Saturday, May 23, 2015

Milwaukee and its Breweries Poking Fun at Beer

As readers of this blog know, I spent a greater part of two decades in Milwaukee and think of it as my home town of cherished memory. I still remember when it was the undisputed brewing capitol of America, “Beer Town USA.”  Although the largely German heritage population took their beer seriously, they could poke fun at themselves, as evidenced by the vintage postcards shown here.
One of my favorites is a card that announces “Touring in Milwaukee,” that shows a mustached gent driving a primitive automobile who is sitting on a crate of beer bottles and whose engine is a beer barrel.   A malt house and a brewery are shown in the distance.  It is particularly notable for its attention to other Milwaukee favorites including cheese (specifically here, limburger), frankfurters, sauerkraut and pretzels.  Those epitomize the town we know and love.
The breweries often issued their own comic cards.  The Miller Brewery, to my mind, was the most creative, poking fun at both Milwaukeeans and their beer.  “The Water Wagon in Milwaukee” is humorous in virtually every aspect, showing a group of townsfolk's riding a barrel of High Life beer while drinking from steins and goblets being filled by a man standing on the back of the vehicle next to a spigot.  As in the earlier postcard, the dachshund is the canine of choice, shown here as the source of locomotion.
The recently invented airplane was another theme for a comic Miller card, with a quaint little driver steering the flying machine while quaffing a Miller while cruising over the Miller Brewing Company.   Note that the propellers are made of sausages as are the landing struts.  The theme here is “The High Life in Milwaukee.”

Miller Beer issued a card that clearly was aimed at a caricature of the beer-drinking resident of Milwaukee — a gent with a large “beer belly“ and a distinct German accent  drinking from a bottle of Miller High Life and intoning “How Is Dot for High Life Beer.”  Ish dot making fun of the drinking local drinking public?  Yah, dot ish! 

Schlitz beer usually took a more sophisticated approach to its humorous trade cards, featuring spoofs of Shakespeare’s plays.  Above right is a faux scene from Hamlet, Act One, Scene One.  Here Hamlet is in despair because of the death of his father and the quick marriage of his mother to the new king, his uncle (the murderer).  In the play itself the king utters most of the words on the card — except he and the queen are not holding foaming steins of beer, nor does he admonish Hamlet to try a Schlitz.
Shakespeare also is lampooned in a second Schlitz card.  The card depicts a scene from Richard III when Richard has been defeated in a pivotal battle and has been thrown from his steed.  As the Bard wrote it, he cries:  “My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse.”  In the Schlitz version, the king thinks that a glass of beer will do just as well as horse.  One interesting touch is that the Schlitz logo has been attached to the shield of the spearman at top left.
The next Schlitz card is something of a mystery, obviously meant for a Milwaukee audience and carrying local connotations.  It may be referencing the Eagles Club, a national fraternal organization that was very active in Milwaukee, perhaps hailing a national Eagle’s convention.  A male figure at lower right is carrying the key to the city.  He is identified as Mayor Becker.  Elected at 29 in 1906, Sheldon Becker was known as the “Boy Mayor of Milwaukee.”  A Republican, he did not grow old in the job, defeated two years later by a Democrat and never ran again.  Thus, the card can be dated 1906-1908.

Joining Miller and Schlitz in promoting humor in advertising, Pabst tended toward more elegant settings for many of its trade cards.  There is implicit humor in a young woman dressed in what looks like a ball gown and pumps wielding a feather duster as if she is the cleaning lady.  The caption reads:  “A little talk over the wires with…”  When opened it appears she is phoning a local beer "stube" that carries a variety of Pabst products.

