Friday, July 30, 2010

A Bit of Lubricity Helps the Medicine Go Down

Out of a constant fascination with the advertising messages of the Victorian era, I have determined that the merchandising most likely to feature sexually titillating themes came from the peddlers of bitters. Bitters were mixtures of herbs, roots and tree bark laced with a generous amounts of alcohol that were sold as cures for a wide range of diseases and ailments. At some point the companies that produced them concluded, as many advertisers have today, that “sex sells.”

In that earlier era, 1880s-1900, one that many identify with puritanical mores, these medicine men often appear to have gotten away with lubricious images on their signs, ads, and trade cards that are startling even by today’s standards. We start with a relatively benign image from Brown’s Iron Bitters. It features a winsome young girl displaying a lovely -- and largely bare -- bosom.

More scandalous are the claims made for this product as a “sure cure” for such maladies as malaria, malarial fevers, and “decay in liver, kidneys and bowels.” A tall order for a tonic that likely carried as much alcohol as a bottle of gin and little else of therapeutic value. It was a product of the Brown Chemical Company of Baltimore, Maryland, which trademarked the potion about 1882 and began suing any other patent medicine with “iron” in its name. Ironically, the principal product of Brown Chemical was fertilizer.

The woman advertising Carmeliter Bitters not only is displaying considerable cleavage but has her skirt hitched up as she leans provocatively what appears to be a bar stool. This nostrum was advertised not only as “The Elixir of Life,” but as a remedy for “all kidney and liver complaints.” It was the product of Burhenne & Dorn who did business at 347 Hamburg Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.

A card memorializing a meeting of the the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), representing Civil War soldiers was the occasion for Pond’s Bitters to tell a double entendre joke about fighting a battle under a flag, represented by an apron gracing a pretty waitress. As the flip side of the trade card discloses, Pond’s Bitters also included a long list of illnesses it cured, mostly stomach and intestinal ailments, but adding malaria.

The Chicago-based medicine peddler was a particular target of Samuel Hopkins Adams, the journalist whose exposes in Collier’s Magazine in 1905 led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. In the first of his series on “The Great American Fraud” Adams took aim at Pond’s for “trading on public alarm” by running an ad claiming to cure meningitis with one of its nostrums while New York was suffering an epidemic of the disease.

Rex Bitters was the source of two racy trade cards. One shows a rooster in formal dress trailing a similarly fancy costumed hen with the caption, “It looks like a cinch.”
At bottom left is a baby chick singing a popular song of the day: “Meet me tonight in dreamland.” The second Rex trade card leaves nothing to the imagination, showing a doctor leaning against the exposed breasts of a Gibson Girl. The caption “Heart Trouble” is, however, ambiguous as to which of the two figures it refers.

Rex Bitters, a Chicago-produced patent medicine, advertised itself as curing biliousness, malaria, chills and fever, neuralgia, constipation, pain in back, dyspepsia, sick headache, indigestion, sour stomach, and all “affections” of the kidneys and liver. Despite its obvious alcoholic content, the label advised customers to give children a teaspoonful twice a day and at bedtime “if required.” Rex Bitters merchandising emphasized that it had been recognized as a medicine by the Internal Revenue Department which had slapped a special tax on such products to help pay for the Spanish-American War.

The final example is from Lash’s Kidney & Liver Bitters, an outfit that claimed offices and laboratories in both Chicago and San Francisco. It is perhaps the most salacious of the group. Professing to demonstrate the use of the five senses, it portrays a tryst between an attractive, statuesque woman and and suave mustached visitor. The ending does not need further explanation.

Like the other bitters seen here, Lash’s claimed to be a “sure cure” for a wide range of illnesses including malaria --a seeming favorite among the patent medicine crowd -- and assured customers that it was “positively without equal for all diseases arising from a disordered condition of the kidneys and liver.”

In retrospect, if the bitters companies images seem scandalous, they did considerably less harm than did the bitters themselves. Adams, whose muckraking series of articles for Colliers Magazine helped achieve passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, called these so-called “cures” a fraud on the public and even worse, “subtle poisons.” While the Act required a listing of ingredients on the labels of patent medicines, it did not outlaw claims to cure diseases.

The first head of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Harvey W. Wylie, in several public statements, however, soon made it known that potions claiming to be cures would be called on to prove those claims. Failure to do so could open them to prosecution for mail fraud. Almost overnight many professed cures were transformed into less aggressive remedies and tonics.

Key words: bitters advertising, Samuel Hopkins Adams

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Art Nouveau Whiskey Jug

Among my favorite artistic movements is “Art Nouveau,” a style that burst into wide popularity about 1890 in Europe and the United States and held sway until snuffed out by the cold winds of World War One three decades later. Characterized by lavish ornamentation with lines reminiscent of twining plan tendrils or ribbons flowing in the wind, Art Nouveau was frequently used in the merchandising of the day, selling everything from bicycles and eggs to cigarette papers, throat lozenges, and -- yes -- whiskey.

An example is the Thomas Rossland scotch whisky jug, displaying a familiar Art Nouveau theme, the “Tree of Life,” with its roots, branches, leaves and some kind of round fruit. This jug recently fetched more than a $1,000 at auction. It was the product of the Doulton Lambeth Pottery , now known as Royal Doulton. Between 1882 and 1914 this British pottery manufacturer issued dozens of whiskies that incorporated highly glazed necks, shoulders, handles and bodies with Art Nouveau themes in a range of rich and colored glazes.

In the United States, by contrast, only a few distillers and whiskey dealers used the decors common to Art Nouveau. Note here a Doulton jug, predominantly brown and yellow with distinctive flowers in a drapery. Below it is an American jug that features similar flowers. It is from “Coronation Brand” and is “Scotch-type Whiskey.”

