Sunday, November 25, 2012

Flying High on French Ceramic

The National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, shown here, is a huge facility, capable of holding the “Discovery”  space shuttle and dozens of other large aircraft.  But on a recent visit there,  it was among the smallest exhibits that took my eye.  They were French fiance plates and tiles celebrating the invention of the ascension balloon (“le ballon” in French).  Combining my fascinations with both flight and ceramics,  I photographed a number of them for display on this blog.

To quote a museum curator, Tom Crouch:  “The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt. Enormous crowds gathered in Paris to watch one balloon after another rise above the city rooftops, carrying the first human beings into the air in the closing months of 1783.”   He  added that the balloon sparked new fashion trends and inspired new fads and products. They included dishware and tiles in balloon motifs.

The plates also provide a kind of history of flight.  The first plate shown here celebrates what may have been the first science fiction written in English.   It was  Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moon,  published in 1638.  The novel tells the story of Domingo Gonsales, a Spaniard who flies to the moon by geese power and encounters an advanced lunar civilization.  Godwin’s book had an significant impact on the European imagination for centuries after its initial publication.

Like the first plate,  the next one provides a fanciful look at flight. It celebrates the ideas of an Italian monk named Francesco Lana de Terzi.  In 1670 he proposed flight through a flying boat that would be carried aloft by a vacuum balloon.  It was a hypothetical airship that would be evacuated rather than filled with a lighter than air gas such as hydrogen or helium. The main problem with the concept of a vacuum airship, however, is that with a near-vacuum inside the airbag, the outside pressure would exert enormous forces on the bag and cause it to collapse if not strongly supported.  Adding the required supports increases the weight exceeding the total lift capacity of the balloon.

The following plate, “Navite aerion 1781,” depicts another fanciful suggestion for flight.  In this one the pilot rotates four giant fans with the means of hand-powered levers.   This contraption imagined even lifting a passenger.  Even today mankind has not figured out how to lift an aircraft off the ground using only person-power, although plenty of attempts have been made.

The fourth plate celebrates the balloon ascension that galvanized Europe.   Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, paper mill owners, built a large paper-lined silk balloon and held a flame near the opening at the bottom. The bag expanded with hot air and floated upward.  They demonstrated it on June 4, 1783, tethered and with an empty basket.  About three months later a Montgolfier balloon carrying a sheep, a rooster and a duck flew for eight minutes in front of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the French court.   Less than a month later, an untethered balloon carrying two men, one of them Pilatre de Rozier, became the first balloon to carry human passengers.

De Rozier would go on to become one of France’s most famous balloonists.  A chemist by occupation, he also undertook experiments in physics, researching the new field of gases and even invented a respirator.  Ballooning became his passion and in future months he set records for speed, altitude and distance.   In 1875, with a companion, De Rozier attempted to cross the English Channel in a balloon that used both hydrogen and hot air.  Setting off from Boulogne,  the balloon almost immediately was blown back,  suddenly deflated and crashed, killing both de Rozier and his passenger.

Pierre Testu-Brissy,  celebrated on the next plate,  like De Rozier,  was a scientist.  He made his first balloon ascent in 1785, and the first night ascent on June 18, 1786, this time in a hydrogen balloon. He made the world's first electrical observations on that date, , as he ascended into thunderclouds.  Testu-Brissy  undertook more than 50 flights in his lifetime, including the first ascent on horseback on October 16, 1798 from Bellevue Park in Paris. He and his horse made a number of subsequent flights.

The next plate celebrates √Čtienne-Gaspard Robert (1763–1837), often known by the stage name of "Robertson.”   He was a prominent Belgian stage magician. Charles Dickens once described him as "an honorable and well-educated showman.”  Alongside his pioneering work on projection techniques for his shows Robert was also a physics lecturer and a celebrated balloonist at this time of great development in lighter-than-air craft.  In 1806 an audience of 50,000, including the Danish royal family, gathered at Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen, to see Robertson and his balloon. He flew about twenty miles before landing safely – a remarkable feat for the time.

