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Mayer, Oscar - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Oscar Mayer, Social and Economic Impact

meat company products sales

Oscar Mayer Foods


Oscar Mayer Foods, now part of the Kraft General Foods empire, was founded in 1883 by a German immigrant named Oscar Ferdinand Mayer. His company grew rapidly because of the high quality of its meat products, and it was eventually able to expand far beyond its headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, thanks to innovative marketing strategies and packaging techniques. In the beginning, Oscar Mayer Foods had about 12 employees. But by 1955, the year its founder died, it employed more than 8,000 people and enjoyed annual sales of $225 million.

Personal Life

Oscar F. Mayer was born in Württemberg, Germany, on March 29, 1859, the son of Ferdinand and Wilhelmina (Wagner) Mayer. His father, a master forester, died when Oscar was only 11 years old. As a result, he quit school and went to work for his cousin, John Schroll, a grocer in Munich, Germany. Three years later, in 1873, Mayer immigrated to the United States with the Schroll family, settling first in Detroit and then moving to Chicago. In both cities, the teenager continued working in small retail butcher shops before obtaining a job in 1877 with Armour & Co., the large meat-packing firm. The six years he spent there taught him much about the business, and in 1883 he left to open up his own meat market in a Chicago neighborhood that was home to many German immigrants.

After his butcher shop was well established, Mayer returned to Munich in 1887 to marry Louise Greiner. They made their home in Chicago (Mayer eventually became a naturalized U.S. citizen) and had five children: one son and four daughters.

In addition to his business interests, Oscar Mayer served for many years as treasurer of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, which was responsible for acquiring and maintaining natural wooded areas for recreational uses. Hunting and fishing were, in fact, among his favorite pastimes.

In 1928 Mayer retired as president of Oscar Mayer Foods. However, he remained active in the company as chairman of the board until just a few weeks before his death in 1955 at the age of 95. Although he became a millionaire early in his career, Mayer could never quite distance himself completely from his humble roots as a friendly neighborhood merchant. This became obvious during the Depression of the 1930s, when he ordered his factory to make a certain number of sausages that he distributed free to people who lined up every day outside his office.

Career Details

Almost from the time he first set foot in the United States, Mayer dreamed of starting his own business. As a young man in his early twenties, he wrote home suggesting that his brother Gottfried learn the art of sausage making. Gottfried followed his advice and in 1883 arrived in Chicago, ready to help Oscar fulfill his dream. The two brothers then bought the failing Kolling Meat Market on the north side of the city and leased the building from the former owner.

The Mayers’ first challenge was to overcome Kolling’s bad reputation in the neighborhood. This they did by turning out high-quality sausages, including house specialties such as liverwurst, bockwurst, and weiswurst, that quickly became favorites among their German-born customers. Within a year, the shop was turning a profit. Five years later, its continuing success prompted the envious former owner of Kolling’s to refuse to renew the Mayers’ lease on the building. Instead, he announced that he would resume control of the firm himself.

What he had not counted on, however, was Oscar Mayer’s determination. Having worked very hard to establish his business, the young entrepreneur was not about to let anyone take it away without a fight. Mayer borrowed $10,000 and purchased a piece of property only two blocks away, close enough to continue serving his faithful clientele. He then built his own building and set up shop again in 1888.

With Gottfried in charge of production and another Mayerbrother, Max (a recent arrival from Germany), serving as bookkeeper, the business—by then known as Oscar F. Mayer & Brother—proceeded to grow even more. Soon it became apparent that their customer base had expanded well beyond the immediate neighborhood. By the early 1890s, Mayer was able to buy a glass-paneled, horse-drawn wagon to deliver sausages to grocery stores and other retail outlets throughout the city, primarily in areas with large German populations.

Ever mindful of how his former landlord had tried to capitalize on his reputation, Mayer tried to thwart imitators by developing recognizable brand names (such as “Edelweiss”) for his sausages, bacon, and hams. This was virtually unheard of at the time, but it allowed shoppers to ask for Oscar Mayer products by name and thus enabled the company to expand into new markets. By 1904, Mayer employed eight salesmen who serviced more than 280 grocery stores in northern Illinois and parts of southern Wisconsin. He built up goodwill for his products by running advertisements in community newspapers and sponsoring German “oompah-pah bands” that played at picnics and holiday parades.

The company experienced significant changes after Mayer’s son, Oscar Gottfried Mayer, joined the firm on a full-time basis following his graduation from Harvard University in 1909. Over the next few years, every phase of the operation was subjected to intense scrutiny as Oscar Gottfried applied the latest industrial engineering techniques to improve efficiency. He invented a lard-tub washer and a casing flusher, introduced cardboard cartons for packaging sausages, and instituted many improvements in handling and shipping methods. In addition, production was decentralized into different departments, and by 1912 a Ford Model T automobile had replaced the horse-drawn wagon on one of the company’s 20 sales routes.

