The History of Hellmann's Mayonnaise

It's hard to imagine a Southern picnic without this creamy condiment—mayonnaise.

Woman Cooking with Hellman's Mayonnaise
Photo: Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

While it's hard to imagine a Southern picnic without mayonnaise, the creamy condiment originated in Europe.

The Beginnings of Mayonnaise

Its exact origin story is a bit hazy. It was created in the mid-1700s when a French chef, dismayed at the lack of cream during the Seven Years' War, patiently combined oil and egg yolks into a whipped sauce. Another origin story is a version from Spain, called salsa mahonesa, taking its name from the Port Mahon on the Mediterranean island of Minorca. Either way, the French popularized the sauce, incorporating it into salads, pairing it with lobster, and generally making mayonnaise a go-to kitchen staple.

Mayonnaise Spreads to America

After mayonnaise conquered France, it spread to England and Germany and eventually made its way across the Atlantic to the United States. According to Slate, by 1838, one of the fanciest restaurants in Manhattan, Delmonico's, offered their well-heeled patrons either chicken or lobster drenched in mayonnaise.

By the late 19th century, home cooks followed in the footsteps of that anonymous French or Spanish chef. People made batches of mayonnaise out of oil, vinegar, and eggs in their kitchens for years to transform eggs into deviled eggs, potatoes into potato salad, and improving sandwiches in lunch bags everywhere. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge did for mayonnaise as Ronald Reagan did for jelly beans when he claimed that his Aunt Mary's homemade mayonnaise was his favorite food.

Deviled eggs filled with blend of yolks, mayonnaise and mustard
svehlik / Getty Images

Enter Richard Hellmann

It wasn't until 1920 that people could start buying mayonnaise in stores, making it even easier to keep in the pantry. That was when a German immigrant named Richard Hellmann began selling jars of mayonnaise made with raw egg yolks, vegetable oil, vinegar, and small amounts of salt, sugar, and seasoning at the deli he owned in New York. According to Andrew F. Smith, a mayonnaise historian, the jars he sold, adorned with blue ribbons, were large enough to accommodate a spoon, perfect for scooping mayonnaise into Waldorf salads.

In 1925, Hellman sold two versions of the recipe, using a blue ribbon around one to distinguish between them. According to Hellman's, the "ribbon" recipe was in such high demand that Hellmann created the label we know today — the "Blue Ribbon" label — which was placed on larger glass jars.

The Mayonnaise Market Grows

Hellmann's was not the only commercial mayonnaise on the market. In fact, out in California, Best Foods had a popular mayonnaise. However, Hellmann's reigned supreme west of the Rocky Mountains because it was first and arguably the best. Plus, as Smith points out, Hellmann's was better at advertising, marketing their mayo in newspapers and magazines. In 1922, they put out a cookbook titled The Chef's Standby; Blue Ribbon Recipes to ensure that chefs knew the many opportunities to incorporate mayonnaise into their daily diet. The cookbook included recipes like Asparagus Salad, Pineapple Isle Salad, Crab Meat Salad, Nut Sandwiches, and, of course, Thousand Island Dressing.

In 1927, Postum Cereal Company (which became General Foods) bought Hellmann's company. Hellmann served on the board of General Foods for several years, and over the years, they acquired more companies and merged with others. By 1932, the same company owned Best Foods and Hellmann's. Because Hellmann's had such a devoted following, the owners decided to keep both brand names. To this day, west of the Rocky Mountains sells Best Foods Mayonnaise, while east of the Rocky Mountains sells Hellmann's. The two brands account for approximately 45 percent of all bottled mayonnaise sold in the U.S. The company has changed hands several times, now owned by Unilever, which bought it in the 2000s.

Hellmann passed away in 1971, at 94, survived by his widow, two sons, two daughters, 15 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and many, many mayonnaise fans.

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