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A Brief History of U.S. Commercial Hot Sauces PDF Print E-mail
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A Brief History of U.S. Commercial Hot Sauces
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by Dave DeWitt and Chuck Evans 


Much of what we know about now-extinct brands of hot sauces comes from bottle collectors. There is not a great body of material on the subject of collectible hot sauce bottles, but we are indebted to Betty Zumwalt, author of Ketchup, Pickles, Sauces: 19th Century Food in Glass, who dutifully catalogued obscure hot sauce bottles found by collectors. Many bottles in the hands of collectors were uncovered from archaeological digs and shipwrecks.

Other sources of information about early hot sauces are city directories, which often contained advertisements for sauces, and newspapers. We know from these sources that the first bottled cayenne sauces appeared in Massachusetts around 1807. These were probably homemade and similar to the English sauces with the silver labels. Sometime between 1840 and 1860, J. McCollick & Company of New York City produced a Bird Pepper Sauce in a large cathedral bottle that was nearly eleven inches tall! This sauce is significant because it was probably made with the wild chiles called chiltepins or bird peppers. We also know that in 1849, England's Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce was first imported into the United States via the port of New York.

That year was also important in the history of hot sauces because it marked the first recorded crop of tabasco chiles, the vital ingredient of McIlhenny Company's Tabasco Pepper Sauce. That crop was grown by a prominent Louisiana banker and legislator, Colonel Maunsell White on his Deer Range Plantation. The New Orleans Daily Delta printed a letter from a visitor to White's plantation, who reported, "I must not omit to notice the Colonel's pepper patch, which is two acres in extent, all planted with a new species of red pepper, which Colonel White has introduced into this country, called Tobasco red pepper. The Colonel attributes the admirable health of his hands to the free use of this pepper." Tobasco was an early misspelling of Tabasco, the Mexican state.

Colonel White manufactured the first hot sauce from the "Tobasco" chiles and advertised bottles of it for sale in 1859. About this time, he gave some chiles and his sauce recipe to a friend, Edmund McIlhenny, who promptly planted the seeds on his plantation on Avery Island.  


Colonel White manufactured the first hot sauce from the "Tobasco" chiles and advertised bottles of it for sale in 1859. About this time, he gave some chiles and his sauce recipe to a friend, Edmund McIlhenny, who promptly planted the seeds on his plantation on Avery Island. McIlhenny's horticultural enterprise was interrupted by the Civil War and invading Union troops from captured New Orleans. In 1863, McIlhenny and his family abandoned their Avery Island plantation to take refuge in San Antonio, Texas.

When the McIlhenny family returned to Avery Island in 1865, they found their plantation destroyed and their sugar cane fields in ruin. However, a few volunteer chile plants still survived, providing enough seeds for McIlhenny to rebuild his pepper patch. Gradually, his yield of pods increased to the point where he could experiment with his sauce recipe, in which mashed chiles were strained, and the resulting juice was mixed with vinegar and salt and aged in fifty-gallon white oak barrels. In 1868, McIlhenny packaged his aged sauce in 350 used cologne bottles and sent them as samples to likely wholesalers. The sauce was so popular that orders poured in for thousands of bottles priced at one dollar each, wholesale, which was quite a bit of money in those days.

  In 1870, McIlhenny obtained a patent on his Tabasco Brand (as it was now called) hot pepper sauce and by 1872 had opened an office in London to handle the European market. The increasing demand for Tabasco sauce caused changes in the packaging of the product as the corked bottles sealed with green wax were replaced by bottles with metal tops. Around this same time, a cookbook entitled Mrs. Hill's New Cookbook, by Annabella Hill of Georgia, contained an interesting recipe for barbecue sauce that contained butter, mustard, vinegar, black pepper, and red pepper--almost certainly cayenne. So it is evident that there was a general tradition of home cooking with hot sauces in the South. Mrs. Hill also included a recipe for a curry sauce using prepared curry powder.

From an excavated wreck of the good ship Bertrand, dated 1874, we know that Western Spice Mills of St. Louis was making hot sauce around that time because 173 of their bottles were uncovered. That same year (some say 1875), Eugene R. Durkee of Brooklyn, New York, applied for a patent on a hexagonally-shaped "Chilli Sauce" bottle. Although the patent application survives, no actual bottle has ever been found, but E.R. Durkee & Company became a rather large spice and condiment company and the brand name exists to this day. Around this same time, W.K. Lewis & Co. in Boston was producing a pepper sauce in a square cathedral-shaped bottle.

In 1877, Willam H. Railton, a Chicago businessman who owned the Chicago Preserving Works, began using a maltese cross-shaped label for table sauces "prepared from a Mexican formula." He applied for a trademark in 1883, and by 1884 he was buying large ads for his Chili Colorow Sauce. Interestingly enough, although it was a "chili" sauce, the advertising copy claimed: "It is expressly suitable for family dining, possessing a fine, rich body of exquisite flavor and has neither the fiery nor nauseous taste which characterizes most sauces." With a typical nineteenth century patent medicine pitch, the copy went on to claim: "It relieves indigestion and cures dyspepsia. Physicians recommend it highly."