But Pabst could downright folksy sometimes, as exemplified by this “Greeting from Milwaukee” postcard.   Mimicking the familiar football cheer of the time, it depicted a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon being opened by a waiter for a customer.  As the cap is being lifted, a “Z-i-s” sound is heard.  Then as the carbon monoxide gas explodes out, a “Boom.”  Finally as the gent quaff the brew, a satisfied “Ah.”
The fourth member of the Milwaukee “Big Four” breweries of the time, Blatz, generally was more serious in its advertising.  I have been able to find only one Blatz card in the humor genre and that may have originated from a saloon in St. Paul, called the Corner Buffet.  The card, dated 1905, shows a row of the proverbial bald-headed men watching a burlesque chorus line.  A patron has thrown a bouquet of roses on stage with note, “meet me.”  The message is that kicking about the weather won’t help  but drinking beer from “world famous Blatz Brewery” would help some.
There they are:  Ten examples of how Milwaukee and its brewers could make fun of the city, its citizens, and Milwaukee beers. While engaged in serious competitive merchandising efforts, they also had concluded that smiles sold suds. 


Saturday, May 9, 2015

That Weird and Wonderful Bottle Maker — Michael Grafton


When I see an artisan that truly stands above the crowd in the imagination which he or she brings to the craft, it warrants attention for this blog.  When that individual makes bottles — in this case decanters — and identifies some of them with booze, it can’t be resisted.   That’s what happened when I happened on a ceramic piece by Michael Grafton, an artisan living in Panama City, Florida, where he creates, as his website puts it, “unique sculptural works of art.”  

The particular jug/decanter that got me going is shown above.  It is called the “Chainsaw Whiskey Jug” and appealed to me enormously because of the disembodied hands that are poised to operate this formidable looking tool.  Grafton, as he does frequently, has written his own commentary on this item:   “You might want to be careful drinking from this whiskey jug.   It was not made for those frilly, mellow - wimpy, mild - sweet on the lips - goes down smoothly - properly aged - and bring a smile to your face whiskey blends.    This jug is for that freshly made - 150 proof - rot your gut - put hair on your chest -  burn all the way down - tear you up inside - white lightning moonshine whiskey that you will never forget, until the next morning.  It also works well as chainsaw fuel.   Enjoy.”
Grafton seems somewhat obsessed with whiskey.  Shown above are three jug/decanters all made to resemble the well-recognized label of Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey.  Each of them carries its own dubious message.  The one at left, labeled Kool-Aid Jammer conjures up images of James Jones and the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guiana years ago.  The second, “Howling Wolf,” and its “wild nights” motto has me thinking of Lon Chaney Jr. running around as the Wolf Man when the moon is shining just right.    The third is a bit enigmatic.  My fancy is that “Old Yeller” of movie fame has wandered upon a rural still, lapped up some of the “dew,” and gotten sick.

Less whimsical and more to the point is the bottle above that he has christened “Toxic Moonshine Whiskey Bottle.”  He explained:  “The first cup or so of moonshine in a batch is where the impurities (such as the poisonous methanol alcohol) gather. Responsible distillers will toss this away, ensuring a relatively safe product for their customers. However, there are plenty of unscrupulous people in the business. Some moonshiners have been known to include bizarre ingredients to add to their product’s potency, including manure and embalming fluid. To make matters worse, the stuff is usually made in the middle of the woods in less than sterile conditions, the sweet mash drawing all manner of insects and rodents.”

Grafton’s “Toad Whiskey Jug” has a similar moonshine theme.  He postulates the following about its origins:  “Occasionally moonshiners will leave a few jugs of a particularly good batch of whiskey hidden deep in the woods for a full year to let the moonshine age. This brings out a complex bouquet of flavors and tertiary aromas that the high end moonshine connoisseurs will pay top dollar for. But that's only if the forest critters don't get to it first.”

The artist may have come by his clearly deep knowledge of moonshine by his Southern origins.  According to a biography he was getting an degree in architecture at Louisiana Tech, he was hired at the Odell Pottery in Lafayette, Louisiana.   Learning from its found and a master ceramicist, Peter Martin, he stayed seven years there before moving to Panama City where, with a partner, he designed, managed and handled the finances for the highly successful Round Tree Pottery.  In 2009 he started his own art-pottery company. 