These are just a few of the ceramics in the Udvar-Hazy Museum.  There are also French cups and saucers, vases and tiles celebrating the early attempts at flight.  They so stimulated my interest that I bought a tile to sit on my desk that features the word “Le Ballon.”   A reproduction from an old book or magazine, the tile depicts an advertisement for the Paris aeronautical journal of that name from about 1883.  It illustrates various means of flight, including some real, some fanciful.

The last illustration here also is from a French source.  Although the French took their ballooning very seriously,  they could also see humor in the efforts,  such as this gentleman voyaging to the moon via balloons and pedal power.   Interestingly, current efforts at manpowered flight also center around peddling a bicycle-like contraption.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

New Find: A Third “Minnehaha” Whiskey Jug

After more than 30 years tracking “fancy” American whiskey jugs, I seldom see anything new and startling.   Last month, however,  a pre-Prohibition whiskey ceramic was put for auction on eBay that I had never seen before. Shown here, it bears the name “Minnehaha - Laughing Waters.”   It bears a the cobalt blue underglaze transfer design of a Indian brave in a canoe attacking a sea serpent with a bow and arrow,  while a European gentleman lies prone at his side.

The jug is one of three different jugs bearing the Minnehaha name and an elaborate monogram on the back for the issuing company,  Martindale & Johnson of Philadelphia.  According to reports, this was a grocery firm, founded about 1869.   A letterhead from 1883 shows the proprietors as Thomas C. Martindale and William Johnston.  They are billed as “Importers, Grocers, Wine and Spirits Merchants.”  Their trade card emphases dealing in California-origin merchandise.

None of this explains why the firm saw fit to issue three of the most highly sought ceramic whiskeys extant today.   In addition to the first jug shown,  the grocers issued two others,    One features an Indian maiden sitting near a waterfalls. It comes in two versions. In one  the title is the same as on the new find and the illustration is in a crisp dark cobalt. In the second “Laughing Waters” is missing and the cartoon is lighter blue and lacks strong definition. This jug also is found in a sepia brown.

The third jug has nothing to do with Native Americans.  It appears to depict two small birds amidst a floral background looking intently on the ground.   On further inspection it would seem that the birds are on an elaborate Victorian stage and illuminated by rows of footlights. The jug comes in a sepia brown.   Like the others it bears the elaborate M&J monogram at the back.  Like the new find, this jug is quite rare and although I once owned one, I have seen no more than three or four over time.

The name “Minnehaha” is derived from the poem by Henry Longfellow called “Song of Hiawatha.”  It is a long epic tale about an Indian brave who does many heroic deeds to assist his tribe.  It was staple reading in American schools for decades and the characters would have been familiar to most people of the 19th and early 20th Century. We should assume that the Indian shooting the serpent is Hiawatha.   Minnehaha was his sweetheart.  

This Indian brave frequently was depicted with a bow and arrow.  Seen here is the front cover of the Longfellow poem, illustrated by the famous American artist of the West, Frederick Remington.  Hiawatha is shown taking aim at a deer that lies ahead of him in the forest.  Not a sea serpent in sight.  In fact, although I have scoured the poem from stem to stern,  I cannot find any reference to Hiawatha besting a sea serpent.  And white men arrive in the poem only at the very end and with little attention.  The encounter depicted on the jug appears to have been the concoction of the artist, identity unknown.

Still to be determined was why Martindale & Johnson would go to such lengths to put their whiskey in such attractive, and probably expensive,  containers.  The answer may lie with Thomas Martindale.   He was a somewhat flamboyant character.  Born in England, he was brought to the United States with his family when he was eight years old.   In his lifetime he amassed a considerable fortune, much of it from selling whiskey.  His fascination with Hiawatha may lie in his passion for hunting, as evidenced from the trophies on display in his home.   The photo shown here is from about 1900.   When Martindale died in 1916, he was on a trip in Alaska,  likely hunting big game.

