pittsburgh: locked in(!) & the heinz history center

Our second day in Pittsburgh almost never started because we locked ourselves INTO our Airbnb apartment!  The West End Village neighborhood where we were staying, formerly called Temperanceville, looked a bit derelict, although the Airbnb was quite nice inside; because of the hardscrabble neighborhood, we had locked the door with the deadbolt before going to bed.  When we found ourselves locked in, we texted our host, who it turned out lived just downstairs, but when she didn’t respond, Mike tried to get out the window to the deck. He couldn’t get the screen open, so we considered breaking it.  Finally, although the host hadn’t given us an option to call, I telephoned her anyway.  She came upstairs through an interior door and struggled mightily to get the deadbolt open.  Thank goodness we got out!

One of the most surprising and satisfying places we visited in Pittsburgh, the Senator John Heinz History Center, was a fabulous place to explore stories of American history with a connection to Western Pennsylvania. There was so much to see here, but what I loved most were the exhibits on American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, displays of cultural items from the various ethnic groups that make up Pittsburgh, items from popular culture, and the Heinz exhibition, covering 145 years of the H.J. Heinz Company.


Senator John Heinz History Center


inside the Heinz History Center

We learned all about the “constitutional hiccup” of Prohibition from 1920-1933. Fascinating displays covered bootleggers and temperance workers, flappers and suffragists.  Temperance workers were appalled by what was happening to Americans who were drinking themselves to death, so “saloon busters” met outside of saloons to kneel and pray.  Evangelists for temperance preached, leading Baptists to succeed in their attempts to pass the 18th constitutional amendment. Americans started drinking less, at least for the first few years. To meet the bottomless demand, bootleggers cropped up everywhere. They benefited from unintended consequences: men and women drank together in well-stocked speakeasies; people came to disrespect the law due to government corruption; and illegal behavior cropped up everywhere. Power barons went beyond bootlegging to racketeering and illegal lotteries.  The automobile brought freedom to people, as registered drivers jumped from 8 to 23 million.

Signs told of the devastation alcohol wreaked on families. I learned that it took a mighty effort to repeal the 18th amendment, as no constitutional amendment had ever been repealed.  The eventual repeal came about because of The Great Depression, which caused income tax revenues to plummet as unemployment rose. Congress became desperate for revenue, which a tax on alcohol would create.

I feel much the same way today about Prohibition as I do about legalizing drugs, especially marijuana. People are going to do whatever they’re going to do, so why prohibit it? Why not eliminate drug crime and violent gangs by putting drugs under government control and taxing it to raise revenues for social services?

The Heinz exhibit was wonderfully engaging. A larger-than-life, 11-foot ketchup bottle composed of more than 400 individual bottles sits alongside a display of more than 100 historic bottles that shows the evolution of Heinz products and packaging. Video loops of vintage Heinz TV ads run from around the world. In one ad, a little girl pounds on the ketchup bottle to get the last drop out.  I remember doing that as a child.


The Heinz exhibition

H.J. Heinz grew vegetables and canned them in his mother’s kitchen. First, he grated horseradish and packaged it. Then he made pickles. Ketchup originally referred to a thin, brown sauce made from walnuts, anchovies, or mushrooms that had been fermented with vinegar and spices.

Eventually, the Heinz company expanded and controlled each step of the operation from cultivating its own tomato and cucumber seeds, to making glass bottles, to delivering the products.  The company catered to households that took advantage of ready-made, store-bought food products. Heinz convenience foods such as soup and baked beans provided quick meals.

The “57” trademark of Heinz came about when H.J. Heinz spotted a sign advertising “21 Styles of Shoes” and decided to market Heinz products in the same way. Even though the company bypassed 57 products, Heinz liked the way the number sounded and kept it.


Heinz 57

Restaurants with a signature Heinz Ketchup bottle on the tables were considered “quality establishments.”

We enjoyed so many exhibits at this wonderful museum, including the one on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, old Gulf gas station pumps, beer bottles and cans, old bicycles, toys and dollhouses, packaged Halloween costumes, Flexible Flyer sleds, View-Masters, and even sewing machines, much like the Singer on which my grandmother taught me to sew. A photo of Barbara Feldon, a Pittsburgh native, who played Agent 99, took us back to the 1960s sitcom Get Smart.

Ethnic exhibits included clothing, household items and collectibles from Polish, Slovak, Slovenian, and Irish immigrants.  A funerary collection took us back to the day when visitations were done in homes rather than funeral homes, back before we distanced ourselves from death.

One display told the history of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and how it eased automobile travel over the formidable barrier of the Allegheny Mountains. Dioramas showed kitchens and living rooms from the 1950s and 1960s, the decades during which consumerism grew as manufacturers created time-saving devices such as Westinghouse refrigerators and stoves, ALCOA Wear-Ever utensils and Heinz baby food.  Leisure businesses grew. Finally, one exhibit showed how Pittsburgh, which was once the “smoky city,” reinvented itself through environmental and public health movements.

The overlap between history and everyday life was all too evident in this museum.  The huge battle over Prohibition is a precursor to the current battle over drug legalization. The same issues are at stake: public health and safety, rampant crime and violence, and overcrowded prisons. It seems we should learn our lessons from that previous constitutional blunder, and try to solve the problem using education and public health programs.

Kraft merged with Heinz in 2015 to become the fifth largest food company in the world. It still puts food on our shelves: Heinz tomato ketchup, soups, barbecue sauces, canned pastas, and pickles. Through much evolution, the company has served a niche convenience market.  However, today people are moving away from that model and moving back to natural ingredients, farm to table, rather than food that a middleman has altered to be virtually unrecognizable.

The numerous immigrant communities have become a vital part of Pittsburgh’s identity and have contributed through their blood, sweat and tears to industry’s growth in the U.S. They’ve also left their mark in art, entertainment and food.

The toys and household items from the 1950s and 1960s are things I recognize and played with as a child, so they hold fond memories.  Everything was made for convenience in those days.  Below, packaged Halloween costumes were displayed in the museum; beside this is a photo from 1962, when I wore a packaged Pinocchio costume and my sister wore a knight costume that my mother made.

Nowadays, we can still find packaged costumes, but years ago, I was sometimes in the mood to be a little more creative with my sons’ costumes.

Current generations may find these items quaint and useless, I’m sure, and when the Baby Boomer generation dies off, I hope these items will remind future generations that we actually used to play with toys other than our phones.


“PROSE” INVITATION: I invite you to write a 700 to 1,000-word post on your own blog about a recently visited particular destination (not journeys in general). Concentrate on any intention you set for your prose.  In this case, I tried to meet some of my intentions: discovering the overlap between history and everyday life, finding the essence of a place, and telling what is surprising about a location.  (I don’t recommend setting this many intentions! For my next journey, I hope to simplify.)

You can either set your own writing intentions, or use one of the prompts I’ve listed on this page: writing prompts: prose & poetry.  (This page is a work in process.) You can also include photos, of course.

Include the link in the comments below by Monday, May 21 at 1:00 p.m. EST.  When I write my post in response to this challenge on Tuesday, May 22, I’ll include your links in that post. My next post will continue with more about our time in Pittsburgh, and, again, I’ll be using the same intentions.

This will be an ongoing invitation. Feel free to jump in at any time.

I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!