We have learned that there are a few common myths about our brand’s history that have been repeated so often over the years that many consider them to be fact. So McIlhenny Company has decided to share with die-hard TABASCO® fans and American history buffs alike answers to a number of frequently asked questions regarding the long and often fabled history of TABASCO® brand Original Red Sauce.
Shane Bernard, Ph.D.
Historian & Curator
Yes. However, it is untrue that Maunsel White’s sauce was advertised for sale as early as 1853, as some have claimed. In fact, White’s sauce was first advertised for sale, based on current information, in 1864 as “Maunsel White’s Concentrated Essence of Tobasco Pepper”—only four years before Edmund McIlhenny put his TABASCO® brand Original Red Sauce on the market.
No. Maunsel White died in 1863, a year before his heirs first marketed his sauce, and when they did so, as mentioned above, they used the name “Maunsel White’s Concentrated Essence of Tobasco Pepper.” This product was subsequently referred to and known by the consuming public as “Maunsel White’s.” Therefore, because White’s product was identified by the public using the shorthand designation “Maunsel White’s,” it is doubtful that the White family had any proprietary rights on the word “Tobasco.”
In addition, the best information presently available indicates that Maunsel White’s product ceased to be manufactured commercially during the 1870s. Thus, even if White’s heirs claimed rights to “Tobasco,” their failure to use the word beginning in the 1870s would have resulted in what is legally referred to as trademark abandonment.
No. In fact, there is no contemporary historical evidence that Edmund McIlhenny knew Maunsel White, much less that he received his peppers or pepper sauce recipe from Maunsel White. Furthermore, we know that White’s and McIlhenny’s recipes were different: White’s recipe, descriptions of which appeared in print on at least two occasions, called for boiling his concoction, whereas McIlhenny never boiled his product, but allowed it to ferment naturally.
Although it’s possible that White’s and McIlhenny’s peppers were the same variety, it’s also equally possible that their peppers were different varieties of red pepper that merely bore similar names (or different spellings of the same name). It is known, for example, that the words “tobasco” and “tabasco” were used as geographically descriptive terms in the antebellum period to refer to peppers thought to hail from the Tabasco region of Mexico, and that the words did not necessarily refer to one variety.
Moreover, during the early 1800s, a spice was exported in large quantities from Mexico and was referred to geographically as “tabasco,” even though the spice in question was obtained from the berry of the myrtle tree (indigenous to the Tabasco region of Mexico), and not made from Capsicum peppers at all. (This spice is now known in the market as “allspice.”) Thus, the geographic terms “tobasco” and “tabasco” were used quite loosely during the antebellum period. Later, in 1888, Edmund McIlhenny’s pepper was officially recognized by a noted American botanist and is now classified as Capsicum frutescens var. tabasco.
It was not until 1905 that Congress passed an act providing for federal registration of trademarks used in commerce between states. This act provided that marks in exclusive lawful use for the ten years preceding the enactment of the statute were entitled to registration. From at least as early as 1880 until the late 1890s, the mark “Tabasco” was in exclusive use by McIlhenny Company to identify its pepper sauce. Consequently, as a result of the public’s association of “Tabasco” with McIlhenny Company as the single source of the product during this period, under the doctrine of secondary meaning, the “Tabasco” trademark was exclusively owned by McIlhenny Company. Thus, uses by third parties in the late 1890s and early 1900s were infringing and unlawful uses.
In fact, John Avery McIlhenny, a former president of McIlhenny Company, signed an affidavit, on the advice of his trademark counsel, stating that—within the meaning of the Trademark Act of 1905—McIlhenny Company was indeed the exclusive lawful user of the Tabasco trademark and entitled to registration of the mark under the 1905 Act. A 1920 decision of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana confirmed the accuracy of John Avery McIlhenny’s affidavit.
Yes. Federal statutes provide and federal courts have held that a geographically descriptive word can be protected as a trademark when that word has acquired a secondary meaning.