The newly found Minnehaha was purchased for $811 on eBay October 6.  It was close to a record for an American whiskey ceramic.   When the jug sold I had a strong suspicion that the ultimate buyer was a collector based in the Southwest U.S., who is a longtime acquaintance.  Before I could check, this individual emailed me out of the blue, “ just to see how I was faring.”  It immediately suggested to me that he had been the high bidder and I replied to ask him.  He confirmed the sale.

Even though most fancy whiskey jugs don’t bring exalted prices,  I think this collector got a bargain.   Not only is the transfer cartoon attractive and well executed,  the jug is in reasonable shape for its age, with just a few dings.  Moreover, it is a true rarity; as far as I know it is the first jug of its kind to emerge for public sale in more than three decades. 


Friday, September 28, 2012

Shoes Preserved Under Glass

As noted in prior posts,  certain industries and trades of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries made particular use of the glass paperweights as a means of advertising their merchandise.   Among them were steamships,  newspapers, funeral homes, automobiles, soft drink makers,  and the subject of this post:  shoe manufacturers.   These artifacts give us an enduring look at the shoe styles of yesteryear.

The women of the mid-to late 1900s now could buy their shoes through the growing number of department stores and other retail outlets.  While getting one feet shod by the local cobbler may have persisted in some quarters, for most Americans,  shoe were, as they said, “store bought.”

Women were accustomed to squashing their feet in tight shoes.  Their footwear buttoned at the side -- usually with help of a button hook --  had pointed toes and very high but somewhat blocky heels.   The Intervale Manufacturing Company of Haverhill, Massachusetts,  founded in 1882, clearly was designing for that market.  It emphasized the “hand sewn” nature of its tops and buttons,  reflecting an emphasis on craftsmanship.

The W.H. Goodger & Company of Rochester, New York,  displayed a similar lady’s button down shoe on its paperweight.   Its line was called “Famous Shoes” and the particular model “La Belle,”  illustrated by depicting a bell.   The Goodger folks also provided customers with a motto:   “No how cheap but how good.”  My assumption is that if  “La Wife”  wanted “La Belle,” it could be expensive.

The following weight shows a formal man’s shoe.  As we see here,  shoes for men were mostly over the ankle boots.  Toe cap, lace up boots in black, gray, or brown were the most common for everyday wear. Formal occasions called for formal boots with white uppers (spat style), they could be buttoned or, as the one shown here, laced.  This weight was made by the Graeser Mfg. Co. of Pittsburgh for V. Schoeneck Boot & Shoe Co. of Milwaukee, a city which once boasted at least a dozen shoe manufacturers.

Like Goodger,  the John Heckel Company was a Rochester, New York, manufacturer.  Heckel did not make the shoes, he made the steel shank that underlay the foot.  As he showed in his paperweight,  the steel shank kept the foot well supported while a shoe without his 1893 patented device apparently could lead to fallen arches.   Although this weight is not marked it looks was made by the Abrams Paper Weight Co., of Pittsburgh and other cities.

The Heywood Boot & Shoe Company for many years was one of America’s most successful.  Tracing its origins in Worchester, Massachusetts, back to the Civil War era (e.g. 1964),  the company featured an oxford toe, laced over the ankle man’s shoe,  a type that became popular in the late 1900s.  Among the company slogans was:  “Outside your foot steps in style, inside our footprint in leather.”   Making good shoes and advertising widely,  the Heywood Company survived two World Wars and the Great Depression, going out of business in 1953 due undoubtedly to foreign competition.

A similar shoe, only partly laced, was the product of the Dorsch Shoe Company.  Its paper weight tells us that it was located next the Engine House but neglects to tell us in what city.  In reality it was located in Newark, New Jersey.   Known as the makers of “The Bull Dog” shoe line,  the firm probably issued this weight about 1908.

