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.