Friday, October 21, 2011

Andrew Clemens: He Found a Voice in Sand

Among American folk artists the work of Andrew Clemens stands out as an amazing story of creativity while working under severe handicaps. Clemons, shown here, was born in 1852 in McGregor, Iowa. As the result of a severe illness at the age of five, diagnosed as “brain fever,” he was rendered deaf and mute for the rest of his life.

At age 13 Clemens was sent to the Iowa State School of for the Deaf and Dumb in Council Bluffs. The school was located in along the drainage of the Bridal Veil Falls near an area of exposed cliffs called “Pictured Rocks.” The sandstone exposed there has acquired a variety of colors from the minerals that have seeped from overhanging rocks and permeated the sandstone.

Clemens saw these sands as an outlet for his artistic talents. As one guide to his work explains it: “Clemens collected the sand from ‘Pictured Rocks’ and allowed the sand to dry. He separated the dry sand into piles of uniform grains of each color. These naturally colored grains formed the basis for Clemens’ sand paintings. To create his sand paintings, Clemens used only a few tools: brushes made from hickory sticks, a curved fish hook stick, and a tiny tin scoop to hold sand.” His simple tools are shown here.

Selecting the appropriate color, he tediously inserted the sand using the fish hook stick, grain by grain, into empty apothecary bottles, The brushes helped keep the picture straight. No glue was used. The sand was held in place only by pressure from the sand layered on top of it. When the picture was finished and the bottle full, it was sealed with a stopper.

His sand paintings included both original designs and reproductions of other images. Some, as three shown here, were created from bottom to top. Some had separate pictures on back and front. Even more amazing were those bottles that required he create his designs upside down. After completion these were sealed, turned over, and stood up on their openings. Few better uses have been found for empty bottles.

Clemens sold his creations in a McGregor grocery store. A small bottle was $1; more elaborate creations might go for as much as $8. He established a customer base among both locals and travelers looking for unusual souvenirs. It is estimated that during his brief lifetime, Andrew created hundreds of sand art bottles of which only about 50 are estimated to have survived. He is said to have created most of them in the six years between 1880 to 1886. Today they can fetch as much as $30,000 at auction. A number are in museums.

Clemens' efforts have never been duplicated. He both invented the art form and is likely its sole practitioner. I have seen sand paintings by American Indians, South Asian holy men, and folk artists. None can compare with the beauty and ingenuity of the designs this artist produced. Thus it is with a certain poignancy that we contemplate the label that was attached to the bottom each sand painting: “Put up by A. Clemens, Deaf Mute.”

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Enlisting Uncle Sam to Sell Booze

In the pre-Prohibition era, it was not unusual for distillers and dealers to conscript the familiar figure of Uncle Sam to merchandise their whiskeys. Shown here are eight examples of trade cards and newspaper ads exploiting the old gentleman’s image in the cause of selling liquor.

There was a good reason to enlist Sam: In 1897 after a Congressional investigation uncovered massive counterfeiting and adulteration of whiskey nationwide, the Bottle in Bond Act was passed and signed into law by President Grover Cleveland. It permitted the marketing of whiskey that would be sealed in bonded warehouses and and sold under proprietary names with a guarantee of integrity from the United States Government.

“Bottled in bond” or “bonded” whiskey was (and still is) whiskey that was produced according to the guidelines set forth in this more-than-century-old statute. The requirements are: 1) whiskey must be stored in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years before bottling; 2) it must be legally defined straight whiskey and distilled in a single season by a single distillery, and 3) it must be bottled at one hundred proof (50% alcohol).

The government then certifies that the whiskey was bottled at this proof; it also vouches for the aging period. The federal guarantee is symbolized by sealing the whiskey with a green strip stamp on each bottle. In exchange for meeting all these requirements, distillers do not pay taxes on their whiskey until it is bottled and removed from the warehouse for sale. Treasury agents are assigned to distillery warehouses to insure the rules are followed.

In a day when trust in government ran higher than today, the federal guarantee was seen as something to be exploited in merchandising by canny whiskey men. How better to take advantage of “bottled-in-bond” than by appropriating the national symbol?

