Friday, May 20, 2011

John Lobmiller and the Whiskey Shakes

John Lobmiller was a glassmaker and inventor from Wellsburg, West Virginia, whose most memorable contribution to mankind may well have been a paperweight that contained shakable bar dice.

In 1885, together with other Wellsburg investors, Lobmiller founded the Venture Glass Works in that Ohio River town. According to an 1886 newspaper account. the glassworks specialties were brown flint glassware and private mold work. The article praised the operation: “These works are operated with natural gas, and while the establishment is not quite so large as some others, the work turned out is equal to those of more metropolitan pretensions.” The enterprise apparently succeeded to the extent that Lobmiller would marry Cora Nelson of Wellsburg in 1898.

As an inventor, Lobmiller had a number of ideas to improve existing tools and artifacts. In 1901 he filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office an application to make a new kind of paperweight. Most weights of the time were solid glass with an image pasted or sealed in the base. Lobmiller created a paperweight of glass and metal with a cavity. His application noted that “moveable devices of circular or other form can be confined in the cavity....” Such devices, he noted, would add “novelty and attractiveness” to weights.

Two years later, on August 18, 1903, the U.S, Government issued Lobmiller his patent. There was an immediate interest in the invention from a source that Lobmiller may or may not have had in mind. Although his illustrations show small marbles in the cavity, whiskey dealers and saloonkeepers saw the open space as perfect for holding bar dice.

Shaking for drinks at the bar is an American tradition almost as old as the Republic. Patrons gamble against the bartender or against each other on who picks up the drink tab. Bar dice games typically are played with a set of five six-sided dice. Each player takes a turn rolling the dice either to outdo opponents or to accrue points.

Pre-Prohibition whiskey distributors like Harald Schmidt in Indianapolis (1903-1918) were quick to see the advantages of Lobmiller’s invention. The paperweight with dice would advertise Schmidt’s Fairmont Whiskey, reminding patrons of its availability behind the bar. In Memphis, Tennessee, Italian immigrant Dominic Canale had the same idea. He distributed five-dice paperweights to those saloons carrying his “Old Dominick” whiskey. Canale’s company (1885-1915) also featured brands, “B-Wise” and “Dominick Special Rye.”

On Milwaukee’s South Side, George Frank ordered up Lobmiller paperweights for his drinking establishment on National Avenue. His “sample room,” a high flown name for a saloon, is now the site of an apartment building. The base of all three of these weights bear the Lobmiller patent date. It is unclear but likely that they were fabricated at his Wellsburg glassworks.

In addition to the artifacts featuring a round cavity inside a square glass, a second Lobmiller patent variety was a broader, round paperweight. This is exemplified by the Clingstone Rye weight, shown here, one that also bears the 1909 patent date. This item was distributed by the Shiff, Mayer Co. of Cincinnati, in business from 1906 until 1911. Clingstone Rye was its flagship brand.

Lobmiller’s success almost inevitably drew copycats. Shown here are three whiskey weights, all probably from the same manufacturer and all bearing a “patent applied for “ designation. No evidence exists of a patent actually being granted, not surprising given how close the concept was to Lobmiller’s. Among the whiskey merchants making use of this “knockoff” were the Old Kentucky Fine Whiskey Co. of Kansas City, Missouri (1900-1902) and Winner Rye, the product of Wm. Mulherin & Sons, Philadelphia (1887-1918). A third was a weight advertising Pennsylvania Pure Rye. It is unusual because it features only three dice. This weight was distributed by Buffalo, New York, whiskey rectifiers known as C. Person’s Sons Company (1850-1920).

Despite the interesting legacy of whiskey memorabilia that John Lobmiller made possible, his own life apparently was plagued with difficulties. He committed suicide in Wellsburg in 1913. An obituary in a glassworkers trade paper cited “business troubles” as the cause.


  1. Interesting article. I'm interested in obtaining the Mulherin shake. Any idea where I could find one?

    1. Dear Frank: My very belated suggestion -- I just woke up to this inquiry -- is eBay. Jack