Information about the origins of the Streng & Thalheimer firm are scanty.  They were a Louisville, Kentucky, outfit who claimed to be both manufacturers and jobbers (e.g. middle men) in the shoe trade.  Two brands are advertised on the weight,  “Squire Carter’s Glace” calf shoe and “Dr. Palmer’s XXXX” calf shoe.

It was rare for a woman’s name to be associated with a manufacturing enterprise in those days, but Mrs. A. R. King is prominently identified with the “The Kant Slip Shoe.”   Assuming she was an actual personage, she made her footwear in Lynn, Massachusetts, specializing in a low woman’s button shoe with a rubber bottom.   Her weight was a marked Abrams product, this one bearing a Mystic, Connecticut, address.

Although the next paper weight mentions a Rochester, New York, distributor, the manufacturer was Goodyear’s Rubber Glove Company, located in Connecticut.  As the story goes, the first vulcanized rubber overshoe was made in a factory in Naugatuck.  The daughter of inventor Charles Goodyear demonstrated the process for a group of highly impressed investors in 1843 and manufacturing began shortly after under a license granted by Mr. Goodyear.

Eventually there were four rubber companies in Naugatuck.  Goodyear himself invested in a company that moved from Litchfield, Connecticut, to Naugatuck and changed its name to the the one shown here.  In addition to the traditional rubber galoshes and boots, this firm manufactured rubber gloves for telegraph linemen.

The most colorful weight has been left for last.  It was issued by the Gray Bros. Manufacturing Company of Syracuse,  New York.  It shows a the white tip of a elegant example of footwear.  It seems far from the ordinary shoe.  My guess is that it was an opera boot, dress pump, or dancing slipper that readily would have been recognized by the women of the era.

There they are, ten glass paperweights, each one providing a glimpse at  what people walked around in a century or more ago.  A hundred years  from now I wonder:  Will future generations be just as astonished about a $600 pair of sneakers in our day as we are that our ancestors could pay as little as $3.50 for a Dorsch shoe?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Kids Selling Whiskey II

A 21st Century mentality has a hard time grasping the idea that in the 19th and early 20th Century it was perfectly fine to advertise and sell whiskey by using images of children.  I first explored this phenomenon in this blog in March of 2010.   Subsequently a number of other whiskey ads, trade cards and signs featuring youngsters have come to my attention, occasioning this second look at kids selling whiskey.

The youngest child to be present is a photograph of a tot,  presumably a boy,  standing at a table on which sits a jug from the Edgewood Distilling Company of Cincinnati.   Cincinnati directories indicate that the A.G. Diehl Company,  had merged with the Paxton Brothers Co. to create Edgewood Distilling. The business relationships between Diehl and the Paxton Brothers began as early as 1874 when A.G. Diehl & Co.  Wines and Liquors,  occupied a location at 32 East Second Street in the Queen City.   A separate listing for the same address lists Paxton & Diehl,  Distillers.   From 1875 to 1877 the firm name became Diehl & Paxton Brothers,  to be changed to Paxton Bros. & Co., Distillers, from 1878 to 1883.  Finally in 1887 the business became Edgewood Distilling at the same East Second Street address.  The company moved its business office after 1891 to several locations on Main Street and finally in 1906 to its last address at 417-419 Elm Street.   The actual distillery was located in Lincoln County KY.  The firm disappeared from Cincinnati directories after 1918,  an apparent casualty of National Prohibition.

The jug on the table is its own story.  It was manufactured by the Fulper Pottery of Flemington, New Jersey, which sold ceramic whiskey containers as “fancy jugs” and were  used by distillers and dealers nationwide.

The next tots are almost as young as the first, but not too young to be doing some inter-gender smooching.  The Willard Distilling Company almost certainly were not distillers and probably not “rectifiers,”  (i.e. blenders of whiskey) but more likely wholesale distributors and dealers.  Nonetheless, their amorous kids made a statement with their “soul kiss.”

