day in the 1890s, Bernard F. Trappey Sr., longtime
blacksmith on the McIlhenny clan’s plantation
on Avery Island, in Louisiana, put down his anvil and
walked off the job. He took with him some peppers—the
sort of peppers grown on the island and used in the
manufacturing of McIlhenny’s Tabasco Sauce.
Trappey in 1896 began manufacturing his own sauce from Tabasco peppers—calling
it, naturally enough, “Tabasco Pepper Sauce.” He didn’t try
to pass off his product as that of the McIhennys; to the contrary, he prominently
proclaimed on distinctive labels that the maker was “B.F. Trappey & Sons.”
A spate of entrepreneurs, mostly in the southwest, entered the tabasco sauce
market over the next few years, as did the H.J. Heinz Company and the Campbell
Soup Company in faraway New England. Through threats and litigation, the McIlhennys
caused rivals, one by one, to relinquish use of the word “Tabasco.”
Their most determined adversary was Trappey.
1922 started with a bang for Trappey. He had sought trademark protection for
the label on his sauce, and the McIlhenny Company protested. The patent office
dismissed the opposition, and in January, 1922, the U.S. Court of Appeals for
the District of Columbia affirmed.
The court pointed to its 1910 decision approving cancellation of the McIlhenny
trademark on the word “Tabasco” as applied to a pepper sauce, a word
it found to be geographic and generic. It found that McIlhenny had shown no prospect
of damage from Trappey’s use of the word.
The following month, the same court (in an opinion by a different member of the
panel) found that Trappey could oppose McIlhenny’s use. It affirmed decisions
of the Patent Office canceling two trademarks on labels obtained by the McIlhenny
Reverie in the Trappey & Sons’ camp over victory in the D.C. Circuit
was soon to end with a thud. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas—which
four years earlier held “[t]hat the word ‘Tabasco,’ as applied
to pepper sauce” meant McIlhenny’s sauce and no other—now affirmed
an injunction against Trappey’s use of that prized word.
The court acknowledged that Maunsel White had sold a Tabasco sauce “as
far back as 1850,” but observed that sales of his sauce “appear to
have ceased by the year 1867.” Edmund McIlhenny’s enterprise started
in 1868, it recited, and Trappey lauched his business in 1896, meaning that “for
nearly 30 years, the McIlhennys conducted this manufacture and sale without interference
as to the name ‘Tabasco.’” During that time, the Texas-based
appeals court found, the word “Tabasco” had gained a “secondary” meaning — the
meaning being the McIlhenny sauce. Even if there was no federal trademark on
the name, it was unfair competition for imitators to use it, the judicial tribunal
It did, however, order the injunction modified so as not to preclude Trappey
from “stating that the sauce is made from Tabasco peppers.”
The matter was sent back to the trial court for a determination of Trappey’s
profits from its infringing sales, and the district judge ordered Trappey to
pay $5,073.30 to McIlhenny. In 1926, the appeals court upheld the determination.
Trappey & Sons stopped using the word “Tabasco,” except in its
list of ingredients.
“Trappey’s Pepper Sauce” endured, and the company added a multitude
of products to its line, including canned Tabasco peppers.
Among the many myths surrounding Tabasco Sauce is one that the McIlhennys ultimately
vanquished their rival by buying it out.
Actually, the Trappeys sold the company in 1982 to brothers Perry and Wiltz Segura;
the Seguras sold it in 1988 to Jem Brands Inc.; Jem disposed of the canned foods
operations in 1991, and later that year, the bottled foods operation was purchased
Edmund McIlhenny’s heirs did come into ownership of Bernard Trappey’s
sauce, holding it for seven years. McIlhenny Company sold its entire Trappey
line in 1998 to B&G Foods, Inc.
The "55-Plus" column
is written especially for those over the age of 55, by a veteran California
journalist who is himself eligible for the club. Roger M. Grace has written
and edited newspapers for more than four decades, and has been a lawyer for
more than three.