Another persistent images for Grafton are undersea scenes — or more likely, undersea nightmares.  Living as he does in a town with a lengthy sand beach on the Gulf of Mexico, ocean-going activities are familiar occupations for him.  My favorite among these bottles is centered on a face of a very wary snorkeler looking at the array of fish and one crab who seems to be blocking his air tube.  All the fish appear to have extraordinary dental appendages.
It is likely that they are smaller, but no less nasty, relatives of a fish ceramic that Grafton dubs “Monster Fish Face Jug.”  He says of it: “You know those peaceful Summer days when you are at the lake, sitting on the dock, reading a good book and dangling your toes in the water. This monster fish loves those kinds of days.”  I am reminded of those Wisconsin “old wives tales” about muskies nipping off toes from feet dangling off docks “up North.”
As proven above, sea creatures other than toothy fish can be a hazard to mankind, as evidence by the Grafton bottle above.  One observer of his ceramics has suggested that the artist offers the viewer an opportunity to get “emotionally involved” with the people he sculpts, but it is up to the viewer to create the back story.  Referencing this double decanter, the observer asked:  “What is going on between this dude and the octopus on his face?”   Whatever it is, the “dude” is unhappy.
A third area of Grafton whimsey are pun-like send ups of familiar terms, legends and sayings.  The decanter above, named “Fish Tank,” employs one of Grafton’s monster fish that has been transformed into a formidable weapon of war.  It bristles with multiple guns and combat ready figures.  In looking over this highly complex ceramic, my favorite touch is the ladder that climbs up the side of the white neck of the jug.
A less threatening vehicle is the artist’s rendition of the fable of the tortoise and the hare.  In this case the rabbit is sitting confidently astride the turtle that is equipped with wheels and what appears to be a explosive propulsion force.   Yet from the position of both contestants on the sculpture, it appears that the turtle would once again cross the finish line first — by a nose.

The final example of Grafton’s fantastic imagination is a marvelous send-up of the feminist mantra:  “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”   This fish — evidently a male fish — not only needs but actually has a bicycle and seems to be thoroughly enjoying the experience.   Clearly this is a “must have item” for every male chauvinist on your Christmas list.  

Note:  Michael Grafton has a webpage on “blogspot,” the same free weblog publishing site that hosts “Bottles, Booze and Back Stories.”  The “ is his web address. The site contains dozens of pictures of his creations for sale.  Grafton also accepts custom orders.  When the “Chainsaw Whiskey Jug” recently came up for auction on eBay, it sold for $280 — a very reasonable price, it seems to me, for a truly unique bottle.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Uncle Sam: All-American Suds Salesman

The attention-getting advertising above has a very forceful Uncle Sam thrusting a mug of suds toward the viewer and emphatically intoning: “We want beer!”  Two prior posts have had Sam merchandising whiskey which is not surprising given the federal government’s intensive role in bonding whiskey warehouses and collecting taxes.  This same symbol of our Nation, from time to time, also has been tied to brewery products.  As shown here.
Among the oldest manifestations is the trade card above issued by the Anheuser-Busch company in connection with the forthcoming 1896 national party conventions in St.  Louis.  This ingenious card shows a group of 13 prominent American politicians sucking on straws placed in bottles of the company’s “Malt Nutrine,”  reputedly to help them overcome the hardships of the coming Presidential Campaign, both Democrats and Republicans. They include President Grover Cleveland (2nd left) and the ultimate winner that year,  William McKinley (the clean shaven one, center).  Uncle Sam is directing them all, while above famous newspaper editors are shown at work.  It is a remarkable illustration.
Uncle Sam showed up from time to time on advertising items with an international theme, as the nation’s breweries sought to sell their suds in European countries.   When the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company sought to introduce its beer into England, it issued a trade card that showed a dark-haired Sam tipping his cap to the image of Britannia.  She seems less than impressed with his presentation.   

