You probably know him as the man who democratized automobile ownership with the Model T and pioneered factory assembly lines and car dealerships. But did you know that Henry Ford popularized the charcoal briquette?
Ford didn’t actually invent the briquette. A Mr. Ellsworth B.A. Zwoyer held the 1897 patent, making briquettes from the byproducts of coal manufacturing; Zwoyer envisioned them as useful to industry. Ford, famously averse to waste, developed his own briquettes from the byproducts of car manufacturing: wooden wheel spokes and panels. But his real genius lay not in making briquettes but in making a market for them.
To introduce the new product to a country that was already wild about automobiles, Ford devised a clever promotion: He threw in a bag of charcoal with every car purchase. The briquettes made picnic prep and hot camp dinners a snap for the scores of Americans “motor vagabonding” about the country. Why search for firewood or mess with kindling when you could use these handy briquettes? By the 1920s, the briquettes were sold at gas stations, car supply shops, and hardware and grocery stores.
“For kindling fires, broiling fowl, and grilling steaks, Ford Charcoal Briquets are just dandy,” a 1928 ad promised. “Try them and you will like them.”
We did and we did. In the 1930s, picnics evolved from baskets of cold sandwiches to sizzling grilled meats and steaming coffee. Ford introduced the Picnic Kit, which came in different sizes, and camp cooking moved into suburban backyards, as recorded by a stream of articles with titles like “Picnics for Men Who Hate to Leave Home.” In the nearly 100 years since Ford first transformed factory waste into charcoal, our obsession with our grills—and our cars—has only intensified.
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