Saturday, September 26, 2009

Dickens in the Round

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is for me, as for countless millions of readers during his lifetime and after, the world’s greatest novelist in the English -- or perhaps any other -- language. As a result, during my jug collecting days when I came upon a series of mini-jugs that portrayed Dickens characters, I sought them avidly and eventually acquired the entire series. While most of my jug collection was sold years ago, these items have been kept because of my special affection for Dickens and his stories.

The series was issued by Pick Wick Wines and Spirits Company of Derby, England, for its Pickwick brand scotch. The base of each mini indicates that the jugs were produced by the John Humphreys Pottery of Staffordshire England. It also contains a small portrait of King Edward the VII of England, a royal crown and tiny sketches of a distillery and a kiln. Although Edward’s reign was from 1901 to 1910, I date these mini-jugs from the 1950s.

The pictures on the jugs replicate -- or are similar to -- the illustrations that accompanied Dickens novels. They come in four different colors -- red, blue, brown and black -- on a milk white base of porcelain. Each transfer illustrates a particular scene or characters from Pickwick Papers (3), Oliver Twist (4), and David Copperfield (1). At the rear of each jug is a figure of Mr. Pickwick waving his hat and a tiny bottle of his scotch.

The Pickwick jugs, shown here first, illustrate three important scenes in the novel: when Pickwick first meets Sam Weller, who becomes his devoted servant and companion, Pickwick’s hilarious drunken oration to his club, and the scene when the widowed Mrs. Bardell, who seeks to marry him, pretends to faint in his arms.

Oliver Twist, being an altogether darker portrayal of humanity, is represented by scenes in which the orphan Oliver is introduced to Fagin, the ringleader of a gang of thieves, as Oliver is being instructed by gang members in the art of picking pockets; and as Nancy, Oliver’s true friend, is being interrogated prior to her murder by Bill Sykes. In a lighter vein is a fourth jug depicting the humiliation of Mr. Bumble, the heartless director of the orphanage where Oliver earlier had been sent.

Unlike the others, the David Copperfield mini does not show an actual scene from the novel. David is with his older, ne’er-do-well friend, Mr. Micawber, who is saying “David, this whiskey is superb!” This jug also comes in a multicolor transfer.

It is hard to put a value on these mini-jugs. Three decades ago I paid about $15 apiece for them. Since they currently almost never come up for sale on auction sites, pricing them is difficult. In any case their value is in the high quality of their transfers and in their celebration of the novels on which they are based.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover

An old song begins: “I’m looking over a four leaf clover that I overlooked before....”
In keeping with my interest in icons (see the earlier Swastika posting) this piece is devoted to a four leaf clover that many people not only have overlooked, but never have seen. In the pre-Prohibition era it is a image that obviously caught the fancies of American whiskey dealers.

One was the A. Bauer Company of Chicago, in business from 1893 until 1918. The company, whose 142-148 Huron Street quarters are shown here, advertised themselves as importers and dealers in “fine cased liquors and wines.” It also featured a line of other alcohol-laced beverages, including its X-Ray Pepsin Cola and Celery Bitters. Bauer’s trade card for that product featured a somewhat unusual image with the double entendre caption: “There is always luck in a four leaf clover.”

Parsing the image on each lobe of Bauer’s four leaf clover advances a story. It is told in the shoes of a man in cuffed pants and woman in high-button shoes who meet in lobe #1, go off together in lobe #2, are lying separately, apparently in bed, in lobe #3, and -- mercy! -- what is happening in lobe #4?

Such a risque approach to merchandising alcoholic beverages was hardly unusual in the whiskey trade. Collectors of whiskiana can find plenty of signs, tip trays, trade cards and other items that feature nudity or men and women in suggestive situations.

The A. Bauer Company was not the ony whiskey company to use the naughty clover to sell booze. The same design shows up on a match case, or “vesta,” issued to advertise Peabody Club brand whiskey. This was the product of the company of Bluthenthal & Heibronner who were wholesale liquor dealers in Memphis, Tennessee.

This firm under several names is listed in Memphis business directories from 1896 to 1903, located at 373 Front Street. In addition to Peabody Club, the firm produced such brands as Deer Horn, John Hopkins Rye, Oak Forest, Osage Maryland Rye, Silverdale and Uncle Abe Gin.

Finally I have located a third use for the four leaf clover. It appears on the back of a hand mirror without obvious advertising, but probably from a third source. For a brief time an “assignation” on a four leaf clover had caught the public imagination -- or at least the drinking classes.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Whiskey at Sea: The Sequel

On June 9 I posted an article about the economic practicality of pre-Prohibition American distillers sending whiskey overseas on ships to age and mellow it, returning it to the United States, and bottling it for sale. Subsequently, through an Internet auction I purchased a plate, shown here, with the transfer printed image of a ship and the legend “Drink Export Whiskey, Reimported and Bottled at U.S. Bonded Warehouse.”

One of my reasons for buying the item was the company which produced it: Knowles, Taylor & Knowles (KT&K) of East Liverpool, Ohio, a pottery on which I have done considerable research and writing. Not only did the plate carry the KT&K logo on the bottom but the color and design were very similar to the firm’s whiskey jugs of the period.

I also was intrigued by the sketch of the ship supposedly carrying the whiskey. The vessel combines both sails and steam for locomotion. That combination was common for oceangoing ships for into the 20th Century -- as shown here in a painting of the CSS Alabama.

