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The Green Giant Company

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Green Giant display of canned goods in a grocery store

A grocery store display of Green Giant canned goods, 1969.

First founded in 1903 as the Minnesota Valley Canning Company (MVCC), the Green Giant Company, as it was later known, became one of the largest producers of canned corn and peas in the United States. From its base in Le Sueur, the company developed new ways of growing, manufacturing, and marketing canned vegetables. Its mascot, the Jolly Green Giant, can be found in grocery stores around the United States.

The MVCC was initially a venture of local investors in Le Sueur. A salesman and canner named John Silver Hughes convinced them to build a cannery in 1903, suggesting that they hire him to run the line. Hughes had already started canneries in Wisconsin and Michigan. At the time, industrial canning was a relatively new process, and there were few experts able to run a cannery. Hughes managed operations in Le Sueur for two years before leaving to found a cannery elsewhere.

After Hughes's departure, the initial years of the MVCC were marked by instability as the company's leaders attempted to understand the nature of the emerging canning industry. During these years, the MVCC only canned white cream-style corn, but in 1907, the company expanded and began to can peas as well. For most of the next three decades, it would only can peas and corn.

In 1914, Ward Cosgrove joined the Board of Directors. He also became secretary of the company and would direct it for nearly four decades. During his tenure Cosgrove concentrated on quality, cost control, and innovation. An ambitious man, in 1921, he told the Board of Directors that he wanted the successful but not wealthy company to have a world-class research department. Cosgrove also made it company policy to sell, no matter what the cost, the entire year's production every year. This policy compelled the company to concentrate on sales, quality, and efficiency because they had to ensure that they had a high quality product to sell to accomplish this task.

Cosgrove's ideas worked, and the MVCC introduced new vegetable varieties to the American market while remaining loyal to their pea and corn lines. In 1925, Cosgrove brought peas back from England that he thought would improve their product line. At the time, small peas were considered better tasting than larger peas. Cosgrove thought that he had found a tender, tasty large pea. He wanted to call it the Green Giant pea, but the patent office told him that the name was not descriptive enough to be trademarked. Instead the MVCC lawyer suggested creating a giant as a mascot to sell the larger pea.

The giant did not initially become associated with the company at large, nor was he green-colored or jolly. The first giant produced on cans of peas looked angry and threatening. In 1928, the company changed the skin color of the giant from white to green. They also added foliage to his outfit. In 1935, ad executive Leo Burnett decided to rename him the Jolly Green Giant, and he eventually became associated with all of the MVCC's products. In 1950, the MVCC changed its name to the Green Giant Company (GGC). In 1961, the Jolly Green Giant first appeared on television, and his companion, Little Sprout, first made an appearance in 1973.

In the mid-twentieth century the company continued to innovate. In 1929, they invented a new process for canning vacuum-packed corn. Called Niblets, this brand would become the best-selling canned corn in the country in a few years. In 1934, the research and development team created the heat unit method, an equation that they claimed could predict a field's exact moment of ripeness. In 1961, the GGC began marketing frozen vegetables, including whole ears of corn under its Niblets brand.

During the 1960s, the GGC followed the standard business practice of the time and diversified, opening garden centers and restaurants. By the 1970s, diversification had lost its appeal, and the company ended these ventures. Still profitable, it merged with Pillsbury in 1979. General Mills, in turn, bought Pillsbury in 2001, and in the early twenty-first century Green Giant remains a division within that larger company.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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  • Related Resources

Bengston, Roger E. "A History of the Green Giant Company." PhD. diss, University of Minnesota, 1991.

Memoirs of a Giant: Green Giant Company's First 75 Years, 1903–1978, Le Sueur: The Green Giant Company, 1978.

Related Images

Green Giant display of canned goods in a grocery store
Green Giant display of canned goods in a grocery store
Minnesota Valley Canning Company, LeSueur.
Minnesota Valley Canning Company, LeSueur.
Stacking cartons of Green Giant peas and corn, Minnesota Valley Canning Company, LeSueur.
Stacking cartons of Green Giant peas and corn, Minnesota Valley Canning Company, LeSueur.
Corn huskers at the Minnesota Valley Canning Company, LeSueur.
Corn huskers at the Minnesota Valley Canning Company, LeSueur.
Green Giant doll
Green Giant doll
Continuous cookers, Green Giant Company, LeSueur.
Continuous cookers, Green Giant Company, LeSueur.
Canning peas, Green Giant Company, LeSueur.
Canning peas, Green Giant Company, LeSueur.
Green Giant promotional umbrella
Green Giant promotional umbrella
Aerial view, Jolly Green Giant Headquarters and surrounding area, Blue Earth
Aerial view, Jolly Green Giant Headquarters and surrounding area, Blue Earth

Turning Point

In 1925, when denied a patent on a Green Giant pea variety, the Minnesota Valley Canning Company instead creates a Green Giant mascot.

Chronology

1903
Minnesota Valley Canning Company is founded; it produces 11,750 cans of cream-style corn that year.
1907
The company first begins to pack peas.
1924
The Minnesota Valley Canning Company produces Del Maiz Golden Cream-Style Corn with yellow sweet corn instead of the white that was standard at the time.
1925
The first cans of Green Giant Peas appear. The name Green Giant originally referred to the pea itself rather than the company or a mascot. The Giant began to appear on packaging, but he was not yet green.
1928
The Giant becomes the Green Giant, with a corresponding change in skin color.
1929
The company markets a new style of vacuum-packed corn under the brand name Niblets. That same year, the company introduces a research and development department to help them grow more corn and peas.
1934
The Minnesota Valley Canning company develops the heat unit method, used to predict the peak ripeness of a field of crops and the best time to pick them.
1935
The Minnesota Valley Canning Company hires the Leo Burnett ad agency. That agency would be key to the development of the Jolly Green Giant as a mascot.
1939
They begin to can asparagus, adding to their corn and pea operations for the first time since a failed experiment with canned pumpkin two decades earlier.
1950
The Minnesota Valley Canning Company becomes the Green Giant Company.
1961
The first Green Giant television advertisement airs. The Green Giant Company begins marketing frozen vegetables.
1973
To appeal to kids, Little Sprout is added as a companion to the Jolly Green Giant in advertisements.
1979
The Green Giant Company merges with Pillsbury.
2001
Pillsbury is bought by General Mills and becomes a division of the larger company under the Green Giant brand name.