Birdseye Invents Quick-Frozen Foods Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Clarence Birdseye’s development of a technique for quick-freezing fresh foods led to the creation of the frozen-foods industry.

Summary of Event

In 1917, Clarence Birdseye developed an inventive process for quick-freezing meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit without substantially changing their original tastes. Fortune magazine called his system of freezing “one of the most exciting and revolutionary ideas in the history of food.” Birdseye went on to refine and perfect his freezing method and to promote the frozen-foods industry until it became a commercial success nationwide. Inventions;frozen foods Frozen foods Food;preservation Refrigeration;frozen foods [kw]Birdseye Invents Quick-Frozen Foods (1917) [kw]Quick-Frozen Foods, Birdseye Invents (1917)[Quick Frozen Foods, Birdseye Invents (1917)] [kw]Frozen Foods, Birdseye Invents Quick- (1917) [kw]Foods, Birdseye Invents Quick-Frozen (1917) Inventions;frozen foods Frozen foods Food;preservation Refrigeration;frozen foods [g]United States;1917: Birdseye Invents Quick-Frozen Foods[04110] [c]Science and technology;1917: Birdseye Invents Quick-Frozen Foods[04110] [c]Inventions;1917: Birdseye Invents Quick-Frozen Foods[04110] [c]Trade and commerce;1917: Birdseye Invents Quick-Frozen Foods[04110] Birdseye, Clarence Tressler, Donald K. Hodges, Wetmore

Even as a boy, Birdseye was interested in preserving things, animal skins in particular. By the time he was a teenager, he considered himself an authority in taxidermy and placed an advertisement in a sports magazine announcing courses at his newly founded American School of Taxidermy. Later, he worked as a fur trader in Labrador, where his interest in quick-frozen foods first began. During one of his Labrador trips, Birdseye’s new wife and five-week-old baby accompanied him. In order to keep his family well fed, he placed barrels of fresh cabbages in salt water and then exposed the vegetables to freezing winds. When this proved successful, he went on to freeze a winter’s supply of ducks, caribou, and rabbit meat.

This was the start of the frozen-foods industry. In the following years, Birdseye experimented with many freezing techniques. He started with only seven dollars, with which he purchased an electric fan, cakes of ice, and buckets of salt brine. His earliest experiments were on fish and rabbits, which he froze and packed in old candy boxes. By 1924, he had borrowed against his life insurance to continue his research and was fortunate enough to locate three partners to invest in his new General Seafoods Company (later renamed General Foods), General Foods located in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Although it was Birdseye’s genius that put the principles of quick-freezing to work, Birdseye did not invent quick-freezing. The scientific principles involved had been known for some time when he put them to use. In the mid-1800’s, ice-salt systems were used to freeze foods. As early as 1842, a patent for freezing fish was granted to H. Benjamin in England, and in 1861 another such patent went to Enoch Piper in Maine. Nevertheless, the commercial exploitation of the freezing process could not have happened until the end of the 1800’s, when mechanical refrigeration was invented.

Even with the refrigerator, however, Birdseye had to overcome major obstacles. By the 1920’s, few mechanical refrigerators were yet found in American homes, and it was years before adequate facilities for food freezing and retail distribution were in place across the United States. By the late 1930’s, frozen foods had, indeed, found their role in commerce, but they still were not important competitors with canned or fresh foods.

Birdseye became a prime mover of the industry, working tirelessly, writing and delivering numerous lectures and articles to advance the popularity of frozen foods. His efforts were aided by scientific research being conducted at Cornell University by Donald K. Tressler and at Massachusetts State College (now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) by C. R. Fellers. Also, war conditions advanced public acceptance of quick-frozen packaged foods as rationing, combined with a shortage of canned foods, contributed to demand. The armed forces made large purchases of these items as well.

Although Birdseye’s new company was not the first to freeze whole fish commercially, General Foods was the first to use a system of extremely rapid freezing of perishable foods in packages. Under the Birdseye system, fresh foods, from berries to lobster, were packaged snugly in convenient square containers. The packages were then pressed between refrigerated metal plates under pressure at very low temperatures.

General Foods used two types of freezing machines: the “double-belt” and “multiplate” Birdseye freezers. In the former, two metal belts held the food and were sprayed with calcium chloride brine as they ran through a 49-foot (15-meter) freezing tunnel. This type of freezer was used only in permanent installations and was soon replaced by the multiplate freezer, which was portable and required only about 124 square feet (11.5 square meters) of floor space, compared with the double-belt freezer’s 1,636 square feet (152 square meters).

The multiplate freezer made it possible to bring quick-freezing to seasonal crops. Such a freezer could be transported easily from one harvesting field to another to freeze crops such as peas fresh off the vine. This type of freezer consisted of an insulated cabinet equipped with refrigerated metal plates. Placed one above the other, these plates could be opened and closed to receive food products and to compress them with evenly distributed pressure. Each aluminum plate had internal passages through which ammonia flowed and expanded at a temperature of –3.8 degrees Celsius, thus causing foods to freeze.

