Clarence Birdseye 1886-1956: The Adventures of a Curious Man

Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, by Mark Kurlansky, Doubleday, 2012.

Not to be confused with Admiral Byrd who apparently fudged a bit on getting to the North Pole.  Birdseye is the guy who froze vegetables.

Cheerful  fellow of boundless energy and an innate inability to stay still.  Bit like Teddy Roosevelt in that regard.  He was also one of these small men who can endure appalling abuse where men mas macho would collapse.   He was embodied a curious mixture of lust for adventure,  curiosity over how things work, obsessive bent for  tinkering, and ambitious business moving.  An unusual quartet of impulses which Kurlansky describes but does not underscore.

Birdseye was born in Brooklyn of an old line New England family which produced men  of a respectable professional class (barring that incident of his father’s being jailed for insurance fraud).  Clarence was energetic and inordinately curious about just about anything.  Anything physical, that is to say.   Animals, bugs,  manufacturing, if it could be picked up and toyed over, he was in.

Happenstance seems to have ruled much of his life.  He put in two years at Amherst College, after which the money ran out and he got a government job out in the Rockies helping track down the transmission of Rocky Mountain Spotted fever – his job was to catch the ticks that carried the bacteria.  Which involved hunting game large and small and going over the fur and filling small glass vials with the creatures.  Seriously dangerous work in the days before antibiotics and there were plenty of men who would have had nothing to do with it.

His stint in the Rockies over, he was off  to Labrador with a view towards the fur trade, foxes being at that time quite the little money maker.   Bitterly cold in winter,  and he talks about frostbite as one of those thing you just had to deal with, “like mosquitoes” or ticks.  He also ran into the phenomenon of fast freezing of fish.  (Well, you bring fish out from thick pack ice into -40 fahrenheit, it will freeze quickly.)

He also yearned for fresh food and found the canned stuff, while delightful (largely because it reminded him of his stint in the Rockies) to be less than fresh, and now that he had a wife and child in the frozen north, he wanted proper nutrition for them.  In an area where it gets to forty below fahrenheit,  experiment was easy.  He found he could freeze cabbage and months later whack off a chunk with an axe and hav eit as fresh as when first frozen. You can see where this is going

Frozen food was nothing new to the age – it simply had a bad reputation.  The raw material was generally third rate to begin with and the freezing process was not fast enough to guarantee that the thawed product was palatable.  Birdseye was able to work out this and a number of problems.  For a commercial venture, he concentrated first on fish stuff and threw his entire life savings into the General Seafood Corporation in Gloucester in 1925.

Sounds simple enough, but as with house renovation and better mousetraps, one problem leads to another.  Frozen fish had air-pockets in which bacteria could find a home.  Answer – press the air bubbles out.   Then there was the challenge of packaging in such a way as to insulate the frozen product while cold and waterproofing as it thawed (thank Birdseye  for pushing DuPont into making cellophane).  And don’t forget the labeling, you’ll need ink that doesn’t run.

Not only was there the problem of frozen food’s bad reputation, it was how to get it to market and keep it on the shelves.  In the days of before supermarkets, small grocers were not going to shell out for a large, expensive frozen food section.  So the company provided the machinery, and sold the product on commission.  A no- lose prospect for the grocer, requiring only that he can convince an skeptical public that frozen peas really are the goods.  But it required a lot of capital and long term faith on the part of the backers.

A useful reminder that building the better mousetrap is the least of your problems.  Countering habits of a life-time and overcoming the ancillary problems that your product entails are a large part of any business success, and given how these mushroom, it’s can seem surprising that the industrial age ever took off at all. (Those of a gloomy disposition can wonder what useful enterprises never get off the ground simply because the stars do not align. Such business orphans tend not to get written about.)

In 1929 he sold the company and a packet of patents to C.W.Post.  Good timing.  Goldman Sachs helped broker the deal and lost a packet on it when the market tanked.

The business weathered the bad times, and although he was now rich, Birdseye himself was incapable of kicking back and relaxing.  He continued the tinkering and patenting  and helping with the business up until his death by heart attack in 1956.

Kurlansky notes that the primary source material is scarcer than he would have liked.  In compensation, we get a good deal of who-of-thunk anecdata about the 19th century culture of invention,  the pathology of tick borne disease, the commercial prospects of Labrador (little changed from when Birdseye was there,  or so I’m told), and other useful filler when the story sags or the material is scanty.  Turning a bug into a feature, essentially.

Birdseye’s ashes were dumped in the sea just off of Gloucester. It’s cold water, off of Gloucester.

Freezing cold, in my experience.

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