Friday, March 19, 2010

Using Kids to Sell Booze

As unthinkable as it might be today, in the late 18th and early 19th Century in the United States whiskey distillers, distributors and saloons not uncommonly advertised their wares using pictures of children. As the display here of vintage trade cards demonstrates, those images varied considerably in their decorum.

Take for example the winsome young girl wearing the Netherlands national colors, advertising Old Maryland Dutch Whiskies. She epitomizes why children were favored for merchandising. The girl is young and sweet, her expression is soulful and she embodies the rosy cheeks and curly hair of innocence. This depiction of childhood projects an image that reenforced the whiskey’s motto: “The purest stimulant in existence.” Note the added quirky statement: “When not taken immoderately, there will be an entire absence of Nervous Prostration.” What?

Also fetching is the young girl with golden hair who is shown offering a flower to an owl, a vintage trade card that advertised Stonewall Whiskey. This was a brand from Charles Rebstock & Company of St. Louis, Missouri (1871-1918), self-described as distillers and whiskey merchants. Today Charles might be condemned for exploiting childhood images. In his own day, he was an officer of the Civic League of St. Louis, an organization dedicated to “making the city more healthful, comfortable and attractive.”

More controversial is the young girl illustrated on a Riverside Purified Whiskey trade card. Note that she is depicted displaying not only a bit of ankle but some adolescent bosom. This whiskey, which advertised itself “for medicinal use,” was the product of the B.F. Noll & Son whiskey dealers of Philadelphia (1881-1885).

More risqué by far is a trade card from Becker’ Saloon in Reno, Nevada. It shows two young boys playing with a monkey apparently belonging to the attractive women behind it. The accompanying verse is blatantly double entendre An article in the Reno Evening Gazette of April 20, 1888, described Becker’s Saloon as daily entertaining a large lunchtime crowd. They were eager for a schooner of beer and a hot lunch for 12 and 1/2 cents.

In some whiskey ads children were not on their best behavior. The R. H. Dunkle distillery of East Berkley, Pennsylvania, gave us two children on a trade card. One is a shoeless black girl, the other a white girl in a lace collar. They apparently are fighting over a book. Advertising itself as the “only rye distillery in Pennsylvania (which probably was not true), the Dunkle firm is recorded in business during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Perhaps the most shocking whiskey trade card advertised Barrett’s Rock Candy and Hermitage Rye, an alcoholic beverage merchandised widely as having positive health effects. The card shows four children drinking from a barrel of the high-octane concoction. One of the tots obviously is drunk. This inappropriate image was the product of a Boston firm and dates from the late 1800s. Author Wayne Bethard in his book on frontier medicine includes Barrett’s Rock Candy and Hermitage Rye among a number of “deadly elixirs.”

We conclude with the image of a golden haired, totally nude little girl who is reaching for a bottle, with the tag line “Papa has a headache.” It was a trade card of the Red Raven Splits, a product that sounds alcoholic but actually was laxative mineral water. From the look of the nearly empty liquor decanter on the bureau, Papa clearly had overindulged.

Today mixing whiskey and children almost certainly would draw stern rebukes from many quarters. No distiller or distributor would chance it. In those “good old days” of a century or more ago, however, images of kids hawking liquor were acceptable -- at least to the drinking public.

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