Red Dot Potato Chip Can | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Red Dot Potato Chip Can

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Red Dot Potato Chip Can | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeRed Dot Potato Chips container

Red Dot Potato Chips container, c. 1950

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #2002.384.1A-B

EnlargeRed Dot factory

Red Dot factory interior, 1939

Red Dot factory interior with two continuous potato chip making machines in operation, 1939. View the original source document: WHI 11003

EnlargeRed Dot factory

Red Dot factory, c. 1945

Red Dot factory located on East Washington Avenue, Madison, Wisconsin, c. 1945. View the original source document: WHI 2379

EnlargeFrederick J. Meyer, founder of Red Dot

Frederick J. Meyer, founder of Red Dot, 1956

Founder of Red Dot, Frederick J. Meyer, with the magazine that led to his career in snack foods, 1956. Source: Image from cover of Twenty-Five Years of Opportunity, Wisconsin Historical Library

Container for potato chips made by Red Dot Foods, Inc., Madison, Wisconsin, c. 1950.
(Museum object #2002.384.1A-B)

Midwesterners who lived through the 1940s and 1950s may remember Red Dot brand snack foods, especially the excellent quality of its potato chips. Red Dot Foods, Inc., founded in 1938 by Madison resident Frederick J. Meyer, entered the industry just as these "snack foods" were becoming a staple of the American diet. By getting its foot in the door early, the company rode the wave of snack food popularity from a small Madison business to a multi-million dollar industry. Red Dot made and sold pretzels, popcorn, cookies, pork skins, and nuts, but potato chips remained the heart of the company's identity. This potato chip can from around 1950 features the company's mascot, Ta-to the Clown, who appeared on Red Dot packaging beginning in the early 1940s.

The story of Meyer and Red Dot has Horatio Alger overtones, the iconic American tale of a young man pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Meyer, who grew up in West Salem, Wisconsin, the son of a grocer, entered the snack food business in 1931, while still a student at the University of Wisconsin. He had just married his college sweetheart, Kathryne Rossman, against his parents' wishes. Without their financial support, Meyer needed a job that allowed him and his wife to continue their schooling. The Depression made that challenging, but Meyer found a job in the July 1931 issue of Opportunity magazine selling a salted confection called "Korn Parchies." He invested $22 into purchasing three cases of the product and without knowing it at the time launched his career in the snack food business. Meyer quickly became a food jobber, selling all kinds of packaged foods to grocers, including potato chips.

In 1932 Meyer and his wife graduated with degrees in chemistry and commerce respectively. His mentor, chemistry professor Dr. J.H. Mathews, urged Meyer to continue towards a Ph.D., but the couple made the decision to expand their food distribution business instead. The Fred J. Meyer Company grew over the next six years, adding staff, trucks, and new products.

By 1938 potato chips had become so popular that Meyer's supplier could no longer keep up with demand. Meyer, who had dabbled in potato chip manufacturing before, decided to purchase, with the help of investors, a continuous potato chip making machine, a technological innovation that allowed for unmatched quality control. The newly-reformed company, now called Red Dot Foods, Inc., set up shop on Division Street in Madison near Schoep's Ice Cream Company, and the first chips rolled off the line into glassine bags during March 1938.

The next year Red Dot Foods purchased a second chip-making machine and moved the factory to a larger facility nearby. Despite World War II, the business continued to grow and in September 1948 Meyer made the momentous decision to discontinue food distribution for other suppliers and focus on the manufacture and selling of Red Dot products. The first year was a disaster with the company losing $80,000, but by 1950 it had bounced back and was making a handsome profit.

For the next 11 years the company continued to grow, adding 7 more factories in the Midwest, purchasing potato farms in northern Wisconsin and Alabama, and opening 83 branch warehouses. By 1961 Red Dot had become the leading manufacturer of snack foods in the Midwest and one of the top five such companies in the United States. At its peak, Meyer made a fateful choice to merge Red Dot Foods, Inc., which he now solely owned, with H.W. Lay & Company of Atlanta, Georgia. Meyer was to continue as president of Red Dot and become vice-president of Lay Company.

The merger was finalized on May 5, 1961. Four days later Meyer killed himself with a shotgun at his Maple Bluff home, while his wife made cookies downstairs. He did not leave a note, but friends and family believed he was despondent over losing control of the business he had spent the past thirty years of his life building.

In September 1961 Lay Company merged with the Frito Company, and Frito-Lay, Inc. continued to make Red Dot potato chips for the next nine years. In 1970 the company sold the Red Dot brand to H.H. Evon Company of Little Rock, Arkansas, which discontinued it and closed down the Madison factory in 1973.

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[Sources: Twenty-Five Years of Opportunity: A History of the First Quarter Century of Red Dot Foods, Inc. (Madison, WI: Red Dot Foods, Inc., 1956); "Fred Meyer Kills Himself," The Capitol Times, Madison, WI, May 9, 1961; "Upset, Meyer Ends His Life," Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, WI, May 10, 1961; Chip Chat: Red Dot and the Potato Chip exhibition of the Wisconsin Historical Museum.]


Posted on November 13, 2008