The “Old Forrester” trade card ushers in a series of whiskey ads featuring children and animals.  The first shows a precious little lass is leading a equally precious little lamb.  What could be more appropriate for selling whiskey?  This was a brand from the Vogt-Applegate Company of Louisville, Kentucky.  The Applegates were a prominent Kentucky family whose leader,  Colonel C. L. Applegate,  would sell you four quarts of his whiskey for $3.00.

The following trade card also features a youngster, well dressed in breeches and a feathered cap,  advertising J.S. Stone Old Bourbon Whiskey which, we are assured, is “chemically pure.”  He is accompanied by two doves, neither of which could have laid the giant egg the boy seems to be rolling.   This whiskey was the product of Holden & Clay, a Boston based liquor store that shows up in city directories in 1891 and not afterward.

Fernberger Bros. at 1230 Market Street in Philadelphia advertised their “pure old rye whisky” with another youth.  In his case, the doves have been replaced by an owl with a knowing look.  Perhaps the look reflects the claim that for $3 one can get a gallon of the Fernberger’s product and, it is claimed, a libation of equal quality would cost at least $4.  As Prohibition closed in, many whiskey outfits claimed that their product was only for “family and medicinal use,”  not to be imbibed in those awful saloons.  The Fernbergers were in business from 1871 until 1902.

Our last child-animal association is considerably less benign than the earlier ones.  Here a youth, whose gun has been laid aside, confronts a bear and seemingly is reduced to prayer as a response to the apparent threat.   This was a trade card for “Golden Horseshoe”  rye whiskey, at $1 a bottle.  It was sold by Max D. Stern at his 49 Whitehall Street address in New York City.  Stern was a whiskey wholesaler with three locations.   He claimed that his booze “aids digestion & strengthens the constitution.”   He does not, however, say how it assists in being eaten by a bear.

At the age of 28, Oscar Good bought an existing distillery in his native Franklin County.  He improved it to include a three-story stone distillery building with a water tank on an attached frame shed at the side and a tall active smoke stack.  Behind the distillery were the slopes of the Blue Mountains, a beautiful low Appalachian range that extends for more than 100 miles through the southern Pennsylvania countryside, an bucolic area that attracted a modest tourist trade.

Good’s flagship label was “Blue Mountain Rye.” The brand was featured on a colorful trade card of a winsome lad carrying a flowering branch and a basket.  The reverse side declared:  “These whiskies are pure, distilled from clean grain, and soft mountain water, which seems to be the secret of making fine whiskies.  I will give one hundred dollars if any person finds adulterations of any kind in my whiskies from the time I commence mashing the grain until I dispose of them.”    Good also asserted that his whiskeys had no unpleasant aftertaste.  He further suggested it could be served to hired hands at harvest time.

The next trade card features two little girls, one with a doll and the other with a quill pen and a writing desk advertises “Stonewall Whiskey.”   This was a brand from Charles Rebstock & Co. of St. Louis whose whiskey dealership survived from 1871 until 1918.  Rebstock’s flagship label was “Stonewall,” which he registered with the federal government in 1874.  His ads said of this whiskey:  “It makes people happy and wealthy.”  It was also touted as “America’s Finest Whiskey” and “Perfection.

In 1914, after 24 profitable years on Main St. in St. Louis,  Rebstock moved to 200 S. First Street and eventually shut down as Prohibition approached.  Now 74 years old and apparently without immediate heirs,  this wealthy whiskey man began to look for likely place to practice philanthropy.   The Journal of the American Medical Assn. reported in 1922 that Rebstock had purchased the Wintersteiner Collection of 13,000 microscopic preparations of pathologic changes of the eye and contributed them to the St. Louis (Medical) University.  The collection was said to be the most complete in Europe and was to be used for graduate instruction in opthamology.

