The inventor of the children's meal came from a family of which five children had died as babies
HENRI NESTLÉ (1814-1890)
In the autumn of 1874, barely seven years after inventing the product that has meanwhile enjoyed worldwide fame, Nestlé was overwhelmed. He immediately searched and found buyers who offered him a million Swiss francs. He hesitated.
When they added a beautiful carriage and a team of horses on top, he took the offer.
The sale was concluded on March 5, 1875. He sold everything: his company, his customers, the exclusive use of his name, the secret composition of his invention, the very last share, everything. From then on he led a quiet life with his wife in Montreux and Glion.
The Nestlés had no children. He died on July 7, 1890 in Montreux, where his grave can still be found in the cemetery today. Henri Nestlé: a hundred years later, his name is still associated with the largest food company in the world.
Nestlé was born Heinrich Nestle (without an accent) on August 10, 1814 in the Töngesgasse in Frankfurt am Main. He was the eleventh of fourteen children of a glazier.
He trained as a pharmacist and settled in 1843 as a simple merchant in Vevey, Switzerland, on Lake Geneva, where he Frenchified his name to Henri Nestlé.
He manufactured liqueurs, mineral water, vinegar and mustard and ran an oil mill, a stone mill and a sawmill.
In his small laboratory, he developed fertilizers and – from 1852 – liquefied gas for Vevey's street lighting: Nestlé had inventor's blood in its veins.
For all these years, without much result, what occupied him most was the industrial production of children's meal, easily digestible food consisting of sugar, milk and wheat flour with which small children could be kept alive. He saw this flour mainly as a supplement to breast milk.
The infant mortality rate in those years was more than 20% of the number of births. Nestlé's mother had already seen five of her children die before Heinrich was born, and that must have played a part in his motivation.
For the little ones
He had been distributing his special flour on a small scale for a few months when fate lent him a hand. He had previously described his invention as follows: 'The basis of my baby food is nutritious Swiss milk that is concentrated with an air pump.
This is done at a low temperature so that the milk remains as fresh as if it came straight from the cow's udder. The grain component is baked according to a special process that I devised myself. The two are then mixed in the right proportion, resulting in a perfect food product.'
It happened one evening in September 1867. Nestlé: 'When I made my discovery, I envisioned babies of a few months old. But it soon became clear that the preparation was also suitable for the little ones.
Mrs. Wanner was seriously ill and her child was born a month early. It was a weak child, who refused not only the mother's milk but also any other food. It started having convulsions and the hopes that it would stay alive grew smaller by the day.
My friend Professor Schnetzler informed me of the case and asked if he could test my product on the child, who was then fifteen days old. From that moment on, the baby has been fed exclusively with my special children's meal.
He has never been ill again and is now a sturdy, seven-month-old boy who can sit up without support.' Only then did it dawn on him how revolutionary his product was.
His confidence grew: 'My discovery has a great future, because there is no food that can be compared with my children's meal.' And: 'I have the approval of all the doctors who have tested it.
Besides, all the mothers who ever used it once have come back without exception.'
'Nestlé,' say his biographers, 'was an intelligent man, straightforward, with a great love for simplicity and precision and a strong will.' He immediately conceived the plan to bring his product to the international market.
In 1868 it was simultaneously in pharmacies in Lausanne, Frankfurt, Paris and London. How he did it on his own was a mystery. By the end of 1869, he was producing over half a ton a day. He had to deal with 'an avalanche of orders'.
He deliberately aimed for a low price and large turnover: 'It is not the rich people who are our big customers; we need to bring the price of our baby food within everyone's reach. It is better to sell two cans for 3.60 zfr than one for 2 zwf.'
Just when he was well underway, the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870. 'I don't want to say anything about the war,' he wrote, 'it makes me sick.
As long as we Europeans have leaders with a standing army, there will be shameful and barbaric wars.' Due to the siege of Paris, he could no longer supply flour for the babies held hostage: "The King of Prussia attaches more importance to gunpowder than to my powder, which keeps children alive."
In 1870 his flour reached the United States and in 1873 seventeen countries were on his order list. He was proud to be a self-made man.
When one of his agents suggested replacing his firm's logo – a bird's nest he drew himself – with a Swiss cross, he replied: “My product must be recognizable at first glance.
The bird's nest is not only my trademark but also my family crest. “Nestle” is German dialect for “litter”. I cannot have a different trademark in every country.
Anyone can use a cross, but no one can use my family crest.” He was also a staunch defender of liberty. For example, he paid for the trip to Switzerland for the French painter Gustave Courbet when he had to leave after the fall of the Paris Commune.
The work grew over Nestlé's head. In particular, the state in which the sea freight reached New York, Melbourne or Buenos Aires caused him a lot of headaches. In 1873, 500,000 cans of children's meal were sold.
The company expanded so quickly that he could no longer control it on his own. In 1874, barely seven years after the affair with Mrs. Wanner's baby, he began to look for buyers and they quickly showed up.
Geneva moneylenders founded the 'Farine Lactée Henri Nestlé' in 1875. The first major merger followed in 1905. Nestlé, still branded with the bird's nest, is today the largest food company in the world.
It has 400 factories, 200 companies and more than 200,000 employees on five continents.
To find a way out of the millions of tons of coffee that had to be destroyed in favorable years, the Brazilian government turned to the Swiss firm Nestlé in the late 1920s.
Wasn't it possible to make instant coffee using the technique used to make milk powder? Past attempts, including in Brazil itself, had led to a result that didn't even smell like coffee, let alone taste like it.
It took the Swiss researchers ten years. They found that the aroma was preserved when the ground coffee was supplemented with carbohydrates. The concentrate was then dried to powder in a hot air stream. The product was named Nescafe.
The brain behind the new process was research leader Max Rudolf Morgenthaler from Burgdorf in Berne.
When he died in 1980, the press reported only that he had worked as a chemist for Nestlé from 1929 to 1955, that his invention had become much more famous than himself, and that the people of Vevey remembered him as "a small, amiable, white-haired man'.
On April 1, 1938, the first cans arrived in Swiss stores.
Without much advertising, because the stock was still too limited. The political unrest in the Europe of those days hindered its spread. Nevertheless, instant coffee entered the American market before the war.
When the United States became involved in the World War in December 1941, the American army was supplied with large quantities of Nescafe. The GIs brought the powder to Europe. Just like nylon stockings and ballpoint pens.
In 1964 the classic drying technique was replaced by freeze drying at minus forty degrees.