Brow Beat

Seth Rogen’s New Movie Recalls a Century of Pickle-Related Catastrophes

An overhead shot of Seth Rogen, in costume as a 1920s factory worker, falls backwards into a giant vat of pickles, arms outspread, screaming.
The hands that pickled America. HBO Max

In An American Pickle, the new film from director Brandon Trost and screenwriter Simon Rich, Seth Rogen plays a 1920s pickle works employee who falls into a vat of brine and is perfectly preserved for a century, waking up in pre-COVID New York City. The movie plays fast and loose with the science of pickling human beings, but it’s a long-overdue reminder that in many ways, the story of the pickle industry—the pickles, the picklers who pickled the pickles, the pickle works where pickle picklers pickled the pickles they pickled—is the story of America itself. Here are some of pivotal events that helped shape the nation’s vibrant pickle industry and laid the foundations for our modern age.

Nov. 18, 1876. John Shelton, an employee of the Janesville Pickle Works of Janesville, Wisconsin, is killed instantly when a barrel of vinegar falls on his head.

Aug. 7, 1883: A building in Mount Vernon, New York, that the New York Times describes as “the pickle-works and tenement house of George Frieschel” burns down. Five million pickles are lost.

Sept. 10, 1886: Representatives of the Los Angeles Pickle Works convince local farmers to raise cucumbers for pickling, then do not buy the cucumbers, infuriating the public. “There is too much of this kind of work going on, which causes shaken confidence,” laments the Los Angeles Times.

Nov. 9, 1887: The Los Angeles Pickle Works burns down.

May 29, 1890: The Lyman A. Budlong Pickle Works of Bowmanville, Illinois, burns down.

Aug. 21, 1890: The Banning Pickle Works of Los Angeles burns down.

Aug. 3, 1891: A Mr. P. Steinhagen sues his former business partner Rudolph Franke for tricking him into going into the pickle business by “making false and fraudulent representations as to the capacity of the pickle works.”

Dec. 25, 1894: The Marshall Vinegar and Pickle Works of Marshalltown, Iowa, burns down, two weeks after proprietor Joseph Holmes lets the fire insurance lapse.

Jan. 10, 1895: The C.B. Gedner Pickle Works of Omaha, Nebraska, burns down.

March 27, 1897: Patrolmen Kennedy and McGuire of the Louisville Police Department, in Louisville, Kentucky, successfully defend the Jones Bros. & Carr Pickle Works from a band of robbers.

Oct. 23, 1897: Australian immigrant William Cowan sues San Francisco residents William S. Woods and Arthur Semler for involving him in what the Chronicle dubs “a swindle in pickles.” Cowan alleges that Woods and Semler purported to be the owners of the Sonoma Pickle Works, gave him a tour of the property, and sold him a half share in their business. In reality, the men didn’t even own a single pickle works!

May 5, 1899: The Lyman A. Budlong Pickle Works of Bowmanville, Illinois, catches fire again. This time, firefighters, some presumably veterans of the last conflagration at the Lyman A. Budlong Pickle Works, are able to save the structure.

Aug. 13, 1926: The Great Pickle Works Wreck, the deadliest pickle works disaster in American history.

May 5, 1928: In a daring daylight heist, two unarmed men steal the entire payroll of the New York City’s Empire Pickle Works by grabbing it out of the hands of stenographer Clara Wilder as she walks it from the bank to the pickle works. The thieves get away with $970.

Dec. 27, 1934: Edward Boyle, a 23-year-old burglar on trial for stealing 700 pounds of sugar from the Harvard Pickle Works in Cambridge, Massachusetts, explains in sworn testimony that he was able to elude the pickle works’ guard dog with “a friendly word” that “started his tail wagging.” The Boston Globe speculates that the guard dog may lose his job.

July 10, 1937: A horse named Katy, apparently unhappy with the heat, finds her way into the cellar of a Manhattan pickle works, stretches out on the floor in the shade, and refuses to leave. The sanitation department eventually has to hoist her out of the cellar, an operation that draws 200 spectators. Freed at last, Katy immediately lies down in the middle of the street, only returning home after she is given a bath and plenty of water to drink.

April 12, 1947: The Harvard Pickle Works suffers another embarrassing security lapse when vandals break in at night and flood the pickle works with two pickling vats worth of pickling solution, doing thousands of dollars in damage.

Nov. 26, 1949: Manassah I. Gorsey of Brighton, Massachusetts is kidnapped outside the Middlesex County National Bank by three gunmen. “Keep quiet if you want to see your family again,” they tell him, before robbing him at gunpoint and stealing his car. The thieves escape with $871.63, the entire payroll of the Harvard Pickle Works.

June 3, 1955: The Harvard Pickle Works burns down.

For more on An American Pickle, listen to Dana Stevens and Isaac Butler discuss the movie on Slate’s Spoiler Specials podcast.