Election Section

Old hot sauce bottle offers peek into Virginia City past

By Scott Sonner, The Associated Press
Friday June 28, 2002

Archaeologists unearth
year-old bottle

of Tabasco sauce 


RENO, Nev. — Archaeologists digging at the site of a black-owned saloon in the historic Old West mining town of Virginia City have unearthed a 130-year-old bottle of Tabasco brand hot sauce. 

The bottle, the oldest style of Tabasco bottle known to exist, was reconstructed from 21 shards of glass excavated from beneath the site of the Boston Saloon, which was owned by a black man from Massachusetts and catered to blacks and whites alike from 1864-75. 

“The Tabasco bottle is particularly intriguing because of what it implies about African-American cuisine and the development of the West,” said Kelly Dixon, the administrator of the Comstock Archaeology Center who is supervising the dig in Virginia City about 20 miles southeast of Reno. 

“This was an exotic product and Comstock African-Americans were apparently the ones breaking this new ground,” Dixon said. 

Edmund McIlhenny, a New Orleans banker, began blending aged red peppers, salt and vinegar to create the Tabasco brand pepper sauce in 1868 on Avery Island, La. Officials for the sauce maker, McIlhenny Co., said he first used discarded cologne bottles to hold his sauce but soon was making his own bottles specifically for his product. 

“This discovery helps us fill the earliest chapter of our company’s history,” said Shane K. Bernard, a Tabasco sauce historian and curator of McIlhenny Co. archives at Avery Island. 

The bottle was displayed for news photographers Thursday in Carson City. 

“Having this innovative product associated with an African-American business dramatically underscores the fact that diversity played an important role in building Virginia City into an internationally famous mining district,” said Ron James, Nevada’s historic preservation officer. 

“The discovery of this bottle is a perfect example of the importance of the Comstock Mining District and also of how historical archaeology can be a powerful tool in reconstructing the past,” he said. 

The district was one of the richest sources of gold and silver ever discovered. 

The Boston Saloon site is behind the Bucket of Blood Saloon, which was established in 1876 and still stands at the corner of D and Union streets. Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, got his start a block away at the local newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. 

An excavation two summers ago yielded roughly 30,000 artifacts in an effort to learn more about the estimated 100 blacks who lived in the bustling mining town of 20,000 in the 1870s. 

The owner, William A. G. Brown, was believed to have been born as a free black in 1833. He arrived in Virginia City in 1862. 

“In general, a mining camp like that may be perceived as a white phenomenon,” James said. “But there were a lot of (black) business owners who were well known and much respected. One ran for mayor. Another fellow was a doctor practicing for well over 10 years.” 

Dixon said they earlier determined that customers at the Boston Saloon ate more lamb and essence of ginger than at other Virginia City saloons. 

The bottle itself appears to be a “Type 1a bottle ... one of the earliest forms of Tabasco bottles, distinctive because of its embossment and sharp shoulders,” said Ashley Dumas, a graduate student at the University of Alabama who directed excavations at the original Tabasco factory in southwest Louisiana. 

Dumas said McIlhenny found the bottles would break easily at the sharp shoulder so soon switched to the round-shouldered bottle known today with the red and white label. 

“Because this bottle dates to about 1870, it may be a form of bottle even earlier than the classic Type 1a,” she said.