McIlhenny’s Gold

By October 10, 2007Culture and Entertainment

Excellent review in today’s Wall Street Journal of “McIlhenny’s Gold,” a history of the maker of Tabasco, a family-owned company and a proud U.S. manufacturer.

The concoction was made in a factory town built on a remote island in Louisiana’s bayous that is seemingly designed for hot-sauce production: Avery Island is actually a salt dome with vast supplies of one of Tabasco sauce’s essential ingredients. But a great part of the sauce’s early success was owed to the McIlhenny family’s business acumen.

Given Tabasco’s three simple ingredients–vinegar, pepper mash and salt–competitors who had been using the Tabasco pepper in their own sauces were stunned in 1906 when the McIlhennys were awarded a trademark for the word “Tabasco.” It was as if someone had claimed the word “mustard.” The head of the company, Edmund McIlhenny’s eldest son, John, was a former Rough Rider and a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt’s; rival companies suspected that the friendship influenced the government’s decision, Mr. Rothfeder says, but they couldn’t prove it. The trademark was later successfully defended in court and today stands as an American business rarity: a trademark that is also the name of a generic ingredient. The McIlhennys have vigilantly enforced their rights ever since.

The book is by Jeffrey Rothfeder, a former BusinessWeek editor, and the review is by Mark Robichaux, editor of Broadcasting & Cable magazine. A business AND cultural history — very exciting.

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