A major benefit of the new methods of freezing foods was that the taste and vitamin content of most foods were not lost, as had been the case with previous methods. Ordinarily, when food is frozen slowly, ice crystals form within the food, slowly rupturing the cells and thus altering the taste of the food. In contrast, when food is frozen quickly at very low temperatures, cellular rupturing is minimized because the ice crystals formed are very small. Consequently, the food’s texture, flavor, color, and odor are retained. Compared with slower freezing methods, quick-freezing also cuts down bacterial growth and retards oxidation in foods.

Up until 1925, financial problems plagued Birdseye’s commercial efforts. Later, Wetmore Hodges, son of the vice president of the American Radiator Company, had the foresight to interest J. P. Morgan & Company in refinancing General Foods. By 1928, Hodges had convinced two other corporations that Birdseye’s process had a sales potential of one billion dollars per year. Within the year, these companies negotiated the purchase of Birdseye’s system, with its 168 patents. Soon, foods frozen using Birdseye’s methods began to appear on the market under the trademark name Birdseye Frosted Foods. Birdseye, by then a millionaire, continued to act as a consultant to General Foods while promoting the frozen food industry by writing articles and presenting lectures on food preservation.

In later years, Birdseye turned his attention to developing an improved method of dehydrating foods, which he called “anhydrous.” Relying on the same principle of speed that had served him well in the quick-freezing industry, he discovered that rapidly dehydrated foods retain their cell structure. His new quick-drying method extracted water from fresh-picked fruits and vegetables in one-tenth the time used by other methods and was said to retain color, flavor, texture, aroma, and nutritional qualities. This was Birdseye’s second major contribution to the field of food preservation.


During the months between one food harvest and the next, humankind requires trillions of pounds of food for sustenance. In many parts of the world, adequate supplies of a variety of foods are available all year long; elsewhere, much food goes to waste at some times and many people go hungry at others. Methods of food preservation such as those developed by Birdseye have contributed immensely to reducing the number of malnourished in the world, as extending the season of availability of perishable foods increases the quantity and variety of foods that people can eat.

Economically, frozen foods quickly became and still remain important items of commerce. In a free market system, frozen foods compete successfully with fresh and canned foods. For consumers this means better foods at lower prices, whether fresh, frozen, or canned. The success of the frozen-foods industry also improved the fortunes of many related industries. For example, Birdseye’s freezing methods revolutionized the shellfish industry, and today some 90 percent of Iceland’s export trade involves frozen fish. The prepared frozen foods industry came into being as a natural offshoot of the groundwork laid by General Foods.

Aside from the benefits of improved nourishment for many and economic growth, the industry that Birdseye fathered had a major impact on the lifestyles of many people, especially those in developed nations, as the time-saving option offered by frozen foods gave them more leisure time. In addition, the frozen-foods industry greatly increased the food choices available to people who live in even the most remote areas of the world. Inventions;frozen foods Frozen foods Food;preservation Refrigeration;frozen foods

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birdseye, Clarence. “Bringing Quick-Freezing to Seasonal Crops.” Food Industries 3 (1931): 490-491. Presents the first authentic description of the multiplate freezer. Includes a discussion of how this portable unit was an improvement over Birdseye’s earlier model.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Freezing Foods.” In Refrigeration Data Book. Vol. 1. New York: American Society of Refrigeration Engineers, 1932. Includes a discussion of biological and chemical aspects of freezing, thermal considerations, low-temperature refrigerating machinery, storage, and packaging.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Preparation and Distribution of Frozen Perishable Products.” Refrigeration Engineering 19 (1930): 173. Discusses the benefits of quick-freezing and briefly covers packaging, equipment for storage and display, and difficulties encountered in thawing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carlton, Harry. “Freezing Methods.” In The Frozen Food Industry. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1941. Presents an overview of a variety of freezers designed by engineers after Birdseye created his original models and includes detailed descriptions of how these freezers work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Desrosier, Norman W. The Technology of Food Preservation. Westport, Conn.: AVI, 1959. Presents the elements of the technology of food preservation as founded in the physical and biological sciences. Chapter 5 offers a thorough description of the physical, chemical, and biological changes that occur during the freezing and thawing of foods.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McIntosh, Elaine N. American Food Habits in Historical Perspective. New York: Praeger, 1995. Examines the nutritional history of the United States, including how nutrition has been affected by available food-preservation technology. Chapter 6 presents information on the advent of frozen foods in the twentieth century. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pillsbury, Richard. “Stocking the Pantry: Technology and the Food Supply.” In No Foreign Food: The American Diet in Time and Place. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. Discusses how methods of food preservation, including freezing, have influenced Americans’ dietary habits over time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tressler, Donald K., and Clifford F. Evers. The Freezing Preservation of Foods. 2d ed. New York: AVI, 1947. Covers the freezing of not only fruits, fruit juices, and vegetables but also meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, and dairy products. Includes a section on the economic status of the food-freezing industry, with comments on its importance and probable trends. Illustrations of Birdseye’s multiplate freezer and “gravity froster” are accompanied by thorough explanations of how these freezers work.

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