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founder of the frozen foods industry
Clarence Birdseye was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 9, 1886, the sixth of nine children of Clarence Frank and Ada Jane (Underwood) Birdseye. By the time he was ten years old he was hunting, exporting live muskrats, and teaching himself taxidermy. He studied natural science at Amherst College, but had to drop out after a short time due to lack of money.
Birdseye began his career as a taxidermist. He subsequently worked as an assistant naturalist in Arizona and New Mexico, and then went to Montana, where he caught hundreds of small mammals for entomologist Willard Von Orsdel King, who then collected ticks for research purposes. Between 1912 and 1915 he worked as a fur trader in Labrador, Canada (then called the Dominion of Newfoundland), and it was there that he learned how to freeze food so that it still tasted fresh upon thawing. He married Eleanor Gannett in 1915, and the couple eventually had two sons and two daughters.
Returning to the United States, Birdseye worked a series of jobs before joining the U.S. Fisheries Association (a lobbying group) in Washington. It was this job that spurred him to expand the market for fish by developing a means for packing and transporting it over long distances. He believed that the quick freezing method he had seen used by the Inuit in Labrador was ideal, and he began working on his idea in 1922.
Birdseye developed two methods for quick freezing foods, both of which employed the innovation of packaging the food beforehand. In the first technique, the package was held between two metal belts that were chilled to -40°F to -45°F using a calcium chloride solution. In the second and more popular technique, the packaged food was held under pressure between two hollow metal plates that were chilled to -25°F by the evaporation of ammonia. Using this method, a two-inch-thick package of meat could be frozen to 0°F in about 90 minutes, while fruits and vegetables took about 30 minutes.
Birdseye established General Seafood Corporation in 1924. In 1925, his new company moved to Gloucester in Massachusetts, where he made use of his new invention -- a double belt freezer where brine was used to chill a couple of stainless steel belts that carried packaged fish so they froze quickly. He applied for a patent for his invention on June 18, 1927, and it was granted on August 12, 1930.
The fish had to be frozen in small portions both for speed and because he wanted to sell it to individual customers. Birdseye was also concerned with eliminating the little air pockets that in whole fish could harbor bacteria and lead to decomposition, so a key part of his process called for filleting the fish, which was an unusual thing to do in the 1920's. The job had to be done by hand, but it allowed them to be packed tightly into rectangular fiberboard boxes. Birdseye spent almost as much time and effort inventing those boxes, and was granted a patent for them on April 5, 1932.
Birdseye's frozen fish fillets were almost immediately successful, and by 1927 he was using his process to freeze vegetables, fruits, chicken, and other meats. In 1929 he sold his company to Goldman Sachs and the Postum Company for about $22 million. The company was then renamed General Foods Corp., which in turn established the Birds Eye Frozen Food Company. "Birds Eye Frosted Foods" were introduced at eighteen stores in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 6, 1930. The company gave the stores display freezers, put their staff through a three-day training course, and offered the food on consignment. In addition to the original haddock fillets, the Birds Eye brand included eighteen different cuts of meat, spinach and peas, a variety of fruits and berries, and blue point oysters.
Birdseye stayed with his company after its sale, and made many more significant contributions to the industry he created. In 1944, he convinced General Foods to lease insulated railroad cars so it could ship frozen foods nationwide. The company also contracted with the American Radiator Corporation to build display freezers, which General Foods then leased to stores. By the early 1950s, more than half of American grocery stores had a 'frozen food' section.
In addition to his work in the frozen food industry, Birdseye obtained patents for incandescent lighting, a whale-fishing harpoon, an infrared heating process, and a technique for converting sugar cane waste into paper pulp. He also wrote a book on wildflowers (Growing Woodland Plants, 1951), and was an expert at Chinese checkers. He died in Springfield, Massachusetts, on October 7, 1956; his ashes were scattered at sea off Gloucester, Massachusetts.
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This page was last updated on June 17, 2017.