By 1918 sales at Oscar Mayer had grown to $11 million. About a third of that total represented government purchases for troops fighting in World War I. That same year the Edelweiss brand name was discontinued and replaced by “Oscar Mayer Approved Meat, Products.”

The company underwent a major expansion in 1919 when it acquired a farmer’s co op meat-packing plant in Madison, Wisconsin. This gave Mayer a reliable source of beef and pork for his Chicago plant. Sales soon tripled, and before long production at the Madison facility (which subsequently became corporate headquarters for the newly renamed Oscar Mayer & Co.) surpassed the home plant in Chicago.

Over the next few decades, Oscar Mayer continued its reign as an innovator both in terms of product and marketing. In 1924, for example, it introduced sliced bacon in a see-through plastic package. To create a national preference for their products, the Mayers also began devoting a greater percentage of the company budget to advertising. They dropped the old-fashioned oompah-pah bands in favor of a more sophisticated approach, including putting a bright yellow band bearing the Oscar Mayer brand name on every fourth hot dog produced. And in 1936 they introduced a chef character named Little Oscar who acted as a goodwill ambassador for the company at store openings, children’s hospitals, and other venues. Little Oscar and his Wienermobile, a vehicle shaped like a hot dog, appeared in many of the company’s advertisements and played a major role in making the Oscar Mayer name a household word.

Despite such efforts, however, sales went into a slump during the Depression of the 1930s. One of the few bright spots occurred in 1936, when a member of the third generation of Mayers entered the family business. Oscar Gustave Mayer, the son of Oscar Gottfried, joined the firm after graduating from Cornell Universityand attending Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration.

The market for meat products began to expand once again when the United States became involved in World War II. Oscar Mayer provided the armed forces with much-needed supplies using new processing methods that allowed for the canning of meats.

Throughout the rest of the 1940s and into the early 1950s, the company launched a series of technological improvements in the areas of packaging and distribution. The first of these debuted in 1944. Known as the Kartridg-Pak, it automatically banded hot dogs together in bunches. Five years later a tube machine was invented that encased liverwurst in “chub-sized” plastic tubes. The year 1950 marked the development of the Slice-Pak, which vacuum-packed sliced meat in plastic packages. A stripping machine created in 1953 removed the cooking cases from sausages and made possible the sale of skinless links. Oscar Mayer leased the rights to all of these innovations to competing meat packers, which is one reason the company has consistently been among the most profitable firms in the meat-packing industry.

The 1950s and 1960s were boom years for Oscar Mayer in other ways as well. In 1951 the company purchased a meat-packing plant in Los Angeles, giving it a coast-to-coast presence for the first time in its history. During the early 1960s, it entered the international market when it acquired a Venezuelan meat processor. And in 1963 the famous “Wiener Jingle” made its debut. The catchy tune, which began with the words, “Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener, that is what I’d truly like to be,” became one of the longest-running and most popular jingles in advertising history. It helped sales top the $1 billion mark by 1975.

Chronology: Oscar Mayer

1873: Emigrated to United States from Germany.

1883: Bought a small butcher shop and sausage-making business in Chicago.

1888: Built his own facility and proceeded to expand sales throughout the city.

1909: Joined in business by son, Oscar Gottfried Mayer.

1913: Posted $2.7 million in sales.

1915: Began to advertise.

1919: Purchased a second plant in Madison, Wisconsin.

1924: Introduced sliced bacon in a see-through plastic package.

1936: Little Oscar in his Weinermobile became the company’s goodwill ambassador.

1955: Died.

In 1981 Oscar Mayer was bought by General Foods Corporation, and its name was changed to Oscar Mayer Foods Corporation. As an increasingly health-conscious public began to shun fatty meat products containing preservatives, the company countered by introducing a variety of low-fat and low-sodium products. Thus, a large share of the meat that finds its way into America’s lunch-boxes still carries the name of Oscar Mayer.

Social and Economic Impact

Oscar F. Mayer was an innovator in a segment of the food market that was largely untouched by modern marketing and packaging techniques until he came along. He developed brand identification for meat products as well as distinctive packaging that enabled the consumer to identify Oscar Mayer sausages, cold cuts, and hot dogs at a glance. In addition, the technological improvements he encouraged resulted in greater efficiency and increased profits. Not only did they boost sales, they also led to lucrative deals with competitors who were eager to lease rights to the company’s new inventions.

While advertising and promotion were key to making Oscar Mayer products successful nationally and then internationally, they were not the only reasons. Under the leadership of Oscar Ferdinand Mayer as well as his son and grandson, quality was also a deciding factor. It is what has prompted consumers to keep looking for the Oscar Mayer brand by name.

Mayfield, Curtis (1942–1999) [next] [back] Mayer, John - Singer and songwriter, Career, Sidelights, Selected discography

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