Friday, November 19, 2010

Looking at Label Under Glass

During two years as a curator/cataloguer for the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum in Alexandria, Virginia, I was able to see and handle some of the museum’s large collection of “Label Under Glass” bottles, similar to those shown here. I found them an interesting artifact of a bygone era.

Label Under Glass bottles were most common from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. They were used for storage of many medicinal solutions employed by pharmacists of the time. The bottles featured an ornate, often gold leafed, label that was covered by a thin layer of glass to prevent damage. Then the glass-covered label was pasted to a bottle with an appropriate indentation to permit a smooth front. As objects they were attractive as well as functional and they dressed up a pharmacy.

Hair products and barber bottles also made use of Label Under Glass as shown in this Wildroot Dandruff and Eczema bottle from the Wildroot Co., Inc. This company was founded in the Buffalo New York in 1911. It registered the trademark “Wildroot” with the government in 1932. Who can forget its catchy jingle: “Get Wildroot Cream Oil, Charlieeee.” The company was sold to Colgate-Palmolive in 1959.

The contents of the Wildroot bottle shown here could have been drunk as well as slathered on the head. The label announces that it contained not more than 40% grain alcohol. That is 80 proof, about the same as some gin. That note takes us to another industry that made use of Label Under Glass to merchandise its products -- whiskey distilling.

The first example are three winsome lasses advertising Galaxy Whiskey. They appear on a back of the bar bottle, a finely lithographed image covered in clear glass. This whiskey was the product of the Peter McQuade organization of Brooklyn, New York. It registered the brand name with the government in 1905. McQuade also merchandised another alcohol-laced beverage under the name “Amazon Bitters.”

Kit Carson Whiskey featured a Label Under Glass bar bottle that featured the American explorer and Indian fighter with his horse. It was the product of Wood, Pollard & Co. of Boston. Founded in 1881, the company was supplied with whiskey product from the warehouses of the Mayfield Distillery in Kentucky. Kit Carson was only one among more than a dozen Wood, Pollard brands. They included “Very Old Cabinet 1873,” “Oxford Rye,” “Snowdrop Gin” and “White Wheat Whiskey.”

Chris Sandheger emigrated from Germany to the United States about 1853 when he was 21 and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. After serving as an accountant in a liquor store, in 1857 Sandheger established his own liquor business. Under his management the firm grew steadily and his alcoholic brands found a wide local and regional trade. His “Peach and Honey” shown here was a cordial. He gave its bar bottle not only a distinctive Label Under Glass, but also wrapped it in wicker.

Sandheger was a rectifier, not a distiller, obtaining his whiskey from Kayser Distillery and other Kentucky producers. Following his death in 1906 family members continued the business until shut down by Prohibition. Among their brands were “Old Sandheger Club,” “Old Still,” and “Stone Lick.”

Prohibition brought an end to fancy bar bottles. Too many of them had been filled by saloon keepers with phony liquor after their initial pouring. Federal laws now prohibited them. Thus bar bottles with Labels Under Glass can easily be identified as pre-Prohibition.

Label Under Glass also was frequently used for whiskey flasks, often provided for special occasions. Among them were the National Encampments of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Union soldier veterans organization. In 1895 I.W. Harper, a brand of the Bernheim Bros. issued a special Label Under Glass flask to mark the event, held in Louisville, Kentucky, home town of the whiskey makers.

Another flask honored the veterans of the Spanish American War. The label depicted a soldier and a sailor in full combat gear of the times. The bottle gives no evidence of where or by whom it originated. The final example is among the most intriguing. The glass-fronted label shows a young woman in an abbreviated costume and high heels who is striking a provocative pose. The flask was issued by the Emrich Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., which might have been signaling the nature of its clientele. Like the two prior flasks it also is pre-Prohibition.

Label Under Glass bar bottles and flasks are avidly collected. The Emrich Hotel bottle, for example, recently sold at auction for $190. Condition is often an issue with these items. As seen on some bottles here, the glass cracks or the glue holding the label to the glass surfaces discolors. It is virtually impossible to find one in perfect preservation. Nonetheless, even damaged bottles are pricey. By contrast, Label Under Glass apothecary bottles and jars, although frequently collected, seldom fetch more than $50 and often less.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Who the Heck Was Irvin S. Cobb?