Contrast that with the enthusiastic reception that Uncle is getting from an international audience that include, from left, a Spaniard, Frenchman, Englishman, German and Irishman.  This image appeared on a color lithographed serving tray from Cascade Beer, the product of the Union Brewing & Malting Company of San Francisco.  This organization was the result of a 1902 merger of two smaller breweries and subsequent purchase of a third.   The tray sold for a whopping $2,020 in 2015.
The Glencoe brewery of Glencoe, Minnesota, went a step further by naming its beer after the famous old gentleman.   Its choice of a name may have been dictated by the strong competition it received from outside beers, like Heileman’s and Hamm’s.  The brewery had received a setback in 1907 when a large fire gutted the brewery.   Although short on insurance money, the owners rebuilt and by 1915 were said to have increased production from 4,500 barrels before the fire to 13,000 barrels.  Their Uncle Sam New Style Lager Beer — later just Uncle Sam Beer, as shown here on can and bottle labels — was popular through that part of the Upper Midwest.
“Uncle Sam Ale” was the product of the Conroy Brothers of Troy, New York.  That city is closely identified with the creation of the notion of Uncle Sam.  As the story goes, Samuel Wilson of Troy, who was known as Uncle Sam, was an army meat inspector who stamped his initials on every barrel of salt meat for the military drink the War of 1812.  The legend grew until Uncle Sam and the United States became synonymous.  In 1961 Congress passed a resolution, signed by John Kennedy,  declaring that Troy was the official home of Uncle Sam.    

The Conrad Seipp Brewing Company of Chicago made use of the patriotic image to bring home the idea that Seipp’s Extra Pale Beer “meets every requirement of of the Pure Food Laws.” Those laws had been passed first in 1906 and essentially had nothing to do with beer so long as no extravagant health claims were made to consumers.  Seipp was a German immigrant who first began making beer in 1854 in the Windy City.  His brewery grew to dominate the Chicago beer market by the late 1870s, becoming one of the largest in the United States.  At its height it produced more than 250,000 barrels of beer annually. 
Washington, D.C., as the National Capital, could also make a claim on Uncle Sam.  Christian Heurich Brewing Company, the District of Columbia’s leading beer-maker,  used the image in a 1904  newspaper ad.   It claimed that its Maerzen, Senate and Lager beers were “Uncle Sam’s Favorite Beverage.”  Heurich had founded his brewery in 1872 and incorporated it in 1890.  It became the largest in Washington history, capable of producing 500,000 barrels of beer a year and 250 tons of ice daily.  It closed in 1956 because of a decline of sales and its impending demolition for a new bridge over the Potomac.
Although neither Milwaukee nor the Fred Miller Brewing Company had any special claim on Uncle Sam,  he appeared in an ad with the “Miller High Life Girl,” a modestly dressed, very perky young woman who often was depicted with a tray of beverage.  The image originally was painted by an anonymous artist in the early 1900s.  By legend the young lady was patterned after brewery founder Frederick Miller’s granddaughter.  The message of the ad was: “Uncle Sam and the Miller High Life Girl are both known worldwide.  The one stands for the greatest country in the world and the other for the finest beer on earth.” In more recent years the figure was been revived by Miller as “The Girl in the Moon.”

Our final Uncle Sam is a distinctly humorous version from the Lion Brewery in Detroit.  It shows a young looking Sam, holding a stein of beer and riding a goat, symbol of bock beer,  through a framework of foliage.  The image is dated 1881.  Bernhard Stroh founded the brewery in 1850 and continued to operate it under that name until 1882 when it became the B. Stroh Brewing Co. and eventually the Stroh Brewing Company.  The firm survived Prohibition by selling ice, ice cream and near beer.  In my youth Stroh’s was my beer of choice at $2.50 a case or a little over a dime a bottle.

Uncle Sam has been put to many purposes over the years since his creation as a symbol of our country.   It probably was inevitable that he would wind up on ads for one of America’s most popular beverages.  Let’s hoist one for Uncle Sam!

