Guide to the Hills Bros. Coffee Company, Incorporated Records
Digitized Content

Collection ID:
Hills Bros. Coffee, Inc.
1856-1989, undated
Collection is in English.
Physical Description:
65 Cubic feet
Collection consists of the records of the Hills Bros. Coffee Company, Incorporated, documenting overall operations and the creation of advertising materials in addition to developments in the of the coffee trade.

Scope and Contents
Scope and Contents
Add scope note

The collection is arranged in thirteen series.
Series 1, Hills Family Papers, 1856-1942; undated
Subseries 1.1: Austin Herbert Hills, Sr. Papers, 1856-1875; undated
Subseries 1.2,: Austin Herbert Hills, Jr. Papers, 1875-1923
Subseries 1.3: Herbert Gray Hills Correspondence, 1923-1942
Series 2: Background Materials, 1896-1988; undated
Series 3: Coffee Reference Files, 1921-1980; undated
Subseries 3.1,: Hills Bros. Coffee Company Literature, 1921-1976; undated
Subseries 3.2: Coffee Industry Literature, 1924-1980; undated
Series 4: Advertising Materials, circa 1890s-1987; undated
Subseries 4.1: Scrapbooks, 1906-1978; undated
Subseries 4.2: Historical Albums, 1911-1967
Subseries 4.3: Ephemera, 1890s-1987
Subseries 4.4: Portfolios, 1919-1985, undated
Subseries 4.5: Proof sheets, 1922-1968
Subseries 4.6: Advertising Forms, 1922-1971; undated
Subseries 4.7: Newspaper and Magazine Advertising, 1926-1971; undated
Subseries 4.8: Sampling Campaigns, 1928-1941
Subseries 4.9,: General Files, 1923-1978; undated
Subseries 4.10: NW Ayer Advertising Agency Materials, 1943, 1958
Subseries 4.11: Foote, Cone & Belding Advertising Agency Materials, 1963-1968; undated
Series 5: Photographs, 1882-1973; undated
Subseries 5.1: Employees, 1882-1961; undated
Subseries 5.2: Division Offices, 1924-1931; undated
Subseries 5.3, Facilities and Vehicles, 1927-1973; undated
Subseries 5.4: Advertising, 1925-1959; undated
Subseries 5.5: Sales, circa 1921-1939; undated
Subseries 5.6: Packaging, 1884-1969; undated
Subseries 5.7: Grocery Store Displays, circa, 1901-1935
Subseries 5.8: Store Tests, 1938
Subseries 5.9: Window and Wall Displays, 1928, 1930, 1934
Subseries 5.10: Publicity, 1933-1936; undated
Subseries 5.11: Miscellaneous, 1898-1949; undated
Subseries 5.12,: Coffee and Tea Industry, 1900s-1947; undated
Series 6: Sales and Marketing Records, 1906-1989; undated
Subseries 6.1, Bulletins for Salesmen, 1912-1969
Subseries 6.2, Division Bulletins and General Letters, 1925-1927
Subseries 6.3, Correspondence, 1919-1989
Subseries 6.4, Conventions and Meetings, 1915-1971
Subseries 6.5, Salesmen Materials, 1906-1973; undated
Subseries 6.6, Reports and Studies, 1941-1978
Subseries 6.7, Marketing Research, 1956-1978; undated
Subseries 6.8, Pricing Information, 1949-1965
Series 7: Employee Records, 1934-1966
Series 8: Accounting and Financial Records, 1903-1960; undated
Series 9: Office Files, 1915-1970; undated
Subseries 9.1: General, 1915-1969; undated
Subseries 9.2: T. Carroll Wilson Correspondence, 1941-1970
Series 10, San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Materials, 1933-1986; undated
Subseries 10.1: Background Information, 1933-1986; undated
Subseries 10.2: Photographic Materials, 1933-1936; undated
Series 11: Golden Gate International Exposition Materials, 1915-1940; undated
Subseries 11.1,: Coffee Theater, circa 1939
Subseries 11.2: Exposition Attendance, 1915-1940
Subseries 11.3: Correspondence, 1937-1940; undated
Subseries 11.4: Construction, 1937-1940; undated
Subseries 11.5: Blueprints, 1937-1939
Subseries 11.6: Behind the Cup, 1937-1940; undated
Subseries 11.7: Newspaper Cooperation, 1939
Subseries 11.8: Solicitations and Replies, 1938-1940
Subseries 11.9: Miscellaneous, 1938-1940
Series 12,: World War II Materials, 1939-1949; undated
Subseries 12.1, Production and Quotas, 1942-1946
Subseries 12.2, Rationing, 1939-1946
Subseries 12.3, Containers and Closures, 1942-1949; undated
Subseries 12.4, Appeals, 1948
Subseries 12.5, Advertising Campaigns, 1942; undated
Subseries 12.6, Machinists Strike Scrapbooks, 1945-1946
Series 13: Audio Visual Materials, 1930-1984; undated
Subseries 13.1, Moving Images
Subsubseries 13.1.1, Television Commercials, 1951-1984
Subsubseries 13.1.2, Television Programs, 1951-1967
Subsubseries 13.1.3, Promotional Materials, 1939-1977
Subsubseries 13.1.4, Hills Bros. Activities, 1930-1962
Subsubseries 13.1.5, Miscellaneous Film and Video, 1938-1966
Subseries 13.2, Sound Recordings, 1934-1964; undated
Subsubseries 13.2.1: Radio Commercials
Subsubseries 13.2.2, Radio Programs and Other Broadcasts

