Friday, September 2, 2011

A New Find: Diamond Club Rye

One of the more rewarding aspects of this blog, herein marking its 75th posting, is the response from readers who “stumble on it” while researching collectible items on the Internet and send me emails about them, often with pictures attached. One such reader was Greg Johnson of Minneapolis who sent me the picture of a transfer printed mug, shown here. It was one that I had never seen before. Its provenance was revealed from the bottle from which two men, a farmer and a banker, were drinking. This clearly was the handiwork of George W. Meredith.

George’s story begins in Utica, New York, where he was born in April 1850, the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Meredith. Not long after the family moved to Trenton, New Jersey In 1852, the father died. Mother soon followed him to the grave, leaving George a orphan from boyhood. The youth soon abandoned school to learn a trade as a potter and in 1877 moved to East Liverpool, Ohio.

During the late 19th and early 20th Century this town on the Ohio River was America’s largest producer of ceramic table and vanity wares. Known widely as “Crockery City,” in 1887 East Liverpool boasted 270 kilns and annually produced ceramic products valued at $25 million -- in a time when 25 cents would buy dinner. The largest pottery in town was KT&K -- Knowles, Taylor & Knowles, founded in 1854.

After a year working for a small pottery operation, Meredith in 1878 joined KT&K, working in one of the lowlier jobs -- as a jiggerman. This was the relatively unskilled the laborer who turned the potter’s wheel to shape the clay. But the occupation did not suit him and may even have injured his health. After a little more than two years he left the factory, ostensibly on his doctor’s recommendation.

Almost immediately this 30-year-old determined that a far better occupation was making and selling whiskey. The late 19th century was a time when saloons were opening in every city and town. They did not lack for customers. Lots of folks were going into the whiskey business, many as rectifiers -- operations that refined and blended liquors made by others. Meredith was a rectifier. He rented a storeroom in downtown East Liverpool and with one employee began buying grain neutral spirits in large quantities and blending his own brands, adding color and flavoring.

It soon became clear that despite his lack of book learning, Meredith had a real genius for marketing whiskey. Early on, for example, he called his principal brand “Meredith’s Diamond Club Rye.” Diamond Club was the name of East Liverpool’s most prestigious grouping of businessmen. It took lots of nerve for Meredith to associate his liquor with the club and his use of the name raised considerable ruckus around town. Before long, however, Diamond Club whiskey was a big seller, not only in East Liverpool, but in Ohio, and eventually across America. In time the businessmen’s club itself surrendered and changed its name to “Buckeye Club.”

Key to the popularity of his whiskey were Meredith’s advertising campaigns. His signs were painted on barn sides and rock outcroppings for miles around East Liverpool. He maintained a boat that was moored on the Ohio River and carried a mural advertising his products. One hot August day he even distributed hand fans to Temperance marchers that had an plug for his whiskey printed on the back.

Meredith’s knack for publicity was matched by the themes of his advertising. His newspaper ads and container labels insisted that the whiskey was “pure,” once again exhibiting his merchandising savvy. The hottest consumer issue of the decade was the safety of merchandised food and drink products. The Pure Food and Drug Act would be enacted a several years later and “purity” had the same draw as “all natural” does today. Diamond Club’s purity, Meredith announced, made it “the safest whiskey on earth” for medical purposes. He claimed that one “nip” was worth 10 doses of medicine and boasted that his liquor had been “officially recognized” by the medical profession. How and where, he did not elaborate.

By stressing his whiskey’s therapeutic rather than its lubricating qualities Meredith also was attempting to circumvent the burgeoning Temperance Movement. The business of selling “the safest whiskey on earth for medicinal use” expanded rapidly. Within a decade Meredith was one of North America’s largest whiskey distributors, serving a clientele, as he put it, “from Maine to California and Canada to the Gulf.”

This canny, self-promoting businessman also saw the customer appeal that bottling his whiskey in a whiteware china jug might have. He talked his former employers at KT&K into shaping a distinctive container, one with a graceful tapering body, a serpent handle, a fancy over-glaze label and plenty of gold trimming. On April 4, 1891, the East Liverpool DAILY CRISIS ran an ad stating: “The G.W. Meredith Co. is offering its Diamond Club Pure Rye Whiskey in china jugs that will come in three sizes.” The KT&K whiskey jug was launched -- every one of the bearing the message: “Expressly for Medicinal Purposes.” He also approved a striking design for an “1880” Meredith Rye.

As Meredith grew in wealth and prestige, he branched out in East Liverpool, organizing and becoming principal stockholder in the Crockery City Brewing & Ice Company. He also helped found and later became the president of The Colonial Company, a pottery with six kilns. Greg Johnson’s mug bears the Colonial mark, as does a Meredith stein bearing three monks, also shown here.

The town Meredith had adopted as his own ultimately disappointed him. In 1907 the Temperance marchers had their way when East Liverpool by local option voted itself dry.
He retaliated by eliminating the town name from his bottles and jugs and in 1908 moved his whiskey operations to Pittsburgh. After National Prohibition wiped out his liquor business there in 1920, Meredith migrated to Atlantic City, N.J., where he is said to have made another fortune in real estate. He also bottled a soft drink called “Whistle,” an orange-flavored beverage that had been invented in St. Louis just as Prohibition began. He died in Atlantic City in 1924 at the age of 74.

Meredith’s legacy is in the many advertising artifacts he left behind, ranging from a tiny watch fob in the shape of a jug to a giant ornate lamp stand. Greg Johnson’s recent find of the Diamond Club mug is a strong reminder of the genius of this pre-Prohibition whiskey man.

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