It was long ago established that Betty Crocker was simply the figment of some marketing exec’s imagination, but plenty of products were actually named for actual people. Odds are you’ve seen the following products on shelves for years without realizing there were real humans behind their names.
Today’s travelers rely on Frommer’s or the Michelin guide when it comes to restaurant ratings, but in the 1940s, a recommendation by Duncan Hines was the ne plus ultra statement in fine dining. Duncan Hines was a traveling sales representative for a Chicago printing company during the 1930s and 40s, long before the advent of chain restaurants. To help quell the boredom of those long, pre-Interstate road trips, Hines kept a diary of the restaurants where he’d dined along the way. In 1935, in lieu of a Christmas newsletter, he and his wife sent a list of 167 restaurant reviews they’d compiled to friends and family. Hines was eventually approached by a book publisher looking to capitalize on his gustatory expertise, and later by a manufacturer of pre-packaged foods looking to use his prestigious name on their products.
Ettore “Hector” Boiardi was born in Piacenza, Italy, and began working as a cook in a local restaurant at the tender age of eleven. He was 16 when his family moved to the United States, and one year later he landed the job of Head Chef at New York’s prestigious Plaza Hotel. When President Woodrow Wilson married Edith Galt in 1915, Boiardi catered the event. In 1917 Boiardi accepted the position of Head Chef at Cleveland’s Hotel Winton, where he featured a menu that emphasized the traditional Italian cuisine he so loved. It wasn’t long before patrons started asking Chef Boiardi for his spaghetti sauce recipe, which he refused to share. He did, however, sell it as a “to go” item, using empty milk bottles as containers. He opened his own restaurant in 1924, and when the volume of take-out orders surpassed the number of sit-down customers, he opened a separate factory that packaged his products for sale in retail outlets. He used a phonetic spelling of his surname on the product labels so that there was no confusion as to how it was pronounced.
Some of us would never have made it through the literary classics without the help of Clifton Hillegass. He is the “Cliff” behind CliffsNotes, those little yellow study guides that condense a hundred pages of Shakespeare into three concise paragraphs. Hillegass was a graduate of the University of Nebraska and an Army Air Corps veteran. After World War II ended, he got a job as the manager of the wholesale department of the Nebraska Book Company, a textbook publisher. Hillegass was an avid reader and loved literature. When he published his first Cliff’s Notes (the series eventually lost the apostrophe) in the basement of his Lincoln home, it was with the intent of enriching the reader’s experience and pointing out plot subtleties, not providing a “cheat sheet.” In fact, each volume of his study guides included a signed note to his readers that stated: “A thorough appreciation of literature allows no shortcuts.” Hillegass started his company with a $4,000 loan in 1958 and published 16 Shakespearean study guides. In 1998, he sold Cliffs Notes to IDG Books for $14 million. “Cliff” passed away in 2001, but his memory lives on in his native Nebraska. For 40 years, he donated 10% of his profits to local charitable causes.
Oscar Ferdinand Mayer began his cold cut career in a Detroit butcher shop. He eventually moved to Chicago and, along with his brother Gottfried, leased the Kolling Meat Market in 1883. The brothers’ homemade liverwurst, bratwurst and weisswurst soon gained popularity in the predominantly German neighborhood. By 1900 they’d expanded their business to include delivery service throughout the city. When the brothers found out that Chicagoland residents were purchasing their products and sending them to relatives outside of Illinois, they began branding their meats. The Oscar Mayer empire continued to grow, and in 1906 it became the first company to voluntarily submit to the newly-created Food Safety Inspection Service.
‘Twas unrequited love that inspired a cosmetics empire. Chicago chemist Thomas Williams had an older sister named Maybel, and in 1913 Maybel had a major crush on a man who was in love with someone else. She did what she could to make herself more appealing than her competitor, which included applying petroleum jelly to her eyelashes and eyebrows to enhance them. Tom wanted to help his sister get her man (or perhaps he was just tired of her crying on his shoulder) and went to work in his laboratory. He came up with a formula of carbon dust added to petroleum jelly which, when applied to the lashes and brows, highlighted them dramatically. Two years later, Maybel married the object of her affection, and Thomas found out there was serious money to be made when it came to helping women look their best in an era when marrying well was the loftiest dream to which a female could aspire. He started selling eye makeup under a name inspired by his sister, “Maybelline”; his products were originally sold by mail order only but due to overwhelming demand he eventually moved his wares into retail stores.
Lunsford Richardson’s father had served in the Confederate Army, and when his dad finally came marching home and had trouble finding work, the youngster saw how the war had destroyed the economy of his home state. He envisioned owning a business that would earn enough money to help put North Carolina back on its feet. After graduating from college, he became a professional druggist and worked in a pharmacy owned by his brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick. Richardson spent much of his spare time in the back room of the drugstore concocting various home remedies, such as headache powders and liniment. One winter all three of his children caught bad colds, and his wife used the traditional treatment of that time – placing a poultice on the patient’s chest and then lighting a kerosene vaporizer lamp. Richardson thought that there might be a way to combine the two – poultice and vaporizer – that would provide more immediate relief to cold symptoms. He eventually created a mixture of menthol, camphor, oil of eucalyptus, and petroleum jelly that sold itself once the first few customers tried it. When his invention started selling on a national scale, he decided that a short, easy-to-remember name was needed, so in honor of his brother-in-law, he christened it Vicks Vapo-Rub.
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