Friday, May 29, 2009

Solving the G.O. Blake Mysteries

I have three whiskey paperweights in my collection that had baffled me for a long time. One shows two bottles, comparing the volume of a quart with that of a “fifth” - four-fifths of a gallon. A second is illustrated with a crate that is advertised to hold 12 quart bottles. The third pictures two barrels of whiskey. In themselves these items are not unusual, but the messages they contain were confusing.

All advertise G.O. Blake Bourbon Co. Ky. Whisky (the British spelling). In addition, each also mentions the Adams, Taylor & Co. identifying it as a firm with offices in Boston, Massachusetts and a distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. Bourbon County, however, is almost 100 miles from Louisville.

Ads for G.O. Blake whiskey fail to shed any additional light on the subject, nor do the embossed bottles, some of which bear other distributor names. Who was G.O. Blake? What kind of whiskey was sold under his name? What is the relationship to Adams, Taylor & Co.? My search of Internet sources proved largely fruitless until one clue sent me back to an old standard among collectors of whiskiana -- a book called “Spirits Bottles of the Old West.” Written by Bill and Betty Wilson, the volume is a font of information about the early American distilling industry. There the G.O. Blake mysteries are cleared up.

According to the Wilsons, from 1866 to 1871 George O. Blake was a junior partner in the J. H. Cutter firm in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. His job was to select good bourbon from distillers and oversee the “rectifying,” or mixing of raw spirits, to control the quality of Cutter Whiskey. As a result of his work for Cutter, Blake became a well-known and respected broker on Whiskey Row -- the trade hub of the American industry located in Louisville.

In 1871 Blake decided to establish a brand in his own name. He formed a partnership with two wholesale druggists in Louisville and the Adams, Taylor Company in Boston to distribute the brand; the former to the Midwest and West, the latter to the East Coast. A third firm was selected in San Francisco to merchandise Blake’s whiskey in states bordering the Pacific.

G.O. Blake whiskey did well all over the country, possibly as a result of advertising campaigns. In 1876, the Adams, Taylor Co. -- doubtless sensing the profits to be made -- bought out the brand ” bottle, crate and barrel” from the others participants, including George Blake, who subsequently disappeared into obscurity, Adams, Taylor, never distillers, continued to rectify Blake whiskey in Louisville, distributing it from there and from Boston.

Initially they were careful not to emboss their names on the bottles, permitting their sub-distributors around the country to issue G.O. Blake Whisky under their own label. As these distributors gradually dropped away, Adams, Taylor took full control of the brand name, embossing their own on each bottle beginning in the late 1880s. All this took place a distance from Bourbon County and the product was in no way bourbon but a rather a “spirits blend.” Truth has never been a strong point in marketing whiskey.

If there is a moral to this story it is this: Not every back story can be found electronically. Sometimes it pays to look into a book. At least for the moment.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Mini-Mug Match Strikers

Some of the more unusual advertising giveaways of the late 19th and early 20th Century were small ceramic items shaped like beer mugs with handles and circular serrated bases. They could be used to store and then strike safety tipped matches. Approximately 2 and 1/8th inches high and 1 and 3/4 inches at the base, today they are avidly sought by collectors. A Scottdale, Arizona, man, for example, has accumulated more than 60.

Although a wide range of businesses issued mini-mugs, including pottery and glass companies, they were a natural for breweries. The tiny cup advertising beer presumably could trigger a thirst for the same brew in a larger drinking vessel. The first example shown here is of a monk ready to quaff a glass of beer. It replicates the pictures that triggered the first post of this blog (April 29, 2009) under the title “New Finds.”

This mini-mug confirms the thesis that items with this transfer originated with the Theumler Manufacturing Co. of Pittsburgh and Rochester, Pennsylvania. Theumler appears to have been a major creator of mini-mugs. It also made the Pabst Beer mini-mug showing Old World gnomes drinking beer around a barrel of the brew that “Made Milwaukee Famous,” and the 1904 example from the Sehring Brewing organization of Joliet, Illinois, a family-owned business that survived from 1868 until Prohibition. The picture of the Sehring mug shows the ribbed base that allowed matches to be struck.

Theumler almost certainly made the Iroquois Brewing mini shown here. The company’s characteristic mark appears on the Buffalo brewery’s larger beer mugs of the time. As noted before, Theumler was not a ceramics manufacturer. It bought base stock from regional potters and then its decorators went to work supplying the designs requested by its customers. Iroquois Brewery existed in Western New York State from 1892 to 1971.