“Tabasco” acquired a secondary meaning as a trademark as a result of the public’s association of “Tabasco” with a single manufacturer, McIlhenny Company. Since the early 20th century, federal courts have held, and more recently affirmed, that McIlhenny Company is the exclusive owner of the Tabasco mark. In addition, courts have enjoined the infringing use by others attempting to trade on the goodwill of McIlhenny Company as symbolized by its Tabasco mark.
According to McIlhenny family lore, Edmund McIlhenny used discarded cologne bottles to distribute his sauce to family and friends prior to marketing it commercially. When in 1868 he decided to sell TABASCO® Sauce to the general public, he ordered thousands of new “cologne bottles” (as Edmund McIlhenny himself referred to them in business correspondence) from a New Orleans glassworks. It was in these new cologne bottles that Edmund McIlhenny first commercially distributed TABASCO® Sauce.
No. Although an empty bottle of TABASCO® Sauce dating from the 19th century was indeed excavated on the site of an Old West saloon, it is not the oldest known bottle of TABASCO® Sauce. Earlier bottles have been unearthed on Avery Island, Louisiana, at the site of the original factory that produced TABASCO® Sauce. The Nevada bottle is nonetheless an early bottle of TABASCO® Sauce that reveals much about who was using the product and where they used it during the product’s infancy.
Over the years McIlhenny Company has received many inquiries about this story, which is untrue. Some versions even claim that the factory worker won stock in the family-owned company, having wagered the McIlhennys he could increase sales dramatically at no expense—and did so by enlarging the size of the hole in the TABASCO® bottle. Although this never happened, the story remains a good parable about the value of innovative thinking!
No. This oft-repeated story is entirely untrue. Edmund McIlhenny did not export any TABASCO® Sauce to Europe until late 1873/early 1874, when he sent only a few dozen bottles to Europe in order to stir interest in the product. He did not begin to export TABASCO® brand Original Red Sauce to Europe in large quantities until several years later.
Passed down orally for generations, this story appears to be at least partly true. General Hazard did exist (his full name was John Gardiner Hazard), but he retired from military service before moving to Louisiana to work as a cotton broker and commission merchant. Regardless, it seems likely that General Hazard did have a role, as lore maintains, in introducing TABASCO® Sauce to his cousin, wholesale grocer E. C. Hazard, who helped to popularize the condiment in major Northeastern markets.
On the other hand, two historical figures other than General Hazard are known to have recommended TABASCO® Sauce to E. C. Hazard—namely, Edmund McIlhenny’s brother-in-law, John Marsh Avery, and McIlhenny’s sole TABASCO® sales agent, former Union soldier Major John C. Henshaw. Indeed, it was Henshaw who actually succeeded in convincing the wholesaler to distribute TABASCO® Sauce.
Ultimately, however, the extent of General Hazard’s role in introducing TABASCO® Sauce to E. C. Hazard remains unclear.
No, E. A. McIlhenny was at least the third nutria farmer in Louisiana. Moreover, he never imported his nutria from abroad, but obtained them from a pre-existing nutria farm below New Orleans.
Regardless, McIlhenny did have a role in the animal’s proliferation, founding a nutria farm on Avery Island in 1938—a business operation unassociated with his duties as President of McIlhenny Company.
Although it has often been said that his nutria escaped from their pens during a hurricane, McIlhenny intentionally freed a large number of nutria into the South Louisiana wild to bolster the local fur industry.
It is important to note that as early as 1930, the State of Louisiana had encouraged nutria farming among its citizens, and in the mid-1940s, the State announced its intention to release nutria into a state-managed wildlife area near the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Henry McIlhenny was not a member of the McIlhenny family that makes TABASCO® Sauce. He was, however, a friend of McIlhenny Company president Walter S. McIlhenny, who once visited Henry’s castle, Glenveagh, in County Donegal, Ireland. Despite the absence of a genealogical link, Walter and Henry referred to each other jokingly as “cousin” and kept up a correspondence for many years.
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