During the 1880s and '90s, several hot sauces sprang up, including C&D Peppersauce, manufactured by Chace and Duncan in New York City in 1883, but we have nothing left but the bottle. Sometime around 1900, the Bergman and Company Pioneer Pickle Factory in Sacramento, California, began selling Bergman's Diablo Pepper Sauce in five-inch tall bottles with narrow necks that resembled the typical hot sauce bottle of today.

From hot sauce bottle collectors we know that Koonyik Chilies Sauce appeared along the west coast of the United States around 1900. About the same time, a Detroit company, Horton-Cato, manufactured Royal Pepper Sauce in a bottle with a bulbous bottom. And sometime shortly after 1889, Heinz produced Heinz's Tabasco Pepper Sauce in a elegant bottle; but alas, even Heinz couldn't compete with the "real" Tabasco sauce.

After the death of Edmund McIlhenny in 1890, the family business was turned over to his son John, who immediately inherited trouble in the form of a crop failure. John attempted to locate tabasco chiles in Mexico but could not find any to meet his specifications. Fortunately, his father had stored sufficient reserves of pepper mash, so the family business weathered the crisis. However, that experience taught the family not to depend solely upon tabasco chiles grown in Louisiana. Today, tabascos are grown under contract in Honduras, Colombia, and other Central and South American countries, and the mash is imported into the United States in barrels.

John McIlhenny was quite a promoter and traveled all over the country publicizing his family's sauce. "I had bill posters prepared," he once said, "and had large wooden signs in the fields near the cities. I had an opera troupe playing a light opera. At different times I had certain cities canvassed by drummers, in a house-to-house canvass. I had exhibits in food expositions, with demonstrators attached. I gave away many thousands of circulars and folders, and miniature bottles of Tabasco pepper sauce."

In 1898, another Louisiana entrepreneur (and former McIlhenny employee) named B. F. Trappey began growing tabasco chiles from Avery Island seed. He founded the company B. F. Trappey and Sons and began producing his own sauce, which was also called "Tabasco." The McIlhenny family eventually responded to this challenge and a several decades-long feud by receiving a trademark for their Tabasco® brand in 1906.

The trademark did not deter other companies from using the name Tabasco in their products. In 1911, the Joseph Campbell Company began selling Campbell's Tabasco Ketchup and described it as "the appetizing piquancy of Tabasco Sauce in milder form."

Obviously noticing the success of McIlhenny's Tabasco® Pepper Sauce, other companies sprang up all over the country. Charles E. Erath of New Orleans began manufacturing Extract of Louisiana Pepper, Red Hot Creole Peppersauce in bottles nearly eight inches tall in 1916. A year later, La Victoria Foods began manufacturing Salsa Brava in Los Angeles, California.
The 1920s were a big decade for Louisiana-style hot sauce.  In 1920, in New Iberia, pepper farmer Adam Estilette and Jacob Frank combined forces to produce Frank's Louisiana RedHot Sauce.  In 1923, Baumer Foods began manufacturing of Crystal Hot Sauce and in 1928 Bruce Foods started making Original Louisiana Hot Sauce.  All three of these brands are still in existence today.

The Louisiana hot sauce boom continued when, in 1929, Trappey's expanded to two plants, one in Lafayette and one in New Iberia. That same year, the McIlhenny family won a trademark infringement suit against the Trappeys. From that time on, only the McIlhenny sauce could be called "Tabasco," and competitors were reduced to merely including tabasco chiles in their list of ingredients. The two companies had competed with identically named sauces for thirty-one years.

Undoubtedly because of the Wall Street collapse and the Great Depression, no hot sauce start-ups were uncovered during our research for this article until the start of World War II. In 1941, Henry Tanklage formed La Victoria Sales Company to market a new La Victoria salsa line. He introduced red taco sauce, green taco sauce, and enchilada sauce--the first of their kind in the United States. He took over the entire La Victoria operation in 1946, which today has ten different hot sauces covering the entire salsa spectrum, including Green Chili Salsa and Red Salsa Jalapeña. 

 In Texas, salsa manufacturing began in 1947. David and Margaret Pace operated a small food packing operation in the back of their liquor store in San Antonio. They were manufacturing syrups, salad dressings, and jellies and sold their products door-to-door. David, by trial and error, began to make picante sauce and test it on his friends. When it was introduced commercially, it was so popular that the Paces were forced to drop all other products and concentrate on the picante sauce. But the salsa business was not easy.

"In '47 my sauce bottles exploded all over the grocery shelves because I couldn't get the darned formula right," said David Pace in 1992. "In the '70s, the business exploded when the hippies came along. No question but this health stuff made the whole category explode, and it just tickles me to see these people take the ball and run with it."


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