It’s fairly well known that there is no person named Betty Crocker. The character was created by General Mills when marketing executives decided that the name and image of an average homemaker would sell cookbooks and other products. But there are other familiar brand names that have actual real people behind them.
Ettore “Hector” Boiardi was born in Piacenza, Italy and began working as a cook in a local restaurant when he was just 11-years-old. 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 loved. It wasn’t long before patrons started asking Chef Boiardi for his spaghetti sauce recipe, which he refused to share. He did, however, package it in empty milk bottles to sell as a “to go” item.
He opened his own restaurant in 1924, and when the volume of carry-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 (Boy-ar-dee) on the product labels so that there was no confusion as to how it was pronounced.
Oscar Ferdinand Mayer began his lunch meat 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. And despite Internet rumors of all the icky stuff found in hot dogs, it is reassuring to know that in 1906 Oscar Mayer became the first company to voluntarily submit to the newly-created Food Safety Inspection Service.
Unrequited love from afar ultimately inspired a cosmetics empire. Chicago chemist Thomas Williams had an older sister named Mabel, and in 1913 Mabel had a major crush on a man who was in love with someone else.
She did her best to make herself more appealing than her competitor, which included applying petroleum jelly to her eyelashes and eyebrows to enhance them. Being the good brother that he was, Tom wanted to help his sister get her man 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.
Tom struck gold twice with his invention: not only did Mabel ultimately marry the object of her affection, he also discovered that there was serious money to be made when it came to helping women look their best in an era when landing a husband was Job One. He started selling eye makeup in retail stores under a name inspired by his sister, “Maybelline.”
Some of us would never have made it through the literary classics in AP English class 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, 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.”
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 final word in fine dining.
Duncan Hines was a traveling sales representative for a Chicago printing company during the 1930s and ’40s, long before there were TGI Fridays and Olive Gardens available at every freeway exit. To alleviate the boredom of those long, pre-Interstate road trips, Hines started keeping a diary of the restaurants he’d dined at along the way. In 1935, instead of a traditional Christmas newsletter, he and his wife sent a list of 167 restaurant reviews they’d compiled to friends and family. In 1953, Hines was approached by a manufacturer of pre-packaged cake mixes and he agreed to license his name as a brand.
William Mathias Scholl obtained his medical degree from what is now Loyola University in 1904. He invented several foot care products (such as arch supports) for his patients while working as a podiatrist, and began marketing them commercially in 1906. Dr. Scholl established the William M. Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine at Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago in 1912.
That’s the real Mama Celeste pictured on those frozen pizza boxes. Celeste Lizio emigrated from Italy to the U.S. with her husband in the 1920s and opened up a pizzeria on Chicago’s west side in 1937.
Her combination of fresh ingredients and casually hand-measured dashes of spices were so tasty that she began selling them to other restaurants. After 25 years, the Lizios gave up the restaurant altogether in order to concentrate on expanding their line of frozen pizzas and pasta dishes.
Want more? Check out the articles below: