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.

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