The ketchup we slather onto hot dogs, burgers, and fries today once had a different purpose: Doctors believed it was best consumed as a health tonic. Ketchup has come a long way from its roots in China as far back as the third century BCE, when cooks fermented seafood to create a salty, amber-colored sauce that resembles modern fish sauce (an anchovy-based condiment that adds umami flavor to many Asian dishes). By around the 16th century, British sailors had taken word of ketchup back to their home country, and British cooks tried to replicate it with their own versions made from walnuts and mushrooms. It’s not clear exactly when tomatoes came on the scene, though the first known tomato ketchup recipe appeared around 1812, published by Philadelphia horticulturist James Mease.
It wasn’t until the 1830s that some doctors began rebranding tomatoes as a 19th-century superfood. One physician, Dr. John Cook Bennett, especially promoted tomatoes as cures for indigestion and other stomach ailments, encouraging a craze for the fruit that eventually saw the introduction of ketchup pills and extracts (one memorable jingle went, “tomato pills will cure all your ills”). The fad would last through around the 1850s, but soon enough home cooks focused on creating their own ketchups instead of taking the vitamin equivalents. The sauce then became an easily obtainable American dinner table staple in large part thanks to the H. J. Heinz Company, which released its first tomato ketchup in 1876.
Collinsville, Illinois — located 15 miles east of St. Louis — is home to the world’s largest ketchup bottle, which was originally filled with water. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, the G. S. Suppiger Company in Collinsville produced ketchup along with chili beans, soups, and sauces. With business booming, the company needed more water and opted to construct a water tower — and what better advertisement than making it in the shape of a ketchup bottle? Finished in 1949, the world’s largest ketchup bottle was 70 feet tall, with an additional 100 feet added to its height thanks to its legs, and could hold 100,000 gallons of water (equivalent to 640,000 bottles of ketchup). By the 1990s, the bottle had become defunct and slated for demolition, though a group of volunteers raised $80,000 toward its restoration. Since 2002, the colossal container has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, attracting thousands of visitors each year.