Big City Tales

Heinz History Center Celebrates More Than Ketchup

August 9, 2018
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If the larger-than-life ketchup bottle perched on the roof of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has you thinking this building only pays homage to the popular condiment, think again. The story of the Heinz family is actually just one small part of what lies inside this six-floor structure, and ketchup is just one of many discoveries and innovations attributed to residents of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. This region of the United States is well known for its prolific contributions to the realm of “World’s First” and the Heinz History Center accordingly celebrates more than ketchup in its educational exhibits.

The Warriors

From 1754 to 1763 much of the occupied parts of North America were battlegrounds where British, French and Native American forces were engaged in what is considered to be the world’s first global conflict, the Seven Years’ War. At the time, the population of the British American colonies vastly outnumbered the French colonies in New France, but the French had significant backing from a number of native tribes. Together, the French and their allies initially proved to be formidable foes for the likes of a young George Washington, who was just embarking on his military career as Commander of the Virginia Regiment, but the British eventually prevailed and substantially increased the breadth of their empire on North American soil. One of the most prized regions that the British and French fought over was the Forks of Ohio located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which is now Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh. The Clash of Empires exhibit offers life-like models, detailed maps and riveting accounts of warfare from the perspectives of all parties involved.

The Explorers

In the early 1800s, the western frontier of the United States was a mystery waiting to be revealed. President Thomas Jefferson was particularly keen to lay claim to the territory before Britain, France or Spain set their sights on it, so he commissioned the Corps of Discovery Expedition to be jointly led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The expedition was the first of its kind to explore the American West and Pittsburgh is where the epic journey began when Lewis set sail from Mon Wharf at the headwaters of the Ohio River to meet up with Clark in St. Louis. Along with mapping the vast territory, Lewis and Clark were tasked with finding a reliable water route to the Pacific Ocean, making contact/establishing trade with Native Americans, and documenting the wealth of resources they encountered along the way. To mark the 200th anniversary of the expedition, the well known Rooney family of Pittsburgh retraced the famed western adventure and the Rediscovering Lewis & Clark exhibit shares the highlights of their journey.

The Entrepreneurs

Established in 1869, the H.J. Heinz Company started small with the pickling of vegetables grown in the Heinz family garden. The first Heinz product to be sold en masse was actually horseradish but by the 1900s the company had expanded significantly. Thanks to its new slogan “57 varieties,” the company now had a clever marketing tool to brand its ever-growing stable of products such as pickles, tomato ketchup, baked beans, chutney, relish, mustard and other processed foods. Heinz was adamant about using only high quality ingredients and developing innovative packaging, including the classic octagon-shaped ketchup bottle that he patented in 1890. The Heinz exhibit chronicles the company’s evolution into a global powerhouse and features an 11-foot ketchup bottle display comprised of over 400 individual bottles, displays of pickle pins and historical product packaging, as well as other family memorabilia.

Gulf Oil

Along with being a major food processing hub in the early 1900s, Pittsburgh was the birthplace of Gulf Oil that was founded and run by the Mellon family until it was sold in the 1980s to Standard Oil. The first gas station in the United States was built by Gulf Refining Company in Pittsburgh and the pumps started flowing in 1913. Until 1970 the company’s Art Deco-styled head office was the tallest building in the city and it remains one of Pittsburgh’s downtown landmarks with its distinctive step-pyramid structure at the top of the 44-story skyscraper. The Special Collections gallery features old gas pumps, hard hats, signs and other marketing materials.

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The Innovators

Pittsburgh is known as a center of innovation. The exhibit Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation showcases Western Pennsylvania’s significant contributions to the world. Be it Westinghouse Electric’s invention of alternating current, Dr. Jonas Salk’s discovery of the polio vaccine, or the creation of the smiley emoticon at Carnegie Mellon University there are dozens of shining examples of local innovations. Here are a few more:

  • Reporter Nellie Bly circled the globe in 72 days.
  • A Pittsburgh artist created the We Can Do It! poster that subsequently became known as Rosie the Riveter.
  • The Jeep was developed by the American Bantam Company based in Butler, PA.
  • The Pennsylvania Turnpike was America’s first “super highway” and was a model for the development of other interstate highways across the country.

The Sports Heroes

Pittsburgh is a sports town through and through and the city has laid claim to dozens of league championships in football, hockey and baseball. The Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum located on two floors in the Heinz History Center presents some of the city’s  greatest sporting moments.


As the first National Football League franchise to win six Super Bowl championships, the Pittsburgh Steelers have enjoyed tremendous success over the decades. The team’s winning ways inspired the city’s other professional franchises leading to Pittsburgh earning the designation of City of Champions.

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In 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrated 50 years in the National Hockey League capped off with their fifth Stanley Cup win. Back in the 1990s, the team was led by Captain Mario Lemieux, The Magnificent One, who was an integral part of the franchise’s back-to-back league championships in 1991 and 1992. Today, Lemieux is a co-owner and is the only man to have his name on the Stanley Cup as both a player and an owner. 


Along with the distinction of being the first National League participant in the first World Series in Major League Baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise is noteworthy for winning five World Series championships and hosting the first World Series night game back in 1971. While the team has had many all-star players, Roberto Clemente was the first Latin American and Caribbean player to help win a World Series as a starter, to receive a National League MVP Award, to receive the World Series MVP Award, and to be enshrined into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Clemente was also known for his charitable work in the off-season and tragically died in a plane crash en route to delivering aid to earthquake victims in 1972.

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The Educators

When the first community-sponsored educational television station in the United States (WQED) began broadcasting in 1954, little did producers know that it would launch the career of Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers, and introduce the world to the familiar refrain of “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired in 1968 and would become a children’s television show classic. The Special Collections gallery contains many of the show’s artifacts, as well as some 3,000 other items representing the ethnic diversity of Western Pennsylvania, its various business entities and talented local artisans.

The Firsts

From the first steamboat to sail westward rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans to the first city in the United States to host the world’s largest rubber duck, A History of Firsts created by local artist Ron Magnes is a linear representation of some of Pittsburgh’s most notable firsts in the realms of technology, the arts, business, sports, education, medicine, and entertainment. The world as we know it has been changed for the better as a result of many of these accomplishments that are explored in depth and presented with tremendous pride in the Heinz History Center.

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