Have you ever looked at the image of a nest on the back of your favourite jar of coffee, or a yummy break-time treat and asked yourself: where does Nestlé come from?
A lot of people seem to think that we’re American, or that we’re a relatively newly established company, but not so, we're actually Swiss, and we’ve got a really interesting history.
Henri Nestlé: Founder of the firm
Our story starts back in the 1860s, when two men from very different backgrounds were both working on products using Swiss milk.
The first man was Henri Nestlé, a German by birth, who would be 200 years old this Sunday. Henri was living in Vevey (Switzerland) and running the local chemist shop. As a chemist he dabbled in all kinds of products, he made Portland cement, generated natural gas to power the town’s streetlights, and made mustard. He was a really interesting, innovative guy, always making things.
It’s difficult now to understand what it was like to live in Henri’s world, where the infant mortality rate was very high, and where there were no safe alternatives to breast milk for babies who couldn’t be breast-fed. No one knows what motivated Henri to do it, but in the 1860s our Swiss chemist began experimenting with a mixture of condensed milk and ground rusks to try and create a breast-milk substitute for use in emergencies to save a child’s life.
Henri Nestlé's Laboratory
Meanwhile, in another part of Switzerland, the American Consul, one Charles Page, was thinking about the goodness of Swiss cow’s milk. Tinned, condensed milk was a relatively recent invention, and was thought of as a kind of superfood by the Victorians. Page wanted to set up a couple of condenseries in Switzerland to make tinned milk with all the goodness of Swiss pastures, and then sell it abroad. Charles got his brother George to run the firm, and they decided to call it the Anglo Swiss Condensed Milk Company. They used the word ‘Anglo’ to appeal to the British, who at the time were essential to their success internationally. When the Page brothers started out, the British still owned an Empire on which the sun never set, so making their product sound British was a smart move.
George Page: Milkman
Henri Nestlé didn’t have such grand ambitions. He’d developed a formula that he thought might make a safe alternative to breast milk, but he wasn’t ready to go into production yet. Henri must have been discussing his experiments with the local doctor, because when a boy in the town was born prematurely and wouldn’t feed, it was Henri that the doctor turned to. The baby hadn’t taking any sort of feed for fifteen days, and the doctor was convinced that he would die. Desperately worried for the child’s life, the doctor and his mother begged Henri to try his new formula out on the baby. The results were miraculous; the baby began feeding on Henri’s formula and thrived.
Initially Henri only made his formula for local doctors, but as word of his new invention spread, Henri began to receive letters from women all over the world, begging him to sell his formula to them. Henri went into large-scale production, and eventually sold his thriving business to a group of local businessmen, along with the right to use his family crest: the sign of a little bird’s nest.
Henri's Formula was made available to doctors
The firms of the Page brothers (the Anglo Swiss Condensed Milk Company) and Henri Nestlé eventually merged in 1905 to form the world’s largest dairy company.
With thanks to our colleagues over in the 'big archive' in Switzerland for loaning us these images of our founder.