The final example, for the Bartholomay Brewing Co. of Rochester, New York, is from Germany and dated 1911. Although the Theumler firm decorated Bartholomay’s normal sized mugs during the early part of the 1900s, after owner Hugo Theumler died in 1909, his company ceased operation almost immediately. As a result, in 1911 Bartholomay was forced to import this mini-mug from Germany where Hugo originally had learned the trade. The item was issued for a Shriner’s Convention in Rochester, known as “Feel-Ter-Hum.” The brewery itself closed in 1934 after 82 years in operation.

Key words: Mini-mug match strikers, Theumler Manufacturing Co.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

American “Drys”: Loving the Russian Czar

In 1914 members of the American Prohibition movement fell in love with the Russian Czar, He was Nicholas II, shown here in his prime. With the outbreak of World War One, Nicholas was convinced by his ministers to prohibit all forms of alcohol because of its assumed detrimental impact on the readiness of Russia’s military forces. Drinking vodka, as shown in this prewar photograph, was a daily ritual in the Russian Army and Navy.

The ease with which the Czar could cut off the alcohol spigot was aided by the fact that since 1894 the Russian government had controlled all production of vodka and other spirits, reaping huge revenues in the process. American Prohibitionists took admiring notice of the Czar’s action.

Under a 1914 headline entitled, “A Despot Need,” one American Dry commentator rhapsodized that: “Enlightened Russia knows the way, great Russia, with her tyrant czar; he twists his wrists and in a day the lid is placed on every bar....I wish we had a despot here, just long enough to kill Old Booze.” The Washington DC Evening Star editorialized that a “miracle” had occurred in Russia, noting cheerfully that the miracle had been made possible by Russia’s autocratic form of government.

As two cartoons published by the Dry lobby suggest, the Czar had become someone to be looked up to and emulated. In the first a Cossack has arrested a vodka bottle and is marching it off to detention. In the second “King Alcohol,” personified as a wicker covered bottle, salutes a Russian official while four Americans look on approvingly.

Seen in the light of history, however, the Czar’s decision was a disaster. Fully one-third of Russia’s revenues came from the sale of vodka, even then an annual billion dollar business. Without the funds from alcohol sales, the government entered World War One with substantially less money than it needed. Second, prohibition made large segments of the population angry. The rich still were able to buy vodka and other drinks at their clubs and in fancy restaurants. Only the lesser classes were forced to give up drinking.

Russia’s poor showing in the war and the growing unpopularity of Czar Nicholas gave rise to the Russian Revolution of 1918 in which the Communists came to power. The Czar and his family were executed. The new rulers, led by Lenin, initially were opposed to drinking but Russians gradually had ceased to worry about the ban on vodka. Just as Prohibition in the U.S. (1920-1934) gave rise to bootleggers, in Russia potatoes were everywhere and so were illegal stills. Numbers skyrocketed, by official count tripling from 1922 to 1924.

Gradually the Communist government eased up. Wine was legalized in 1921, beer in 1922, other alcohol in 1923, and, finally, in 1924 vodka sales again were permitted. Russians, as shown here, now could drink and drink and drink. And do it legally.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Changing Image of the Crow

As a result of an article I am writing about the early history of the Old Crow brand of whiskey, it has been possible to track how the merchandising image of the crow has changed and evolved over the years. The brand actually is not named after the black bird, but for Dr. James Crow, the innovative physician who first made good bourbon in Kentucky. Crow never owned a distillery and the first one to bear his name was built in 1872, 16 years after his death. His legacy (and early on his formula) subsequently has been perpetuated under the label, “Old Crow.”

The earliest image of the crow I have found so far is from a shot glass issued by W.A. Gaines Co. of Frankfort, Kentucky, who operated the first Old Crow Distillery. It is a crude rendering showing a bird with a worm or stick in its mouth and its body significantly out of proportion to its wings. Note too that the brand is referred to as “sour mash whiskey,” not bourbon. My guess is that this item dates from the 1870s or 1880s.

The second version is from an Old Crow label. The crow here is somewhat more anatomically correct and appears to have something ugly on its mind. At this point the product is clearly labeled as “bourbon,” dating it in the early 1900s. Fast forward through the Prohibition Era to 1948. Now the crow, seen here in an detail from a magazine ad, could be right out of a birding book. The Old Crow brand now is being identified as “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.”

During ensuing decades, however, the crow began to undergo significant changes. A paperweight from the 1950s-1960s signals the start. Now the corvid, shown with what we presume is a Kentucky colonel, has affected a set of pince nez glasses. As shown on a later paperweight, a radical overhaul of the bird has ensued, with the result that some people have mistaken it for a penguin. In addition to the spectacles, this crow is wearing spats, a vest, a string tie, a top hat and is carrying a cane. This crow is a cartoon character.