The most important motivation for my purchase was to learn more about the practice of putting whiskey on ships. That proved difficult because no records exist on “Export Whiskey” as a brand or where it might have originated. By virtue of some research, however, I have concluded that Export Whiskey most likely emanated from a liquor wholesale firm called American Export and Warehouse Company located in Cincinnati, Ohio.

American Export shows up in Cincinnati business directories beginning about 1885, occupying offices in the downtown Pike’s Building. Evidence points to its owners being A. (Andrew) Pfirrmann and George Herzog. Both men were active in the Cincinnati liquor trade for years, Pfirrmann since at least1870. They became partners in wholesale whiskey ventures about 1887.

They and American Export and Warehouse were defendants in a legal case that exposes another reason for sending whiskey overseas -- it could be watered down away from the eyes of Federal inspectors. The case was brought by Nathan Hofheimer, a nationally known speculator in whiskey. Beginning his career with the Jesse Moore Kentucky distillery in 1879, Hofheimer sought more lucrative work and headed for New York. Opening an office on Broad Street, he made a small fortune buying and selling whiskey, at one time attempting unsuccessfully to create a Kentucky Whiskey Trust.

As documented in the 1894 book, American Admiralty and its Jurisprudence, Hofheimer bought three shipments of American Export whiskey that had been sent from Newport News, Virginia, to Bermuda. They shipped aboard the American schooner Warren B. Potter, the U.S. brigantine Payson Tucker, and the Norwegian bark Freja. While the barrels were stored in Bermuda warehouses, Hofheimer alleged, the contents had been water down. The financier strongly suspected collusion between the Cincinnati group and the owner of the warehouses, Henry Outerbridge.

Hofheimer’s case apparently rested on obtaining copies of correspondence from Cincinnati in the possession of Outerbridge, letters he believed would prove that the warehouse owner had been directed to adulterate the liquor in his possession. The U.S. Court requested that the Bermudan Government seize the evidence and turn it over to Hofheimer. The documents go no further and there is no evidence that Bermuda complied or that Hofheimer won his case. It may be no coincidence, however, that by 1901 the American Export and Warehouse Co. disappeared from Cincinnati business directories in the liquor trade -- never to be heard from again.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Investing in Collectibles: Off the Beam

Like many investments, collectibles have the possibility of great gains -- Picasso ceramics come to mind -- or decline to worthless as witnessed in the not-so-distant “Beanie Baby” fiasco. During these times when bank savings and money market funds are paying miserable interest, investing in artifacts becomes increasingly attractive. But buyer beware. A case in point are the ceramic decanters that the Jim Beam Distilling Company of Nelson County, Kentucky, has produced for more than a half-century.

In 1952 the Beam family-owned distillery determined to enter a new field of packaging in order to corner a greater share of the Christmas gift-giving market the following year. The initial offering, a cocktail shaker decanter filled with Beam whiskey, was a huge hit with the public. That began an era in which Beam liquor bottles of many shapes -- animals, fish, automobiles, states, customer specialties -- proliferated. So important did these items become that Beam bought the Regal China Company of Antioch, Illinois, to manufacture them. To date some 500 different objects have been issued.

From the beginning collectors were encouraged to think of Beam bottles as investments. Jim Beam clubs were formed around the country. Price lists issued by various individuals showed impressive annual increases for the decanters, causing a rush by collectors to amass large numbers.

Particularly sought were the Executive Series decanters. Begun in 1955, the initial offering commemorated the 160th birthday of the distillery. That ceramic bottle was followed each year by another until the series was discontinued in 1987. As shown here, the decanters were gaudy productions, often with gold ornament and extravagant designs: the ultimate in kitsch. One price guide enthused about Executive decanters as “seemingly out of a King’s treasure room” and predicted that they would “surely be tomorrow’s treasured antiques.” As investments, however, the Executive Series, as well as most other Beam bottles, have been major disappointments.

Take for example the first decanter shown here. It is called “Gray Cherub” and is among the more tasteful examples. It probably cost $30 with contents when issued in 1958. A 1967 price list saw the decanter (empty) appreciate to $45. In 2002, the Koval’ Bottle Price List set its worth at $120. The 2005 Antique Trader guide pegged it at $260, a gain of more than 850 percent! But a price list is not a sale. When a Gray Cherub sold at auction recently, it fetched $39. That is $6 less than it was assessed 42 years ago.

Another case in point is the 1977 “Golden Jubilee” Executive, shown second. Despite being supremely ugly it has enjoyed some popularity, listed at $20 by the Kovels and at $48 in the Antique Trader guide. A recent sale of the Golden Jubilee, however, was for a meager $15. Other decanters shown here, in descending order, are the “Royal Gold Diamond” (1964), the clot of blueberries “Presidential” (1968), the triangular “Charisma” (1970), and the tall, grotesque “Fantasia (1971). All can be bought for less than $10.

What happened? First, tastes change and the flamboyant appearance of Executive Series decanters is distinctly out of fashion. Second, Jim Beam Distillers, after all, primarily were selling whiskey not bottles. When a particular design proved unusually popular the company issued more, diluting their scarcity. Third, people who collected Beam bottles expecting a quick payoff got disappointed, sold off, and left the game. While some fans remain their numbers are small and dwindling.

This gets to the moral of the Beam saga: Speculating on collectibles as an investment is akin to trying to get rich in Las Vegas. Financial Planner Michael Walther has advised: “To make 10 or 20 percent on your collectibles, the piece probably has to appreciate 50 to 100 percent from what you paid for it.” The Beam Executive Series fails miserably when held to that yardstick, not to mention the misplaced taste the decanters represent.