What began as the coffee-roasting dreams of three University of San Francisco graduates turned into an international phenomenon. From its humble beginnings in Seattle, the coffee juggernaut has become so ubiquitous that many cities have a shop every couple of blocks.
But beyond the lattes and espressos, Starbucks has something of particular interest to us: a logo with a mermaid.
Let’s explore the history of the Starbucks logo and explore its meaning. We might find that things are a bit fishier than they first seem.
What’s in a Name?
The chain was started in 1971 by Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker — an English teacher, history teacher, and writer, respectively. With those characters as your founders, you’re going to get a somewhat pretentious company name.
The trio played around with references to Hermann Melville’s unparalleled classic Moby Dick. They tried “Pequod,” the name of the Captain Ahab’s ship that he and his crew use to hunt the titular white whale. The problem with Pequod, however, was its similarity to a word for a certain bodily fluid.
They kept brainstorming and finally settled on the name of Captain Ahab’s first mate. “Starbucks” had a certain je ne sais quoi. It was snappy and a bit of a literary deep cut, and most importantly, the name stuck.
Bowker worked at an advertising agency with Terry Heckler. Heckler approved of the name, and he soon came up with a playful logo. See, Heckler loved to peruse books of old nautical imagery, and he stumbled upon a magnificent picture of a bare-breasted woman with two fish tails instead of legs. It seemed to fit, and Starbucks took the image as their logo.
The Melusine on the Cup
Many people believe that the Starbucks logo is of a mermaid — an easy mistake given the similarities. But, in fact, it is a melusine.
In Greek mythology, the melusine was developed from the sirens, just like mermaids. They were considered half-human and half-bird, and just like the sirens, the melusine used her magnificent voice to lure sailors to their doom.
At first, the melusine were depicted with two wings, but this began to change over time to two fishtails.
A literary tradition surrounding the melusine began much later in the 14th century. One of the most colorful of the melusine stories comes from Jean d’Arras. He collected the “spinning yarns” that ladies would tell each other while spinning thread together including the tale of a girl named Melusine.
In this tale, the king of Albany was hunting in the forest when he came upon the beautiful Pressyne. Unbeknownst to him, Pressyne was a spirit (or fay). He asked for her hand in marriage, which she agreed to under one condition: that the king would not look upon her when she gave birth to her children or when she bathed them. The king agreed and the wedding commenced.
Pressyne went on to have triplets. They were named Melusine, Melior, and Palatyne. One day when their mother was bathing them, the king broke his promise. Pressyne fled with her three girls to the island of Avalon, to raise them in seclusion.
As the girls got older, they asked their mother why they were living alone on the island. Pressyne told them the story of their father and the broken promise. The girls were angry, Melusine most of all. Melusine led her sisters in a plot of revenge, returning to their father’s castle to kidnap him and trap him in a mountain.
It was not long before their mother found out about their dad-napping. Pressyne became incensed with rage and cursed Melusine. Forever after, on every Saturday, Melusine’s legs transformed into two fish tails.
This story is particularly colorful, but the tradition went on from there. Goethe wrote a tale of Melusine, and Martin Luther believed in the existence of melusines, referring to them as succubi. Several noble lines claimed direct lineage from the Melusine character — the House of Luxembourg from the Holy Roman Empire and the Counts of Anjou to name a couple.
Due to her prevalence in art, sailors began to use the melusine image in much the same way as mermaids. She became a common figurehead to calm the seas and bring good luck.
It is only in the last hundred years or so that the melusine became an obscure figure, relegated to the realm of classicists and nautical history. But just as the melusine seemed to be slipping out of common knowledge, she appeared on a bag of roasted coffee.
The Life of the Starbucks Melusine
What started as a company selling specialty coffee beans soon began to grow beyond their niche. In 1984, they purchased Peet’s — the company they were already buying their beans from. But Peet’s also had a brewed coffee retail business. And so Starbucks ventured into these new waters.
But the logo needed a change. What works well in specialty coffee beans doesn’t necessarily translate to the brewing business. Customers didn’t want to walk around with the picture of a naked woman on their cups, and so the logo judiciously brought the long hair of the melusine forward to cover her breasts.
The years since have seen Starbucks change a lot. In 1987, the original owners sold off their stake to Howard Schultz, who owned a chain of coffee stores that he converted to the Starbucks name. Under Schultz, the company rapidly expanded. Along with the changes, the logo gradually simplified over the years into the image we see today. The melusine, a close relative of the mermaid, seems to have resurfaced from brief obscurity, now the face of countless numbers of storefronts, paper cups, and advertisements. While many people are unaware of her rich cultural heritage, we have all seen her. So what began as a Greek myth became a Medieval fairy tale and later wound up a sailing totem. From there, the melusine was found a century later by an advertising man helping out his friend’s little coffee start up. Within two decades, her image would conquer the world.