That fancy-dressed crow was the familiar icon of the bourbon for decades, showing up on glasses, pitchers, matchbooks, tokens, ads, and the label of the bourbon bottle. In recent years, however, the makers of the Old Crow brand, now owned by Jim Beam, have returned to a realistic crow. Take a look at a bottle. And while you are at it, pour yourself a shot of one of the oldest names in American whiskey.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Bottle-Maker, A Princess, and A Glass Dress

Edward Drummond Libbey, shown here, whose Toledo, Ohio, glassworks was struggling financially, made the decision in 1892 to “roll the dice” with a huge financial investment in a glassmaking pavilion at the 1893 Colombian Exhibition in Chicago. Among his many rewards for this daring venture was the tangible gratitude of a controversial Spanish princess. Their relationship revolved around a glass dress.

Libbey’s factory on esplanade made a wide range of items, like the souvenir paperweight shown here that displayed a “bird’s eye” view of Exposition grounds. Libbey’s most popular exhibit was a entire room with glass furnishings, including screens, window curtains and lamp shades.

Enchanted with these items, a well-known stage actress asked Libbey to make a glass dress. He obliged and she, as shown here, modeled it. The dress became one of the most popular exhibits at the fair. Although a New York Times writer predicted that glass dresses would become the fad of the future, the garment proved too brittle for general use.

Enter the princess, Her Royal Highness, the Infanta (Princess) Eulalia. After a visit with President Grover Cleveland in Washington, she traveled to the Midwest to represent Spain at the Exposition. Chicagoans, particularly society folks, were falling all over each other to see her and invite her to local functions. A Chicago newspaper opined: “The visit of the Spanish Infanta to the World's Fair was attended with some surprising demonstrations of toadyism, and betrayed a growing love of monarchy among many ambitious people.”

A substantial entourage kept Eulalia well protected from the curiosity seekers of Chicago causing, according to a contemporary report, “no little dissatisfaction among the elite of American society.” The Princess was portrayed as haughty and condescending, and her visit became a cause for controversy. But a mere mention that she would be visiting the Exposition on a particular day could increase attendance by 50,000.

Whatever her attitudes, Eulalia was fascinated by the glass dress, made several visits to the glass pavilion, and eventually asked Libbey to make another glass dress for her. He obliged and in gratitude Princess allowed him to use the Spanish royal insignia in his advertising. Libbey in turn had his craftsmen create a new “American brilliant” cut glass pattern he called “Eulalia,” shown here.

The attention drawn to the glass dress, Eulalia, and Libbey’s pavilion paid off hugely. He had established his glass house as one of America’s premier manufacturers. With subsequent profits, Libbey funded the development of the Owens bottle machine, which mechanized completely the manufacturing of glass containers, and the rest is history.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

When Druggists Fixed the Drinks

My current collecting area -- glass paperweights advertising liquor -- has brought me in touch with Jos. Fleming & Son, Pittsburgh druggists in business for more than a half century, whose principal products were rye and malt whiskey. While it was not unusual for pharmacies in the 1800’s to sell spirits, druggists with a concocting bent usually put their alcohol into patent medicines.

The Flemings were different. Part of a prominent Irish family of Pittsburgh druggists, Joseph Fleming started as a clerk in a local drug store in 1840 and 15 years later owned the business. In 1874 He hired his son, George, as an errand boy. George eventually worked his way up to clerk, then manager, and in 1888 was made a partner by his father. Two years later Joseph died and George became sole owner of Jos. Fleming & Son, Wholesale Druggists.

George Fleming, shown here in a 1892 cartoon, wasted no time in putting the firm on the map. A contemporary account called him “undoubtedly the best known druggist west of the Allegheny Mountains.” Doing business from its single location at Market and Diamond Streets, the company advertised Fleming’s Export Rye Whiskey and Fleming’s Malt Whiskey across America and featured attractive giveaways like paperweights and shot glasses.

Fleming’s whiskey gained a national audience. A square bottle like the one shown on the paperweights recently was found in a Sacramento, California, state park. It is embossed on two sides: “Fleming’s Export Pure Rye/Bottled Expressly for Family Use.” Whiskey sales apparently proved extremely profitable. A satirical poem aimed at George says: “For although he’s a druggist his earnings are high...From selling old rye.”

The Flemings were rectifiers, not distillers. They bought whiskey in bulk, mixed it with other ingredients to their taste, slapped a label on it and called it their own. Look at the cartoon again: George could be stirring up a cocktail of Fleming’s Export Rye in that giant mortar. The firm also sold drugs under its own label as evidenced by the embossed medicine bottle shown here. Those products gave the firm something to fall back on when National Prohibition arrived in 1920 and Fleming’s whiskeys joined thousands of other brands in extinction.