The calendar depicting two barefoot “Huck Finn” type boys was from the Utah Liquor Company, a  most interesting whiskey dealership.  The company was formed in 1898 Salt Lake City and its  owner, Jake Bergerman, literally sold whiskey in the heart of Mormon Land. Early on, for example, he issued a metal token good for 12&1/2 cents in trade at the Utah Liquor Co. that had an image of the Mormon Tabernacle on the reverse.  His annual calendars could  be found far and wide among the Utah drinking population.

Our last example is from California, a sign promoting the whiskey and wines of the Theodore Gier Company. It depicts four lovely young girls with a dog hauling their wagon. After having been in the U.S. for only a year, Gier set up a grocery store in Oakland that proved successful.  With those profits, he established a retail and wholesale company to sell liquor.  That money he used to begin vineyards and to make prime wines.  When Prohibition arrived, he attempted to continue selling wine, was caught, fined heavily and his property confiscated.  He died broke.

Here we have 10 pre-Prohibition images of children being employed to sell whiskey,  While the notion of such merchandising seems out of bounds today,  at an earlier time it was  common and accepted by the drinking public.  With the coming of National Prohibition in 1920 all such advertising ceased and by 1934 when it resumed the use of children to push whiskey had become anathema. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Centennial Post: Odyssey of a Collector

Almost unbelievably, this is my 100th post for the blog I began in 2009, called Bottles, Booze and Back Stories.   Over ensuing months,  I have tried to keep the presentations varied, in accord with the subtext,  “A blog about more things than you can shake a stick at.”  For this centennial post,  I have decided to address my journey through a lifetime of collecting.

Like many youngsters in the 1940s and 1950s,  I started by collecting postage stamps.  President Franklin Roosevelt was a stamp collector and the hobby was highly popular.  For a kid it put you in touch with foreign countries and images that stretched the imagination.  My interest extended into the early 1960s when I worked across the street from a Gimbel’s Department Store in Milwaukee that featured a large stamp department.  My particular interest was in stamps featuring American Presidents,  including FDR and, after his death, John Kennedy.

By the 1970s, my interest in postage stamps had waned and I began selling off the foreign stamps and using the U.S. stamps on mail.  About the same time, my interest soared for collecting first editions of the American author, Sherwood Anderson.   I had done my master’s thesis on Anderson,  was communicating with his widow, and contemplated writing a book about him.  My long-suffering bride endured a New York City honeymoon during which we spent much of our time pawing through the dust of used book stores trolling for Anderson’s works.

In the mid-1990s I drove the Anderson volumes to Milwaukee and donated them to the rare book section of the library at Marquette University, the school where I had first become acquainted with the American author.  The university did me the kindness of issuing a press release about my contribution and, for a while, putting the books on display.  I took a tax deduction.

Meanwhile a new collecting passion had emerged.  While visiting Jakarta Indonesia on a business trip in 1978,  I was taken to Jalan Surabaya,  a street  with a giant open air flea market where artifacts from around the world are sold.  There I found three highly decorated British whiskey jugs, like nothing I had ever seen before.  For US$100 I bought them all and was able to ship them, undamaged, back to my home.

That triggered a passion for whiskey jugs, both American and British, that lasted for some two decades.  During that time I amassed a group of several hundred, large and small.  It also launched my writings on jugs, bottles and other collectibles that now exceed 400 articles in magazines and newsletters in the U.S., Britain, Australia and Canada and include three self-published books.

By the late 1990’s the whiskey jugs seemed to be crowding my wife and me out of the house. Subsequently, in three auctions I sold off, and profitably so, the “high end” British and American jugs.  Other items were sold at bottle shows.  More recently, I contributed  80 less valuable whiskey ceramics to the Getz Whiskey Museum at Bardstown, Kentucky, which has been very gracious about the gift.

