Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Tempest of Whiskey Teapots

Pre-Prohibition whiskey distributors ranged widely in their attempts to merchandise their products through imaginative give-away items to saloonkeepers and the “faces along the bar.” Among the most unusual advertising items were metal teapots inscribed with the whiskey brand name and often the liquor company that produced it.

This blog is devoted to eight such teapots with some speculation on their creation and use.

The first four teapots shown here are from Cincinnati, where the idea may well have originated. In the late 1800s and early 1900s major whiskey distillers, rectifiers and distributors abounded in that Ohio city. For example, in 1881 the 10 leading Cincinnati distillers announced that their production for the prior year was 1.8 million gallons on which $103 million in taxes had been paid. Competition was fierce. As companies vied for market share, they found lots of inventive ways, including metal teapots, to keep their name before the drinking public.

Keystone Rye, the name inscribed on a silver-plated example, was the product of Klein Brothers, a Cincinnati distillery that Samuel Klein founded about 1875. Klein proved to be an excellent merchandiser and the source of such brands as Keystone Rye, Harvard Rye and Spring Lake Bourbon. His whiskey became nationally and even internationally known. He also was famous for his innovative give-away items, among which his teapot must be accounted as particularly unusual.

Sam Klein had formidable competition in a former grocer named Ferdinand Westheimer. In 1879 Westheimer founded a wholesale liquor store in St. Joseph, Missouri, gradually bringing three of his sons into the business. Very successful, particularly with his house brand, Red Top Rye, Westheimer eventually bought the Old Times Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, and opened a outlet in Cincinnati. Westheimer’s teapot was made in Cincinnati by the Queen City Silver Company, operating from 1888 to the early 1900s.

Joining in this storm of teapots was Charles M. Pfeifer who founded a Cincinnati whiskey distributorship in 1882. His flagship brand was Billy Baxter’s Best, the name he had engraved on a silver plated teapot by the Cincinnati-based Homan Silver Plate Company. This item can be dated with some accuracy because Homan used this specific name only from 1896 to 1904.

Rounding out the Cincinnati quartet was Shields, May & Company, whiskey distributors and rectifiers who featured some dozen different brands of whiskey. Because a San Francisco firm had registered the name “Old Judge” with the Federal government in 1902, it appears that the company was seeking to avoid a lawsuit by labeling this product as Shield’s Old Judge Whiskey. According to its base mark, the teapot was made by the Columbian Silver Company.

Further south in Ohio, another competitor with a regional market for its whiskey also was offering customers a teapot. Founded in 1879 by George Lang and brothers William and Charles Schenck, their whiskey rectifying and distributorship flourished. Occupying a three-story building immediately adjacent to the Columbus, Ohio, courthouse, Lang, Schenck Co. featured Olentangy Rye as its flagship brand.

Herman Abraham, a whiskey dealer whose city of origin I have not been able to identify, used a teapot to advertise two brands he offered. The first, Home Comfort, was from the Joseph Herrscher Company of San Francisco (1907-1916). The opposite side advertised Guckenheimer Rye, from a Pittsburgh distiller that began business in 1857.

A teapot advertising Tom Benton Whiskey hails from a Wisconsin, dealer. His name -- A. (for Albert) F. Watke -- appears on the other side of the metal vessel. Watke appears to have begun business in Milwaukee in 1897 and moved north to Fond du Lac after 1902.

Finally, a silver plated teapot exists marked Sherwood OPS (Old Pot Still) Whiskey. It was the product of Sherwood Distilling of Cockeysville, Maryland, with offices in Baltimore. The distillery was founded in 1883 and within a decade Sherwood Rye became a nationally known brand. This teapot was the product of the Meriden Silver Plate Company (1869-1898) of Meriden, Connecticut.

With one exception, all these firms and brands disappeared early in the 20th Century, most because of the onset of state or National Prohibition. As a result each of these metal teapots can be dated before 1920. The only brand name to survive the 14 year drought was Sherwood, but the whiskey was produced at a different site by new ownership.

What were these metal teapots used for? My guess is this: Because it was not unusual in those days to mix hot water with rye and bourbon whiskey, these items might have been used by bartenders to hold boiled water until called for by a customer to lace his toddy. But this is just a guess. The saloons might even have been serving tea. Naaah.


  1. Thanks for the history lesson, Jack. Quite interesting.

    Nate Westheimer
    (Great, Great-Grandson of Ferdinand)

  2. Hi Jack,
    I've have purchased a Shield's Judge Old Whiskey teapot off the net for $40 and it just arrived today (I think I got a bargain). I thought I'd try and find some info about its origins and purpose and was pleased to find your site. Your theory about what it was used for was interesting, but why a teapot shape?
    Thanks for posting this information,
    Best Wishes,
    Julie (Australia)

  3. To Nat Westheimer: Your heritage is one of the great ones in American whiskey making. One of these day on my other blog "pre-prowhiskeymen" I may do a profile of Ferdinand and get back to you for your thoughts. Jack

    To Julie: Sorry to be so late in responding. It was a teapot shape, I believe because it could keep hot water as well as cold. Just a theory. Your Shields jug was a great buy. I have enough other examples of whiskey in metal that I will be putting up a sequel in a few weeks. Jack

  4. I have a Queen City Silver teapot with "Kentucky Tea" engraved in it. I can't find any info on it and your blog is as close as I've come to even getting an idea.
    If you have any information about this pot please let me know.