Token Thoughts on S. T. Suit

Of all the whiskey men about whom I have written, Samuel Taylor Suit is among the most interesting. Friend of Presidents, Kentucky colonel, founder of a town that still bears his name, titan of industry, three times a husband, castle-builder -- that was S.T. Suit.

Shown here as a young man, Suit was born in Maryland in 1832. He ran away from home and headed West when he was just 15. About 1857 he began working at a distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. The young go-getter apparently had an aptitude for the business because by 1869 he had bought and was running his own distillery in Louisville. But Suit was destined to return to his native Maryland. In April 1867 he bought 300 acres of land just outside the borders of Washington, D.C., and called it Suitland, now a town of 27,000. There he began to manufacture whiskey and other alcoholic products.

Many details about Suit’s early life have remained murky. Recently a metal token, shown here, has come to light that sheds some new light on him. His Kentucky brand was Salt River Bourbon, an early good whiskey. He also was conscious of the Prohibitionist movement early on, touting his bourbon as “For Medicinal Use Only.” Although the token describes itself as “currency” it probably was meant as a pocket lucky piece. The hole appears to have been applied later to use as a key chain.

The token led me to poke further into Suit’s early activities. The Filson Institute, a Kentucky-based organization that specializes in the state’s whiskey industry, recently disclosed that in 1872 Suit attempted to corner the Kentucky whiskey market by commissioning a local firm to buy up all the old bourbon it could secure. He then began construction of a warehouse in downtown Louisville to hold it. During construction, the structure collapsed internally. Four days later its side walls fell during a wind storm. Suit persevered, however. The structure was strengthened and rebuilt as the largest whiskey warehouse in town.

Suit’s scheme to achieve monopoly control of Kentucky bourbon failed during the Panic of 1873, but it put Louisville on the fine-whisky map, accord to the Filson experts. This failure -- and the death of his first wife -- may explain why he retreated East and eventually to Maryland for the rest of his colorful life, a life that I have recounted elsewhere in articles available on the Internet. The continuing legacies of S.T. Suit are the “Little Brown Jugs” in which he bottled his Maryland whiskey and the castle he built for his third wife -- 25 years his junior -- not long before his death in 1888. The castle continues to be a popular tourist attraction in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Carry Nation and Teddy Roosevelt’s Bottle


Born in June of 1846 in Kentucky, Carry Nation, shown here, was woman who stood six feet tall and weighed in at 175 pounds. A fervent member of the Temperance Movement, in 1900 she heard a “Voice from Above” that told her to take something hard in her hands and go wreck saloons. Her first adventure was in Kiowa, Kansas, where she stormed into a barroom and proceeded to heave rocks. Soon she had graduated to a hatchet as her weapon of choice and continued her attack on saloons. Although arrested some 30 times and spending many nights in jail, she became a national heroine of the Prohibitionist movement.

In 1904 she decided it was time to take her message and hatchet to Washington, D.C. With plenty of reporters in her wake, this formidable matron marched straight up to the White House. According to contemporary reports, The guard was polite but firm. He met Mrs. Nation before she got to the door to inform her it was not possible to see the President Theodore Roosevelt. When she began a harangue, the guard broke in. “Madam,” he said, “do not make a lecture here.” She left shouting : “I suppose you have the same motto here in the White House that they have in the saloons, ‘All the Nations Welcome Except Carry.’ ”

Carry was not so easily dissuaded from seeing the President. She soon headed back to the White House, again trailed by followers and the press. Aware of her presence, this time Teddy Roosevelt sent out his personal secretary, William Loeb Jr., to confront her. In her autobiography, she described her very short conversation with Loeb: Mr. Loeb called to a police to take me out. I said: "If I was a brewer or distiller I could have an interview....Why has he [Roosevelt] never said a word against the licensed saloon when it is the greatest question that ever confronted the homes of America?" That question was left unanswered and she was ejected.

She subsequently lectured in Washington brandishing a bottle that carried a likeness of Roosevelt. “Here is a whiskey flask with Theodore Roosevelt’s picture on it, the most appropriate place I have ever seen it in my life,” said she. Later Carry admitted that after her first use of the bottle she expected hisses but got only nervous giggles. That tepid reaction emboldened her to use the prop again and again. This historical incident has peaked my interest intensely about what bottled likeness of Teddy she used. Here is what my research has disclosed:

Roosevelt, shown here in a photograph, had appeared on a campaign flask in the 1900 campaign with William McKinley, who later was assassinated which propelled him into the White House. Teddy also was depicted in figural bottles, shown here, in his role as a Rough Rider and a big game hunter. But none of these bottles seem to fit the bill. My guess is that the flask that Carry Nation brandished was the one pictured here, issued in 1904 when Roosevelt ran on his own for President. It fits the description -- but there may have been others. Only Carry would know for sure.