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Spanish American War Through the Glass

After we have dragged through seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and earlier Vietnam)  an  American war that lasted only three months, two weeks and four days, might seem an impossibility.  That, however, was the duration of the Spanish-American War that began this month 117 years ago.   Despite its short duration, the conflict was an important event in our national history.   Moreover, it generated any number of memorabilia that continue to be of interest to collectors.   Those artifacts include a great many items made of glass and are the subject of this post.  
The proximate cause of the war was the sinking of the U.S. cruiser, the S.S. Maine, in Havana Harbor in February 1898 with the loss of 260 sailors.  President McKinley ostensibly had sent it to Cuba as a sign of American goodwill toward the colonial power there, Spain.  While the  explosion that sunk the Maine has never quite been explained, war hawks in the U.S. were quick to call it “dirty treachery on the part of the Spanish.”  “Remember the Maine,” became the watchword.
The proximate cause of the war was the sinking of the U.S. cruiser, the S.S. Maine, in Havana Harbor in February 1898 with the loss of 260 sailors.  President McKinley ostensibly had sent it to Cuba as a sign of American goodwill toward the colonial power there, Spain.  While the  explosion that sunk the Maine has never quite been explained, war hawks in the U.S. were quick to call it “dirty treachery on the part of the Spanish.”  “Remember the Maine,” became the watchword.

As a result many Spanish-American War souvenirs depict the ship that launched the cry for war against Spain.  Shown here are two items both featuring a similar photograph of the Maine. They are often characterized as “label under glass” bottles.  One is a flask;  the other is a canteen, with holes for a strap to loop through.  The bottles were blown in mold, the picture inserted, and another layer of glass fit over the front.  This insured that the illustration was left intact so long as the glass is not broken.

Yet another familiar war souvenirs and Maine memorials were glass paperweights.  The war occurred during the peak years of American paperweight production as glassblowers made them either as part of their job or as lunchtime and after work diversions.  Although neithe weight shown here were signed by their maker, both contain the familiar war cry and illustrates the Maine heading to the bottom.  The weight at left has only a crude representation of the ship, done in white, with wavy lines indicating its passage downward.  On the second at right, the seas seem to be boiling up around the ship, of with only two smoke stacks and a mast  visible.  
The Maine incident could decorate even mundane objects.  Two shown here, for example, involved mustard,  The one at left is a lidded clear glass mustard jar on which has been embossed a representation of the ship sinking while smoke rises in the air.  Cuba’s Morro Castle is embossed on the other side.  At right is a mustard dish with the Battleship Oregon represented in milk glass.  The Oregon was a Navy battleship that took part in the naval battle of Santiago de Cuba.  Fast enough to chase down and force the surrender of a Spanish cruiser, the ship gained the nickname “Bulldog of the Navy.”  The mustard could be found by lifting the top of the dish.
Another favorite war theme was the cooperation between the U.S. Army and Navy in routing the enemy, both in Cuba and in the Philippines.  This supposed camaraderie was captured in an illustration of a well accoutered soldier shaking hands with a sailor whose sword is posed perilously close to the solder’s knee.  The image, again a label under glass, can be found on several bottle shapes, including canteens and flasks.  
Although the common fighting man got some recognition for his service, the greatest adulation was reserved for the victorious officers.  Admiral George  Dewey had arrived in Manila Bay, the Philippines, with the U.S. Pacific fleet early in the conflict.  He found a large number of Spanish ships anchored there and sank all of them in the ensuing battle.  Not long after 11,000 Army troops stormed ashore and captured Manila.  
Both Dewey and Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt (whose souvenirs are elsewhere presented on this blog) emerged as the uber heroes of the war.   The flask shown here makes that clear with the patriotic symbols that surround the admiral, as well as the motto:  “Our Hero.”  This is an excellent example of a label under glass bottle and how it can preserve colors.  Dewey’s image also could be found on less decorative items, such as the drinking glass shown here. 
The final label under glass canteen memorializes a most unusual man to be honored for his service.  A cousin of Robert E. Lee, Fitzhugh Lee had fought Union troops as a Confederate cavalry commander. Indeed, near the end of the war he headed of all the rebel horse soldiers.  Fitzhugh had redeemed himself sufficiently by the late 1900s that President Cleveland appointed him U.S. consul-general in Havana.   He was retained in the post by McKinley and lived in Havana through riotous days in Cuba, including the sinking of the Maine.  Upon the declaration of war between Spain and the United States, he re-entered the army.  By this time, however, he had grown so heavy that he hardly could fit on a horse and his duties were largely administrative.  Even so, good old “Fitz” Lee was swept up in the patriotic fervor the day and awarded his face on a label under glass canteen.   