Biographical / Historical
Biographical / Historical
Reuben Hills stated on one occasion, regarding his company's growth, "... success in business is fifty per cent judgment and fifty per cent propitious circumstances." The rise of Hills Bros. Coffee, Incorporated from a dairy stall in San Francisco's old Bay City Public Market reflects the wisdom of Reuben's statement. Aided by brother Austin's three years of experience in the retail dairy business, the early success of the brothers was in Reuben's own words both circumstance and hard work. When Reuben and Austin began to produce roasted coffee there were at least twenty five other companies already engaged in some form of coffee production and distribution in San Francisco. One such business included Folgers Company started by William Bovee, which had, began in San Francisco thirty years earlier. Most of the coffee businesses were started by family groups who contributed to the growth of San Francisco.
San Francisco in the nineteenth century was ripe for the importing and roasting of coffee. The foundation for commercial production of coffee dated back to the 1820s when English planters brought coffee to Costa Rica. By the early 1840s German and Belgian planters followed with coffee plantations in Guatemala and El Salvador, two of the several Central American countries Hills Bros. would obtain its mild coffee beans. During the Gold Rush in 1849, San Francisco rapidly expanded and grew. Coffee was imported and sold, after roasting, to restaurants and hotels. The Yankee gold miners did not have equipment to roast and brew their own coffee so they populated the coffee houses with other similar workers.
In 1873 two brothers, Austin Herbert and Reuben Wilmarth Hills arrived in San Francisco from their home in Rockland, Maine with their father Austin who had come to California some years earlier. Within five years, Austin and Reuben established a retail stall to sell dairy products in the Bay City Market under the name of their partnership "Hills Bros". Their small business expanded in less than four years with the acquisition of a retail coffee store entitled "Arabian Coffee and Spice Mills" on Fourth Street in San Francisco. In two years (1884) the brothers moved to larger quarters occupied at Sacramento and Sansome Streets. Soon after they disposed of their retail dairy business, but continued as wholesale distributors of some dairy products including butter. Their coffee was labeled "Arabian Roast" supported by the now famous trademark design of a man in turban and beard with a flowing yellow gown. This was created by a San Francisco artist named Briggs and since 1897 has remained as the official trademark of Hills Bros. Coffee-a lasting symbol of coffee quality. Hills Bros. dairy division was completely eliminated in 1908 after the company was destroyed by the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. By 1924 all miscellaneous products, including tea, had been dropped by the company which referred to itself as "coffee only".
Emphasis on the quality of the finished product has long been a major selling point in the history of Hills Bros. advertising and marketing. The company's desire to keep abreast of technological advances in coffee production is a legacy of Austin and Reuben Hills, and is reflected in the company records, in its advertising and its self-perception. It was probably 1898 when Austin Hills and Thomas Hodge, partners who managed the wholesale dairy product operations were looking for a suitable can for exporting butter that could not be manufactured in San Francisco at that time, and they decided to consult Norton Brothers, a progressive can manufacturing company in Chicago. It is unclear whether Austin traveled to Chicago or arranged with his brother Reuben to stop off there en route to New York (where he frequently spent time at the New York Green Coffee Exchange) to present the problem to Norton Brothers. Which brother made the actual contact with Norton Brothers is not important today, but the results of that visit are significant. Norton Brothers had just received patents on a process for vacuum packing foods and thought it might solve the butter problem. In short order, they concluded an agreement that would provide Hills Bros. Exclusive West Coast