Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Guide to the Hills Bros. Coffee Company, Incorporated Records

Collection ID:
Hills Bros. Coffee, Inc.
1856-1989, undated
Collection is in
. Some materials in
Physical Description:
65 Cubic feet
Printed advertisements, scrapbooks, correspondence, marketing research, radio commercial scripts, photographs, proof sheets, reports, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, television commercial storyboards, blueprints, legal documents, and audiovisual materials primarily documenting the history, business practices, and advertising campaigns of the Hills Bros. Coffee Company, Incorporated. Collection documents the professional and private lives of the Hills family; insight into the cultivation, production, and selling of coffee; and construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Scope and Contents
Scope and Contents
The collection consists of printed advertisements, scrapbooks, correspondence, marketing research, radio commercial scripts, photographs, proof sheets, reports, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, television commercial storyboards, blueprints, legal documents, and audiovisual materials. These materials primarily document the history, business practices, and advertising campaigns of Hills Bros. Coffee Company, Incorporated. Correspondence, genealogies, and home movies reveal a more domestic and social Hills family while company records document business activities outside of the home. Company records also provide insight into the cultivation, production, and selling of coffee, and the company's technological responses to the changes in the coffee trade, and consumer consumption demands. Of interest is the company's participation in social and cultural events including the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, and the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. In addition, the collection includes the company's documentation of the construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936. The collection is arranged into thirteen series.

The collection is arranged into 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, 1943, 1958
Subseries 4.11, Foote, Cone & Belding Advertising Agency, 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, 1930-1966
Subseries 13.1.1, Television Commercials, 1951-1984
Subseries 13.1.2, Television Programs, 1951-1967
Subseries 13.1.3, Promotional Materials, 1939-1977
Subseries 13.1.4, Hills Bros. Activities, 1930-1962
Subseries 13.1.5, Miscellaneous Film and Video, 1938-1966
Subseries 13.2, Sound Recordings, 1934-1967, undated
Subseries 13.2.1, Radio Commercials, 1941-1967, undated
Subseries 13.2.2, Radio Programs and Other Broadcasts, 1934-1956, undated
Subseries 13.2.3, Cardboard Discs, 1941-1960; undated.

Biographical / Historical
Biographical / Historical
Reuben Hills, on one occasion, stated 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 retail dairy stall in San Francisco's old Bay City Public Market reflects the reality 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 including, of course, the well-known Folger Company started by William Bovee (which began in San Francisco thirty years earlier). Most of these coffee businesses were started by family groups which 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 where Hills Bros. would obtain its mild coffee beans. During the Gold Rush (1849) San Francisco rapidly expanded and grew. Coffee was imported and sold, after roasting, to restaurants and hotels. Yankee gold miners and others without equipment to roast and brew their own coffee, populated "coffee houses." 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. Five years later in 1878 A. H. and R. W. Hills established a retail stall to sell dairy products in the Bay City Market under the name of their new partnership "Hills Bros." Their small business expanded in less than four years with the acquisition of a retail coffee store titled Arabian Coffee & Spice Mills on Fourth Street in San Francisco. In two more years (1884) still larger quarters were occupied at Sacramento and Sansome Streets. Soon after this 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 then (1897) has remained as the official trademark of Hills Bros. Coffee - a lasting symbol of coffee quality. Hills Bros. dairy division was eliminated in 1908 after company destruction by the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. By 1924 all miscellaneous products including tea, had been dropped by the company which from then on 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, decided to consult Norton Brothers, a progressive can manufacture company in Chicago. Whether Austin traveled to Chicago or arranged with his brother Reuben to stop off there in 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 were real. Norton Brothers had just received patents on a process for packing foods in vacuum and thought it might solve the butter problem. In short order arrangements were made for shipping cans and machinery from Chicago to San Francisco including agreement for exclusive use on the West Coast for a reasonable period. Thus, Hills Bros. butter became the first known food product to ever be packed in vacuum. Once this started Reuben Hills had the idea that what worked well with 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 vacuum-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 started 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 adopted by M.J.B., 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-packaging.
Production and advertising of coffee continued to change with new technology. In the late 1880s 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 San Francisco in 1926, Hills Bros. adopted "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 Lee Maede, company engineer, "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. 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. Coffee, Incorporated 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 Nestlé Holdings, Incorporated, (effective January 1, 1985) which handled the acquisition of several companies in the United States for Nestlé S. A. Vevey, Switzerland.
Historical note written by T., Carroll Wilson, company historian and archivist, 1993.

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

Using the Collection
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.
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research but the negatives and audiovisual materials are stored off-site and special arrangements must be made to work with it. Contact the Archives Center for information at or 202-633-3270.
Preferred Citation
Hills Bros. Coffee Company, Incorporated Records, 1856-1989, undated, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

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Artifacts include coffee packaging, Golden Gate International Exposition sampling cups and saucers, a bowling shirt, and coffee cans.

Keywords table of terms and types.
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Coffee Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

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