Once he was among America’s top celebrities: author of 60 books, he was America’s highest paid journalist, a star of radio, motion pictures and the lecture circuit. More celebrated in his time than Jay Leno or David Letterman in ours, he hosted the Academy Awards in 1935, received the French Legion of Honor, and two honorary doctorates. A bridge over the Ohio river, parks, a major hotel, and a brand of cigars were named after him.

Yet today, little more than 60 years after his death almost no one knows who Irvin S. Cobb was or what he did. If for nothing else he should be celebrated for his role in repealing the Prohibition amendment to the Constitution.

Irwin Shrewsbury Cobb was born in his grandfather’s house in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1876, shown here in postcard view. At the age of 16 he was forced to quit school to support his mother and siblings. By the age of 19 he was the youngest newspaper editor in the country, working for the Paducah Evening News. Moving to the Louisville Evening News, he gained attention for a humor column entitled “Kentucky Sour Mash.”

Encouraged by the success of his column and encouraged by his wife, he headed to New York City to make his mark. In the Big Apple he eventually landed a job with the New York World and within months was writing a nationally syndicated column, one that eventually boasted readership in the millions. H.L. Mencken, who came to regret it, once compared him to Mark Twain.

As native Kentuckian, Cobb was steeped in the taste and lore of whiskey. As shown here in a movie still, drinking often was a feature of his film roles. At the height of Cobb’s popularity in 1920 National Prohibition was enacted. At first he dealt with it humorously, writing that: “Since Prohibition came in and a hiccup became a mark of affluence instead of a social error as formally, and a loaded flank is a sign of hospitality rather than of menace, things may have changed.”

That jocular attitude had vanished by 1929 when Cobb wrote the only American novel devoted to the American whiskey industry. Entitled “Red Likker” and featuring a map of Kentucky on the cover, the book tells the story of an family that founded a distillery called Bird and Son right after the Civil War. It traces the history of the business to Prohibition when, like most distilleries, it was forced to close. Ultimately the distillery is destroyed by fire and the family is reduced to to running a crossroads grocery store.

Not only did Cobb inveigh against Prohibition in his literary works, he made it a personal crusade. Joining a national organization called the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, he became its chairman of the Authors and Artists Committee. Under his vigorous leadership the committee ultimately boasted 361 members, including some of the nation’s best known figures. As chairman, he blamed Prohibition for increased crime, alcoholism, and disrespect for law. “If Prohibition is a a noble experiment,” he said, “then the San Francisco fire and the Galveston flood should be listed among the noble experiments of our national history.”

When Prohibition finally ended in 1934, Cobb was recognized for his contribution. The first night liquor became legal, he reportedly went to a hotel bar that once again had begun pouring, pulled out a $20 bill and hollered: “Drinks for everyone.”

Immediately after Repeal the whiskey industry feared that the buying public no longer knew how to make mixed drinks. The result was a plethora of drink recipe books. When newly revived Frankfort Distillery wanted one to plug its brands, it turned to Cobb. He obliged with a pamphlet in which he claimed, somewhat fancifully that one of his ancestors, Dean Henry Cobb, an immigrant from Ireland, in 1636 was the first publican licensed to draw spirits in the New World. He also described a great-grandfather who went west to Kentucky and founded “Squire Cobb’s Tavern” along the Cumberland River, a business Cobb claimed the “squire” abandoned one step ahead of the sheriff.

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Cobb’s reputation plummeted as racist themes came to the fore in his writing. In 1941 his national column was canceled. Increasingly in ill health, Cobb died at age 68 in 1944. He was buried with a simple headstone in a Paducah cemetery. The inscription reads “Back Home.” The memory of Cobb’s life and fame quickly faded. The products to which he gave his name are no longer sold.

Perhaps the most enduring monument to a man who helped rid the Nation of Prohibition is the Irvin S. Cobb bridge. It is a two-lane span that carries U.S. Route 45 over the Ohio River from Brookport, Illinois, to Paducah. Motorists complain that it is a bumpy ride.