The W.H. McBrayer trade card depicts the situation in vivid colors. Uncle Sam stands in front of a bonded warehouse, key in hand, as workers withdraw crates of Cedar Brook Hand Made Sour Mash Whiskey. A second Cedar Brook ad has the old gent and his key riding a flying bottle of whiskey and the motto: “Way above everything on earth.” This Lawrenceville, Kentucky, distillery was founded in the late 19th Century by Judge W. H. McBrayer. After his death in 1887, the Judge’s estate went to his grandchildren and their father, D. L. Moore, ran the distillery. The Kentucky Whiskey Trust bought the plant about 1900 and under various managements continued production until Prohibition.

A trade card from the Thompson Straight Whiskey Co. of Louisville, shows us Uncle Sam “Catching the Fakir.” He is peeking through a door leading to a workroom in which a whiskey “rectifier” is pouring a number of suspicious ingredients, represented by bottles on the wall, into a stoneware container. The inference is that Sam will arrest the fakir. Thompson also tells us: “ Uncle Sam says: The Label must tell the truth so always read carefully the label.”

Thompson was in business from 1910 to 1918. The company used the brand names: "Country Club", "Forelock", "Lucky Stone", "Old Kentucky", "Old Medicinal Corn", "Old Mountain Corn", "Thompson Old Reserve", "Thompson Select", "Thompson Straight", "Very Old Special", and "White Bird Gin.”

Steinhart Bros. in an 1890s ad portray a distinguished looking Uncle Sam pointing to one of the many brands they featured as wholesale liquor dealers. It is “Roxbury Rye,” a Maryland-made whiskey of which they had purchased an entire years supply. This firm was highly successful and grew to have outlets in many sections of the Big Apple. Founded in 1872 Steinhardt Bros. succumbed with Prohibition.

The trade card of Uncle Sam holding some bottled-in-bond whiskey in glass containers with one hand and a wooden barrel with the other is presumably from the R. Mathewson Company of Chattanooga. Little appears in normal sources but my surmise is that this brand was produced by the Rufus Rose family of “Four Roses” fame during a brief period 1907-1910 when son Rudolph moved their distillery from Atlanta to Chattanooga. “ R. Mathewson” was Rufus’ first initial and middle name.

The Clarke Brothers, Charles and Chauncey, inherited a distillery business founded in 1862 by their father in Peoria, Illinois, After his death they incorporated the company under their own names. For a time following the passage of the Bottle in Bond Act, they claimed that their whiskey was distilled by the U.S. Government. Probably warned off that approach they subsequently featured Uncle Sam in their advertising, emphasizing, more factually, that the Feds had set a seal on every bottle.

The Turner-Look Co. of Cincinnati provided a list of the brands it sold in an 1897 ad, depicting the American flag and Sam with an umbrella. The text assures customers that quality is assured by “the Best Government on Earth.” This firm were wholesale dealers featuring a wide range of brands. Cincinnati directories indicate that they were in business from 1887 until 1918.

Although Guckenheimer ads often alluded to the bottled-in-bond character of their whiskey, in this one only Uncle Sam appears, holding a scale to demonstrate that Guckenheimer Pure Rye Whiskey has a balance of quality and purity. This Pittsburgh firm was founded by Asher Guckenheimer in 1857. His liquor became a leading national brand after winning top prize at the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago. Following his death family members carried on the business for several years after Prohibition until 1923.

The final example deviates from the mantra of “Uncle Sam guarantees whiskey quality.” The image advertises “Five Jacks” brand from I. Michelson & Bros. of Cincinnati. It is trying to make the point that their whiskey is one “for All Nations.” Uncle Sam is leading the way for Britain’s John Bull, others dressed in national clothing, and a donkey to try
it. This whiskey distributor and rectifier were in business from 1898 until 1918.

Today we are accustomed to seeing Uncle Sam represented in a number of poses, both commercial and patriotic. Since Prohibition, however, he has been strikingly absent from whiskey merchandising even though “bottled-in-bond” has continued unabated.