasonable price.
Premature thawing continued, however, to be a problem. Birdseye contacted the American Radiator Corporation. This company agreed to manufacture low-temperature retail display units that would hold the frozen food in markets. Markets agreed to display only Birds Eye products. In return, they were able to lease the units for about eight dollars per month. The new units would keep the foods solidly frozen until customers bought them.
Always on the lookout for ways to expand his business, Birdseye began to lease insulated railroad cars in 1944. These cars were specially designed for the nationwide shipment of his frozen food products. This final move assured the success of Birdseye's company.
By the 1950s, frozen food sales exceeded one billion dollars every year. About 64 percent of all retail food markets had frozen food areas. Pre-cooked foods or prepared frozen foods began to account for a majority of the sales. There were even "boil-in" bags of frozen food items, derived from Birdseye's original experiments. The Association of Food and Drug Officials in the United States adopted a standard for the handling of frozen foods, to insure that foods were not allowed to thaw between manufacture and consumption. By then, most airlines were using frozen foods that could be prepared as needed on airliners.
Birdseye's Company Today
Today, Birds Eye, Inc. targets the growing wave of health-conscious consumers. They were the first to introduce "Custom Cuisine," a line of six varieties of vegetables and sauces to which meat is then added. They also introduced foil wrapping on boxed vegetables, which holds moisture ten times better than waxed paper. The Food and Drug Administration has acknowledged that frozen foods, when correctly handled and cooked, are as healthy as the same foods would be if cooked fresh. Birdseye had come to the same conclusion decades before. There are now children's frozen foods, "family size" portions, appetizers, meal kits, and snacks. The fast-paced lifestyles of modern consumers have encouraged the continued growth of the frozen food industry.
The process invented by Birdseye is still in widespread use. It preserves not only the flavor and texture of the foods, but also their nutritional value. Clarence Birdseye indirectly improved the health of almost everyone in the industrialized world by providing fresh food in a convenient way. Before his death in Springfield, Massachusetts, on October 8, 1956, at the age of 70, Birdseye realized that his discovery on the cold tundra of the Arctic had grown into a highly successful business.
A Sudden Chill, Time Life Books, 1991.
Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia.
Encarta Encyclopedia. □
BIRDSEYE, CLARENCE. Clarence "Bob" Birdseye (1886–1956), American businessman and inventor, was originally an Amherst biology major, but dropped out and became a U.S. field naturalist in Labrador in 1920. There he became impressed with the well-preserved cellular structure of cooked fish that was frozen naturally in the Arctic outdoors. He noted that this quick freezing process caused less crystallization within the fish tissue. Once he returned to the United States, Birdseye developed his crude Multiplate Quick Freeze Machine: tightly sealed cartons, encased in metal, that were filled with food and then lowered into a low-temperature brine solution that froze the foods. Later, he froze foods with calcium chloride brine chilled to 40°F. In 1924 he organized the General Seafood Corporation and turned his attention to developing refrigerated railroad boxcars to transport frozen foods nationwide. In 1929 Birdseye sold his company to Postum, Inc., which became General Foods Corporation. His line of frozen foods was renamed Birds Eye.™ Ultimately, in 1949, using the anhydrous freezing process, Birdseye managed to cut freezing time from 18 hours to 90 minutes.
Though his process was not the first to freeze foods, distinction came to him for the quickness of his method for producing tasty, well-preserved fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables in retail-sized containers. The restaurant business profited greatly from his work. Birdseye held three hundred patents, in addition to a patent for a process of converting crushed sugarcane residue into paper pulp.
See also Fish; Frozen Food; Peas; Preserving; Storage of Food; Vegetables.
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Wallechinsky, David. The People's Almanac Presents the Twentieth Century: History with the Boring Parts Left Out. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1999.
Birdseye's process indirectly improved the diet of the industrialized world by making possible the freshest frozen foods, frozen at or near farm sites, year round. This later led to the packaging of ethnic foods and meal combinations such as TV dinners. One of his most popular frozen products is green peas, the second largest vegetable crop in the United States. In the early twenty-first century more than 90 percent of all peas are sold as frozen peas. Frozen peas retain their brightest color and original shapes when placed in boiling water and removed from the heat.
American businessman and inventor whose name became synonymous with frozen foods. Clarence Birdseye was born in Brooklyn, New York. He was a naturalist from early on, but turned to business when he found that he lacked the funds to finish his studies at Amherst College. He left school to become a fur trader in Labrador in 1912 and again in 1916. While there, he noticed that the locals froze food in order to sustain themselves during the long harsh winter. When Birdseye returned to the United States, he formed General Seafoods Company, where he began selling his own brand of frozen foods. His process of quick freezing preserved the flavor of the food. Birdseye's frozen fish, fruits, and vegetables quickly became a huge success with the public. From 1930-34 he served as president of Birds Eye Frosted Foods, and from 1935-38 he ran Birdseye Electric Company. Birdseye held nearly 300 patents on inventions ranging from heat lamps, to a harpoon gun.
Clarence Birdseye, 1886–1956, American inventor and founder of the frozen food industry, b. Brooklyn, N.Y., studied at Amherst College. From 1910 he worked as a naturalist, and in 1912 he went to Labrador on a fur-trading expedition. After he returned to the United States in 1916, he began experimenting with freezing foods, aiming at commercial application. He developed a method for freezing fish and in 1924 he was one of the founders of the General Seafood Company, which began manufacturing various fast-frozen food products. In 1929 the company was bought by the Postum Company (later the General Foods Corp.) for $22 million. By 1949, Birdseye had perfected the anhydrous freezing process, reducing the time needed for the operation from 18 hr to 11/2 hr. A prolific inventor, he held more than 200 patents.
See biography by M. Kurlansky (2012).