use of the packaging process and arranged to ship cans and machinery from Chicago to San Francisco to begin production. Thus, Hills Bros. butter became the first known food product to ever be vacuum packed. Once this had started Reuben Hills thought that what worked well for butter might also be used for coffee. Experimental vacuum-packing of coffee in butter cans supported the theory that taking the air out of coffee would keep the product fresh for indefinite periods. No time was lost in getting new cans and more machinery and in July 1900, Hills Bros. Coffee as "the Original Vacuumed-Pack" was placed on the market. With the advent of this technology, Hills Bros. changed the product name from "Arabian Roast" to "Hills Bros. Highest Grade Java and Mocha Coffee" and continued with the new trademark that had been adopted in 1897. Vacuum-packing extended the shelf life and travel ability of the product, thus new markets, national and international, were opened.
A change in the coffee industry of America was on the way. Hills Bros. remained the pioneer of vacuum-packing for thirteen years until a similar process was adapted by MJB, another leading coffee company in San Francisco. Other packers on the West Coast soon followed, but it was not until after World War I that East Coast coffee producers turned to vacuum packing. Production and advertising of coffee continued to change with new technology. In the late 1880's San Francisco coffee importers began to "cup test" coffee beans for quality, but the majority still depended on sight and smell. Reuben Hills and a few other coffee personalities in San Francisco are credited with the cup test method of appraising coffee quality. In its new home office and plant opened in 1926, Hills Bros. adapted "controlled roasting" in which coffee was roasted a few pounds at a time, but continuously. Developed in 1923 under the direction of Leslie Hills and company engineer, Lee Maede, "controlled roasting" employed the use of instruments to control the temperature and speed of operations, resulting in perfect roasting control that could not be depended on from batch to batch by even the most experienced coffee roasting expert. In 1914, the partnership known as Hills Bros. was incorporated under the same name. In 1928 a sales organization was formed under the name of Hills Bros. Coffee, Incorporated but within four to five years the parent company absorbed Hills Bros. Coffee, Incorporated and adopted its name. A second plant was built in Edgewater, New Jersey, completed in 1941 to meet the needs of the increasing growth of areas between Chicago and the East Coast.
During World War II Hills Bros. Company faced conservation rules restricting use of tin for coffee cans. A timely method of high speed packing in glass jars by Owens Illinois Glass Company made it possible for Hills Bros. as well as other companies in the industry to continue vacuum-packing during this period. Price control and coffee rationing were other war time necessities to which the industry adjusted. Hills Bros. passed out of family ownership in 1976 when the company was purchased by a Brazilian corporation named Copersucar. In 1983 a group of local investors in San Francisco brought ownership back to where it had started and sold the business in 1984 to Nestle' Holdings, Incorporated (effective January 1, 1985) which handled the acquisition of several companies in the United States for Nestle' S. A., Vevey, Switzerland.

Processing Information
Processed by Grace Meyer, volunteer, 1996; Deirdre Ryan, intern, 1996; supervised by Vanessa Broussard-Simmons, archivist, 1996 .
Vanessa Broussard-Simmons
Immediate Source of Acquisition
These records were donated to the Archives Center, National Museum of American History by Hills Bros. Coffee, Incorporated.

Using the Collection
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research.
Conditions Governing Use
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.
Preferred Citation
Hills Bros. Coffee Company, Incorporated Records, 1856-1989, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian.

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Repository Contact
Archives Center, National Museum of American History
P.O. Box 37012
Suite 1100, MRC 601
Washington, D.C. 20013-7012