My grasp of history isn’t the tightest, even at the best of times, which is why I so often find myself doomed to relive it.
If you’re like me then you probably thought that Vikings really did wear horned helmets (they didn’t – it’s a dumb idea to give your enemy something they can grab onto that is actually strapped to your head); that Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry (she didn’t – no historical records exist of this event); that Napoleon was a real short-arse (he wasn’t so short – the French used different units and in fact he stood a towering 5’ 7”); that Romans had a room called a “vomitorium” where they’d retire to throw up mid-meal (they didn’t – the word refers to a passage that allows lots of people to enter something like a football stadium…or a Colosseum); or that Columbus was looking for India when he discovered America (that’s technically true, although it came about because he thought the earth was so small that if he set off west he could quite quickly sail to India, but bumped into America on his way).
I thank the Smithsonian Institution (not “institute”) for debunking these historical “facts”. But while facts aren’t a strong suit, I do love a good story, and one historical tale has stuck in my mind from the moment I first heard it. I’m referring to some hand-scrawled notes I made while sitting bleary-eyed in a hotel room watching TV, so bear with me. Also, I cannot for the life of me remember what channel it was, nor what the program was called. No matter.
Edmund McIlhenny was born in 1815 and died in 1890 and is a personal favourite case study in resilience and imagination. Some time after he was born, in Maryland, he moved to Louisiana and entered the banking industry. He was doing quite well until the American Civil War broke out. He was targeted by the Union Army – as was the entire banking industry – and his (first) fortune was obliterated.
So McIlhenny picked himself up and started again. On the family’s island in Louisiana, there were significant salt deposits. Salt was a critical ingredient in preserving food and supplying the army, so McIlhenny naturally got involved and became a wealthy man again. And the Union Army duly targeted him again. His property was seized and his (second) fortune evaporated.
The way I heard the story is that when the war was over, McIlhenny was surveying what was left of his land and he noticed that there were red peppers growing wild, seemingly everywhere. So McIlhenny did what you do when life hands you peppers: he started making pepper sauce.
In 1869 he began marketing it under the brand name Tabasco Sauce. Today McIlhenny Co produces up to 700,000 bottles (57ml) of Tabasco Sauce. Every day.
In a single lifetime, McIlhenny amassed and lost two fortunes, before going on to find sustained success. Either of the setbacks he encountered along the way might have caused a lesser person to quit. Each time, his fortune was taken from him. But from banking
to salt to pepper sauce, McIlhenny was resilient and adaptable.
I wonder how he’d be faring today if he’d been a financial planner in Australia in the mid-2000s, and how he’d adapt to the extent and the pace of change taking place. One thing is for sure – his business would look quite different today than it did back then.
Right now we could all do with a touch of the McIlhennys.