Friday, July 22, 2011

"Comin' Thro' the Rye" - Whiskey, That Is

In 1782, the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) wrote a poem that spoke of the sweetness of young love. It is the inquiry of a young swain of his girl friend that if they should happen to meet while walking through a field of grain, and he should kiss her, would her eyes well up in tears? The scene and the verse is shown on a Victorian-era trade card. Ironically, this image was issued by a company selling a laxative called “Sanative Pills.”

Through the years I have collected a number of pre-Prohibition postcards that use the same mantra -- “Comin’ Thro'’ the Rye” -- referring to liquor. Rye whiskey themes show up frequently citing Burn’s lyric and in related guises. The first example is of a well-dressed gentleman with plaid trousers strolling through bottles, flagons and one barrel, all marked “rye.” From the plaid we can assume, I suppose, that he is a Scot.

A very similar image follows. This time the gent is smoking a cigar and from the cut of his jaw the individual is Irish and, under the circumstances, clearly someone who imbibes. The lineup of rye containers he is negotiating includes bottles, flagons and, in this case, two barrels.

In the next card, the barrels have taken the spotlight and the bottles are small. We apparently are looking at a distillery worker who has filled them and is taking them off for sale -- or something. A very similar image was provided by a leather postcard. For a time in the early 1900s leather was a very popular medium for sending images through the mails.

The subsequent card continues the theme. Here the barrels are open and the worker, or a very thirsty person, has by chance or luck fallen into one. In the following card a gent with a top hat has emerged from a barrel of rye whiskey proclaiming that he “arrived here in good spirits.” This card also was tooled on leather.

In the final example, a gent in a vest is resting on a cushion, back to a barrel and sucking from it on a nursing nipple. The container is marked “Fine Old Rye.” Next to him is another cushion and “reserved” nipple. The message is: “I’m saving some for you -- Come on around.”

Rye whiskey cards were fairly common prior to Prohibition. Their frequency was indicative of the strong popularity of that form of spirits for much of the Nation’s history. The fall of rye in popularity with the drinking public since Repeal and the ascendancy of bourbon has been laid to many causes. My own view is that it was not so much the changing taste of the American drinking public as the identification of “rye” with an inferior kind of liquor sold in speakeasies during Prohibition.

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