Born in 1815, Edmund McIlhenny moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, around 1840, finding work in the Louisiana banking industry. By the eve of the American Civil War, he had acquired a small fortune and became an independent bank owner.
During the Civil War, McIlhenny fled with his in-laws, the Avery family, to Texas, where he served as a civilian employee of the Confederate army, first as a clerk in a commissary office, then as a financial agent for the paymaster.
The South’s economic collapse after its defeat ruined McIlhenny, who now lived with his in-laws in their plantation home on Avery Island, Louisiana. It was there that McIlhenny tended the family garden, where, according to tradition, he grew a variety of fruits and vegetables, including tabasco peppers.
Between 1866 and 1868, McIlhenny experimented with making a sauce from the peppers in the Avery family garden. In 1868 he grew his first commercial pepper crop, and the next year sold the first bottles of his new product, which he called Tabasco brand pepper sauce.
In 1870 McIlhenny obtained letters patent for his invention, which he packaged in cork-top two-ounce bottles with diamond logo labels very similar in appearance to those in present-day use.
McIlhenny died in 1890, and apparently did not consider his creation of Tabasco sauce to have been a particularly notable accomplishment. Indeed, he made no mention of Tabasco sauce in an autobiographical sketch composed toward the end of his life, nor was it mentioned in his obituaries.
By the turn of the twentieth century, McIlhenny’s invention could be found on tables worldwide, and it has since become a culinary favorite. Today each carton of Tabasco sauce bears a facsimile of McIlhenny’s signature.
Photos by celticowboy.com/tabasco.com.
For more about McIlhenny, read McIlHenny’s Gold: How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire. It was one of my favorite business books of 2007.