Friday, February 11, 2011

Black Waiters: "Fetch, Toby, Fetch"

Last year about this time, as an observance of February’s Black History Month, I featured a blog about the way African Americans have been depicted in whiskey advertising throughout the years. Many of the images proved to be degrading or at best depicted blacks in menial or serving positions. This year my Black History blog will concentrate on blacks in wait service.

Here my conclusion is that whiskey ads often treated black waiters with more dignity before, rather than after, Prohibition. A case in point is an 1894 advertising poster issued by a Cincinnati-based railway that also featured a number of products manufactured in the city. The dignified waiter holds on a tray a bottle of Cabinet Whiskey he is offering to two passengers. This whiskey was a product of the Freiberg and Workum Co. (1855-1918). From distilleries in the company owned in Kentucky they produced and distributed a number of nationally-known brands.

Similarly dignified is the waiter who is serving 15-year-old Old Fitzgerald whiskey to a passenger in an individual small bottle on what the ad claims is one of “the best Railroads in the United States.” This is a 1901 ad from the S.C. Herbst Importing Co., headquartered in Milwaukee with a branch office in Chicago. Founded in 1870, the Herbst organization survived until Prohibition.

Contrast those first two examples with a post-Prohibition1935 ad from Paul Jones whiskey, a brand was from Frankfort Distilleries. Founded after the Civil War by Paul Jones, a whiskey salesman, the company moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1886. Frankfort Distilleries survived the years of “Dry” (1920-1934) becoming one of the few outfits that were allowed to produce “medicinal” whiskey under government permit. Providing a quarter of the national supply, the company boasted that 20,000 doctors had written prescriptions for its “spiritus frumenti alcoholic stimulant” -- the word “whiskey” having been banished.

After Repeal, Frankfort Distilleries had a head start on its competition. It funded national ad campaigns that harked back to a pre-Civil War era when plantation owners could sit, smoke cigars and tell the obsequious waiter, “Toby, fetch me the key to the springhouse.” The gentleman at left in the ad was supposed to be the redoubtable, but now long dead, Paul Jones himself. The message here was clear: Let us celebrate the good old days when slavery was in flower.

Other ads emphasized the subordinate nature of the black waiters by giving them ungrammatical speech patterns. Cream of Kentucky “Thee” Whiskey, for example, featured an ad in which a waiter holds a bottle in one hand and a drink in the other. He declaims: “De Kunnel sez Mint Julep.” This brand originated with the Rush Distilling Co. of Jacksonville, Florida.

Similar illiterate speech appears in a 1940s ad from Sherwood Rye. The smiling waiter here tells us “Ain’t had time to sit me down, since Sherwood Rye done come to town.” The same rhyming waiter in another Sherwood ad -- not shown here -- says: “De man who calls for Sherwood Rye, sure knows the bestest brand to buy.” Sherwood Distillery was founded in 1882 in Cockeysville, Maryland. The original operation was closed with Prohibition and the buildings destroyed in 1926. However, the brand name survived and was produced post-Prohibition until the 1950s from a facility in Westminster, Maryland.

Calvert Whiskey took a two page ad in Life Magazine in 1941 to show a black waiter with two whiskey collins on a tray. His speech is grammatical but his manner is a wide grin that communicates how happy he is to be serving. Originally part of the Fleischmann distilling operation in Relay, Maryland, the Calvert facilities and brand name were purchased in 1933 by the Canadian Joseph E. Seagram and Son.

A final example is from Walker’s Deluxe straight bourbon. From 1947 to 1953 this brand featured the same very distinguished black waiter, usually holding a tray on a bottle of the whiskey. Although there was nothing particularly servile in this waiter’s attitude, the ad-makers in one 1953 instance could not avoid the temptation to picture him in front of an old Southern plantation house -- once again harking back to those pre-bellum days. The brand was from Hiram Walker of Detroit and Walkerville, Ontario.

Since the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, a half century ago, the depiction of black waiters has disappeared from all U.S. whiskey advertising. Other things have changed as well. Now a highly educated, articulate African-American is in the White House. Toby need no longer fetch.

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