The Heinz Ketchup Bottle – Driving Innovation Since 1869

Since I was a kid I always loved ketchup. I’m that guy who puts ketchup on everything. As such, the Heinz ketchup bottle is a familiar sight in our fridge, but it was only recently that I learned what a great piece of design it is.

Heinz Horseradish, 1869

Heinz’s first foray into packaging was this horseradish bottle in 1869. Already their labelling looks very familiar. The following year they began selling tomato ketchup, initially sold as ‘catsup’, and in 1876 it was first bottled and sold on shelves.

Their first big hit was the octagonal glass bottle in 1890. This form was easier to grip and packed more efficiently. It featured a long and sweeping neck to encourage the ketchup to slide easily. Most of all the recognisability of this design helped to propel their brand into common knowledge.

The Initial Heinz Ketchup Bottles

While these glass bottles were pivotal for the company’s success, I find their plastic bottles much more interesting. This blog is about their latest bottle, after all.

There are several aspects about the current Heinz Bottle that I think are great design. Starting with the material. The squeezable plastic bottle was introduced to the world by Heinz in 1983, and has since proliferated the markets of condiments, hygiene products, and others. The new simple operation finally puts and end to the dark art of bottle whacking – once the only way to use a glass ketchup bottle.

The 1983 bottle also introduced the plastic lid, replacing a metal screw cap. This plastic lid is injection moulded as a single component, featuring a living hinge. Living hinges are almost completely exclusive to polypropylene and polyethylene and take advantage of their unique material properties. These plastics have incredibly high fatigue strength, meaning they can be worked and bent thousands of times without failing. This allows for a hinge mechanism to be constructed from a single part, by simply reducing the material thickness at the desired point of rotation.

In this case, Heinz utilised three parallel living hinges to create a bistable compliant mechanism. The lengths of the hinges are not equal, thus causing the mechanism to have only two positions of equilibrium. When the lid is not at one of these two angles, the elasticity of the material in the hinges forces the lid to move to the closest point of equilibrium. This is what causes the lid to snap between the opened and closed positions, ensuring the open lid can never obstruct the ketchup stream.

However, there were compromises made with the initial squeeze bottle, the primary issues being the difficulty of extracting the final drops, and the watery ketchup serum that came out at the end. On top of these usability concerns, the new plastic material was much less recyclable than glass because it was constructed from six layers of different plastics.

So, how do you ensure that final drops of ketchup will come out?

Simple, you turn the bottle upside down and wait. Heinz was clearly aware of this solution when they had the idea to move the lid to the bottom of the bottle. In 2002 they released the ‘upside-down bottle’. Now, there is a good reason we hadn’t been putting lids on the bottom of bottles until then, and I don’t think I need to elaborate. It turns out Heinz had thought of this solution much earlier but could not overcome the small issue of gravity.

The upside-down bottle was contingent on the resolution of the gravity problem, which we can now thank an inventor named Paul Brown. Brown was tasked by a client to design a valve that would allow a shampoo bottle to be stored upside down. After 112 prototypes and thousands of dollars borrowed, he came up with a silicone dome-shaped valve with a cross shaped cut. This valve opens from the pressure of the squeezed bottle, and then closes from the suction effect when the bottle is allowed to expand. His client bought the design, and Brown’s work was subsequently sold to NASA, Gerber, Hunt’s, and Heinz, netting him a cool $13m.

Heinz themselves then had to redesign their bottle around this valve. They enlarged the lid to allow it to act as the base, and removed the long neck as ketchup-sliding was no longer a priority. The form of the bottle was contoured inwards at the mid-section for better grip. The upside-down bottle has proved to be incredibly popular, and I for one think it is their best innovation yet.

In 2014, Heinz unveiled a new bottle with a different material. The new bottle is constructed from a blend of PET and plant material, making it much more recyclable. More recently they have deepened lip on the lid, vastly improving accessibility. This is a subtle change that makes a big difference, and I can’t believe they are still selling some variants with the old lip design.

This blog may have been a bit of a history lesson, but I can’t help it when every iteration is so game changing. The more I investigate Heinz’s bottle, the more I discover it has a long and rich design history that competes with any other product you can name. With the future bringing mounting pressure to reduce plastic packaging, alongside exciting new technologies such as near-frictionless coatings, I am excited to see what Heinz will do next.

Heinz Ketchup Poster from 1921


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