You thought Keen’s Curry Powder was invented by the Keen’s Mustard people, right? Wrong. The curry powder is an all-Australian affair, invented in Tasmania by Joseph Keen (no relation) in the late 1850s. Widely used and promoted in its home state, Keen’s Curry Powder won prizes at the Inter-Colonial Exhibition in Melbourne in 1866. However, it was probably not until the 1950s, after the brand was bought by Reckitt & Colman, that it became widely used on the Australian mainland.
These days, Keen’s Mustard and Keen’s Curry come in similar packaging and are both owned by McCormick Foods Australia, so it’s natural to think they had a common origin. However, while Keen’s Mustard was developed in England in the mid-18th century, Keen’s Curry was developed by a storekeeper and baker in Kingston, just south of Hobart.
Joseph Keen seems to have no direct connection to Keen & Co. of London, which was established in 1742 and became the largest mustard manufacturer in the world in the first half of the 19th century. Joseph arrived in Australia in 1941 and moved to Tasmania (then still known as Van Diemen’s Land) in 1943, where he met his wife Annie. They ran a small bakery and store and began to manufacture and sell sauces and spice mixes.
In the mid-19th century, the ultimate showcase for businesses was the Exhibition. There were local exhibitions, international exhibitions and inter-colonial exhibitions. At this time, long before Federation, each Australian colony had its own economy and its own government reporting directly to the Crown. Prizes won at these exhibitions were a guarantee of quality to future customers.
Joseph decided to send his curry powder and some of his sauces to exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney, where he had considerable success. His advertising highlighted this. In 1869, one advertisement read:
KEEN’S TASMANIAN CURRY POWDER.
QUALITY GUARANTEED EQUAL TO EXHIBITION SAMPLE.
This much esteemed Condiment for which a Medal was awarded at the Interolonial Exhibition, can be had wholesale and retail from MESSRS. MURRAY 7 MURDOCH, Wellington House, Liverpool-street, Hobart Town, and to order of any Grocer or Storekeeper in the Colony, and of
Kingston, Brown’s River
Subsequent promotion campaigns were more adventurous. Seeking to capitalise on reader interest in the Boer War in 1898, a series of small space ads employed such headlines as: A BRILLIANT CAPTURE of Gold Medal and highest awards by Keen’s Curry Powder …or… A GREAT VICTORY over all others by Keen’s Curry Powder. Each member of the Tasmanian contingent off to war was provided with their very own tin of the product.
Curry powder was provided to the British Antarctic Expedition that sailed from Hobart in December 1898. The Keen’s company also supplied the expeditioners with five carrier pigeons, of which at least one actually returned with a message.
When they weren’t producing curry powder, Joseph and Annie were producing children. They had nine daughters and seven sons. After Joseph’s death in 1892 and Annie’s retirement from the business around ten years later their sixth daughter Louisa and her husband Horace Watson took over the business. It was Horace who acquired the land in the foothills of Mount Wellington and created an enduring advertisement for the brand. In fifty-foot high letters made from white-painted stones, the words Keen’s Curry have become a landmark – eventually being classified by the National Trust.
The sign has been the subject of pranks on a number of occasions, including an instance in 1926 when, in the dead of night, someone moved the stones to spell out “Hell’s Curse”. “Possibly it was a new method of expression of the humour of University students, of which in the past we have had worse examples,” rumbled The Mercury, adding that some preferred to believe it was done by members of the Temperance Alliance “while in a giddy mood”.
It seems, however, that the condiment was little known beyond Tasmania until the brand was bought by Reckitt & Colman in 1954. The purchase marked the coming together of both Keen’s brands – curry and mustard. In England, Keen’s had been bought out by rival mustard maker, Colman’s, in 1903. Although it evidently remained popular in the colonies, the Keen’s brand was not promoted in Britain after the merger and was withdrawn in the mid-1940s.
From the 1950s the Tasmanian heritage of Keen’s Curry Powder was discarded. In advertising that was misleading, if not downright untruthful, it was promoted as having “true Indian flavour” and later, in the 1970s, as “made to an ancient Indian recipe”. Did Joseph Keen use an ancient Indian recipe for his spice mix? Who can say for sure?
Keen’s apparently differs from most Indian curry powders in that it contains no cummin, resulting in its distinctive mild flavour. It went on to have an intimate relationship with another regional product – the Tasmanian scallop. Recipes for devilled scallops regularly specified Keen’s, while the curry powder was to become an essential ingredient in the island state’s famous scallop pies.
In 1998, both the mustard and curry brands were acquired by McCormick’s Foods. Both brands continue to be made in Australia.