Because the Spanish-American was a short war, it did not produce as much memorabilia as other U.S. conflicts before or since.  Still, the conflict has its place in American history and the glass memorabilia shown here testify to the high emotions it engendered. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

W.C. Fields: The Tippler in Ceramics

The American comedian W. C. Fields, shown here, has been a favorite of mine since grade school. From movies like “My Little Chickadee,” and “The Bank Dick.” to his radio sparring with Charlie McCarthy, Fields’ wit and ability to create a distinctive image have never failed to engage my attention – and that of millions of others. Much of his humor revolved around drinking, a personal obsession of Fields that ultimately would lead to his death. In life, however, he made it a prime source of his humor.  Some examples:
“Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake.”
"Once ... in the wilds of Afghanistan, I lost my corkscrew, and we were forced to live on nothing but food and water for days."
"How well I remember my first encounter with The Devil's Brew. I happened to stumble across a case of bourbon— and went right on stumbling for several days thereafter."
“So long as the presence of death lurks with anyone who goes through the simple act of swallowing, I will make mine whiskey.
"When life hands you lemons, make whisky sours."
“The advantages of whiskey over dogs are legion. Whiskey does not need to be periodically wormed, it does not need to be fed, it never requires a special kennel, it has no toenails to be clipped or coat to be stripped. Whiskey sits quietly in its special nook until you want it. True, whiskey has a nasty habit of running out, but then so does a dog.”
As a result of this close identification of Fields with drinking, he has been depicted numerous times on spirits bottles, jugs, beer steins and mugs. I have a whiskey decanter/ jug from the Turtle Bay Distilling Company of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, called W.C. Fields Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It dates from about 1970. In this case, Fields’ head is filled with whiskey. It is accompanied by a water pitcher with a similar face.   Although neither item has a pottery mark, they are attributed to the McCoy Pottery Company of Roseville, Ohio.
The David Sherman Corp. (DSC), more recently known as Luxco, issued at least three Fields decanters for their whiskey. They depict Fields with a tam from his golfing spoofs, the typical top hat and as a uniformed guard from the movie, “The Bank Dick.” In each case the hat is removed to decant the spirituous contents. These ceramics were issued during the mid-1970s. Each jug bears the name of Paul Lux, a founding partner of DSC in 1958 and, by 2004, the CEO of the firm. Lux is assumed to be the designer of these bottles. The St. Louis based organization owned at least 60 liquor brand names and produced these Fields bottles for its network of distributors, wholesalers and retailers.
England’s Royal Doulton Pottery, famously the largest producer of Toby Jugs, made Fields the subject of a character jug, one that emphasized his florid face and red bulbous nose. A piece of his walking stick serves as the handle. The jug was issued in 1982 as part of the pottery’s Celebrity Collection and included on the base a line from the Fields movie “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break”: "I was in love with a beautiful blonde once. She drove me to drink. That's the one thing I'm indebted to her for."
Two other Toby-like jugs, perhaps designed as bar water pitchers, appear to have come from Japan. The one at right shows Fields in a straw boater hat with a more benign look than is usual. On the base a mark identifies this item as a creation of “Sigma the Tastesetter,” This was a Japanese-based organization. A second jug, left with a black hat has no attribution but the appearance of the item also seems a product of Japan.
Fields also has been a popular figure for beer steins and mugs. One dated 1971 appears to be a hand-thrown artisan creation. The comedian, in bas relief, appears to be struggling to emerge from the vessel. A more conventional beer stein, unmarked, emphasizes Field’s top hat and swollen nose.  Finally, dated 1982, is a mug with a carnival glaze.
Although the Fields image most often appears on items linked to drinking, the McCoy Pottery also used his face as the motif for a ceramic cookie jar.  He also has made appearances on a number of glass objects, including shot glasses, drinking glasses and decanters.
Question is, how long will W.C. Fields be recognized as the American icon of the tippler? Note that many of these items were made years after his death in 1946. Because his movies will continue to be available to generations down through the years, my guess is he will be remembered for a long, long time and artifacts bearing his face will continue to be collected.