Eugenia Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1881, the youngest of ten children. Her father, a tailor, owned his own shop and no doubt contributed to Eugenia’s knack for business in her early years. In 1900, 19-year-old Thomas married Harry Duke, and their daughter Martha was born a year later. Nearly a decade later, the family relocated to Greenville, South Carolina for Harry’s new job at Southern Power Company.
During the early 1900s, Greenville thrived as a central point of the southern textile industry. The city’s booming economy laid the foundation for Eugenia Duke’s future business to take off. When the United States joined the Allies in 1917, an influx of soldiers arrived in Greenville to train at Camp Sevier, a National Guard Training Camp that operated from 1917 until early in 1919.
It was at Camp Sevier that the Duke’s Mayonnaise legacy began. Noting the hardworking, hungry soldiers-in-training, Eugenia Duke began selling sandwiches slathered with her homemade mayonnaise starting in 1917. Popular favorites like chicken salad, pimento cheese, and egg salad cost a dime each, and Duke made a profit of 2 cents per sandwich – about 40 cents in today’s dollars. On the day that Eugenia sold her 11,000th sandwich, she invested in a delivery truck that enabled her to distribute her increasingly popular sandwiches to more people than ever before. Eugenia’s sandwiches and the mayonnaise that gave them their special flavor were so unforgettably delicious that years after they’d left the camp, soldiers wrote to Eugenia begging for her sandwich recipes and jars of her delectable spread.
Greenville locals noticed how famous Eugenia’s sandwiches were becoming at the camp and began asking where they could buy Duke’s sandwiches in town. After the war ended, Eugenia began selling her sandwiches at local drugstores including Carpenter Brothers, Community Drug Store, and Greenville Pharmacy. Then she converted the first floor of Greenville’s historic Ottaray Hotel into Duke’s Tea Room, where she sold her sandwiches and a variety of side dishes. By the early 1920s, word of Eugenia’s delicious sandwiches was spreading rapidly. The kitchen in Eugenia’s Manly Street home was too small to keep up with all the orders she received, so she built a separate kitchen building on her property to keep up with the sandwich requests that flooded in every week.
In 1923, Eugenia’s top salesman, C.B. Boyd, noticed something important. Eugenia’s classic and simple sandwiches were delicious, but it was her tangy spread that was truly distinctive and kept people wanting more. Though her sandwich enterprise was still flourishing, Boyd urged Duke to shift her efforts to the mayonnaise that made her sandwiches so flavorful. As a result, Duke began selling her mayonnaise as a separate product. Together with her accountant J. Allen Hart, Duke opened an office on the South Main Street in Greenville’s West End and began producing her original mayonnaise in an old coach Factory building next to the Reedy River. Sure enough, Duke’s Mayonnaise took off and Eugenia sold her sandwich business to Hart in order to focus her attention solely on the spread. The sandwich operation, named Duke Sandwich Company, still operates in Greenville today.
By 1929, Eugenia was struggling to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for her famous mayonnaise. C.B. Boyd advised Duke to sell her business, and The C.F. Sauer Company – another family-owned and operated business – was happy to take over and continue spreading Duke’s across the United States. Eugenia served as C.F. Sauer’s mayonnaise spokeswoman, but eventually left South Carolina for California to be closer to her daughter. Always the businesswoman, Duke revived her sandwich-selling enterprise in California and sold her homemade sandwiches to local drugstores and cafes. She operated under the name the Duchess Sandwich Company.
Until the 1960s, The C.F. Sauer Company promoted Duke’s Mayonnaise and Sauer’s spices side by side. The Joan Brooks Show, which aired during the late 1940s and was broadcasted all the way to Miami, introduced Duke’s and Sauer’s products to families throughout the southeast. Sponsored solely by C.F. Sauer (and eventually renamed The Sauer Show), The Joan Brooks Show featured popular musicians and actors like Wilson Angel and Hollace Shaw. Fans flocked to Richmond’s Mosque Theater to enjoy the live show, which featured luxurious giveaways like refrigerators and fine china. In addition to her appearances on The Joan Brooks Show, Hollace Shaw was the face of C.F. Sauer’s The House of Sauer television advertisements. In the ads, Shaw played the role of a wise homemaker eager to educate viewers about new, en vogue recipes that used Duke’s and Sauer’s products.
Throughout the 1960s, The C.F. Sauer Company continued to grow Duke’s distribution and popularity, developing it into the brand you know and love today. During the mid-1980s and 1990s, Duke’s Greenville, South Carolina plant underwent extensive improvements and a major expansion and light mayonnaise joined Duke’s family of products. In 2003, Duke’s introduced the squeeze bottle, an innovation that revolutionized mayonnaise packaging. Another packaging revolution followed soon thereafter as companies began to replace their glass jars with more economical plastic ones. Duke’s was quick to follow suit, adopting a plastic jar in 2006.
For its 90th anniversary in 2007, Duke’s launched a Taste Tour with its mobile kitchen and visited a variety of food shows and minor league baseball games throughout the southeast. The Taste Tour has since expanded to St. Louis and the surrounding area, and the trailer visits multiple family food festivals every summer.
Also in 2007, the “smooth and creamy” red ribbon was added to the label. The label was originally intended to mark the anniversary year, but Duke’s fans loved it so much that it remains on the jar label to this day. Another noteworthy change came in 2009, when many major mayonnaise brands switched from their classic 32-ounce jars to 30-ounce jars. In keeping with tradition, Duke’s refused to downsize and continues to sell mayonnaise in full 32-ounce jars.
Duke’s continues to innovate, introducing light mayonnaise with olive oil in 2012 and a 1-cup squeezable pouch in 2015. Duke’s 1-cup pouch quickly gained popularity for its simplicity and portability. It’s perfect for 1-cup recipes and is easy to pack for a picnic or share at a cookout.
In recent years, Duke’s has embraced its cult following throughout the southeast. Jingle and testimonial fan contests, a feature in the Pimento Cheese Please documentary, a brand ambassador program, and sponsorship of local events like the Hanover Tomato Festival and Broad Appétit in the Richmond, Virginia area have brought Duke’s closer to its fan base than ever before.
Duke’s will celebrate its 100th anniversary in April 2017 with a new jar label, recipe contest, a fan-designed special edition t-shirt contest, and a celebration in Duke’s hometown, Greenville, South Carolina.
Over the past 100 years, Duke’s has cultivated a vibrant history of commitment to family recipes, traditions, and authenticity. This commitment is the reason that our fans love to keep the Duke’s legacy alive.