Thereby hangs a mystery. This jug is part of a series of three, all of which go under the name, Coronation Brand, but with presumably different contents. One of them is labeled “Irish Type Whiskey” and the other “Kornschnapps Style Liquor” -- a German alcoholic beverage. All profess to be “Products of Ohio.” Each reflects the Art Nouveau sensibility in the differing modes of flowing shapes that surround their labels. Two decades of trying to locate the origins of these highly unusual whiskeys has yielded me absolutely no clues.

Nor are there any clues to the potteries that might have made and designed the labels for these jugs. My suspicion is that it was Sherwood Brothers of New Brighton, Pennsylvania. (See my blog of November 2009.) This is the only U.S. pottery in my knowledge with the ability to do wrap around transfers of the good design and sophistication represented by these Art Nouveau containers. Sadly, often Sherwood Brothers did not mark their products.

Whoever made them clearly were taking cues and themes from Doulton jugs, such as the 1900 “Good Luck and Happiness to You” whiskey done in the Art Nouveau style. One final American whiskey jug done in that mode is also from Ohio. It is labeled “Finest Old Sour Mash” and was issued by the R. Brand & Company distillers from Toledo. Many of these Brand jugs carry a mark indicating that they were made in Scotland by the Port Dundas Pottery, second only to Doulton in its ability to create attractive whiskey containers.

As I continue to seek an answer to the puzzle of of these Coronation Brand jugs, it is my hope that through this blog new information may come to light. In the meantime I will treasure looking at these Art Nouveau artifacts on display in my house.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Dr. Seuss Sells "The Sauce"

Last October when I used an anti-Prohibition cartoon by signed Dr. Seuss, it did not occur to me that there was a intriguing back story in the image. I have always been a fan of the Seuss books, from Cat in a Hat to Horton Hears a Hoo and beyond -- books read to my sons when they were tots.

Unknown to me then was that their author, Theodor Seuss Geisel, came from a family of brewers. His grandfather Geisel owned the Kalmbach and Geisel Brewery in Springfield, Mass. In 1894 it was renamed the Highland Brewery and five years later became part of the Springfield Brewery. In 1919, on the very day his father became president of the company, Prohibition was voted and eventually forced the brewery to close. Geisel never forgot the financial loss and trauma this event caused his family.

The 1942 anti-Prohibition cartoon was occasioned by a bill in Congress to lower the draft age that included a rider that would have outlawed the sale of liquor in areas adjacent to military installations. The concern, shared by Ted Geisel, was that there were very few liquor stores in wartime America that were not near some kind of military site. This threat occasioned the cartoon referencing the long dead Prohibition stalwart, Carrie Nation, riding on a characteristically Dr. Seuss camel.

Further research led to the realization that at times during his career Dr. Seuss not only championed strong drink but actually provided advertising materials for beer and whiskey. Before children’s books were a major occupation, Geisel had made a living largely by drawing ads for a number of U.S. companies, initially for an insecticide named “Flit,” made by Standard Oil.

Geisel’s first foray into alcoholic beverages occurred in 1937 when he was commissioned to do a series of ads for Schaefer Beer. A New York City brewery, the F & M Schaefer Company had been founded in 1842 by brothers from Wetzlar, Germany. The brewery survived Prohibition and at one point in the 1950s Schaefer was reputed to be the largest selling beer in the world. Geisel was hired to give a lively image to Schaefer’s bock beer, a dark malty seasonal beverage that typically is available in March and April.

Because “bock” is also the word for goat in German, the brew often is depicted with that image. In keeping with this tradition, Geisel used a typically Seussian-looking mountain goat for his ad. In one illustration, the goat is a trophy animal who is looking enviously off the wall at two glasses of beer passing by. In another, the goat is a waiter carrying a foaming schooner on a tray.

When a small Scotch distillery in 1939 decided to advertise in the U.S. market, it needed a special image that would make its bottles distinctive on the shelves of bars and liquor stories. Given the assignment, Geisel created the “Hankey Bird,” an absurd looking avian with a large beak and wearing a kilt. With the use of a small spring, the figure snapped onto the neck of a bottle of Hankey Bannister Scotch. It was brought instant attention to the whiskey and sales soared.

Noting his distinctive work for Schaefer, in 1942 the Narragansett Brewing Company, located in Cranston, Rhode Island, asked Geisel to undertake an ad campaign for its beer. The president, Rudolph F. Haffenreffer, was a avid collector of Native American artifacts including cigar store Indians. Haffenreffer asked Geisel to weave an Indian theme into his advertising.

Thus was born “Chief Gansett,” a blocky figure wearing beads, carrying a hatchet and boasting a multicolored headdress. Most often this wooden Indian carried a large goblet of beer. The image proved very popular and the Chief appeared on a range of marketing items including trays, bar coasters, and posters as well as appearing in newspaper and magazine ads. In an ad for bock beer, Chief Gansett was depicted riding on an animal that bore a strong resemblance to the goat Geisel earlier had drawn for Schaefer Beer.

Throughout his career Ted Geisel as Dr. Seuss had written and drawn for youngsters. In 1957, however, he published two remarkable books that sent his reputation into the stratosphere, Cat in a Hat and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Thereafter he was able to abandon commercial work entirely to concentrate on children’s literature. While generations forward may be thankful for that, a look back is instructive to the time when Dr. Seuss sold the sauce and a whole lot of other things through his art. Those drawings lovingly have been gathered by Dr. Charles D. Cohen, a Springfield Mass. dentist, in a marvelous book called Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss. It is a must read for any Dr. Seuss aficionado.