As the process of devolving the whiskey jugs was proceeding,  I noted that a great many hillbilly ceramics had been issued as souvenirs during the period 1940-1970.  These artifacts were a product of automobile tourism made possible by the hardening of roadways, capped by the development of the interstate system.   The hillbilly was the last ethnic group that safely could be caricatured but even that era was ending.  As a result, I set out to collect as many ceramic hillbilly souvenirs as possible as expressions of Americana that were not likely to be replicated in the future.  The collection included pottery ashtrays, salt and peppers shakers, coffee mugs, plates, and jugs. Because they were common and inexpensive, I was able to amass some 100 hillbilly ceramics in the space of three years.

From the outset my purpose for this collection was eventually to give it to a museum or library.   Looking around for a suitable place to donate the items in 2005, I came across the Appalachian Life Museum at the University of North Carolina - Boonesboro.   The museum’s curator was fascinated,  drove to my Virginia home, and picked all but a few, and drove them back to North Carolina.  Although the museum later lost its space at the university,  my hillbillies remain in good hands.

After disposing of the whiskeys and the hillbillies I was searching for a new collection.  The objects had to be less space-filling than the whiskey jugs but something that would hold more interest than postage stamps.  They also had to be artifacts that were commonly being sold on internet sites like eBay. After much thought, beginning about  2006 I focussed on glass paperweights.  Because of my interest in the pre-Prohibition American whiskey industry, I largely have concentrated on U.S. weights that advertise liquor.   Right now, that collection numbers approximately 87 items, the majority of them from the pre-Prohibition era.  Because of their  modest size, paperweights can be stored easily.  Much of the present collection is housed in a six-drawer former thread cabinet that sits on the desk in my office.

Residual elements of all my former collections remain with me.  My U.S. Presidents stamps and a few others sit in albums in the basement. About two dozen whiskey jugs, old favorites, still decorate our family room.  Fourteen hillbilly items look down on me as I sit at my computer writing this 100th post.  Several of Sherwood Anderson’s books,  purchased after my gift to Marquette,  repose on a shelf behind me.

With advancing age I am coming to the end of the collecting road.  It has been an odyssey of almost 70 years to accumulate -- and often later to dispose of -- items of interest.  Each collection in its turn has expanded my knowledge and understanding as well provided  material for hundreds of articles.  Most of all, I suppose, my collecting has been a lot of fun.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Fig for Your Health!

Around the end of the 19th Century a series of hucksters, promising remedies for various ailments,  centered on the lowly fig as an elixir of great potency and healing.   Ironically, there is an traditional English saying about not giving or caring a fig about something.  The Oxford English Dictionary translates “fig” in that context as something “small, valueless or contemptible.”

Another, even older book, however, carries a different story. In the Old Testament of the Bible King Hezekiah, shown here, was very sick.  Apparently stricken with boils, he seemed near unto death and prayed for deliverance.  The answer came in the shape of the Prophet Isaiah who told Hezekiah to apply a bunch of fresh figs to his sores.  He complied and was completely healed.

That was the fig story captured by the nostrum peddlers.  Their sales pitch had nothing to do with boils,  but largely with constipation and other ills.  Figs are known to have a mild laxative effect and it was that quality that spawned the widespread sale of fig remedies.  Among the most notable was the “Syrup of Figs” produced by the California Fig Syrup Co. of San Francisco.  It came in labeled, embossed bottles that sold in drug stories across America at the not inconsiderable cost of a half dollar.

As shown here, this company advertised widely in national magazines, frequently featuring comely women to illustrate its product.   It claimed offices in Louisville, Kentucky;  New York City, and London, England.  Another advertising method was offering colorful lithographed tin signs to pharmacies stocking the syrup, again featuring a young lovely.  The California Fig Syrup Co. was not without its imitators.   Although figs are not native to Wisconsin, the Andrews Drug and Chemical Co. of Drillion had its own “Syrup of Figs.”  Its product claimed to cure “many ills arising from an weak or inactive condition of the stomach, bowels, kidneys and liver.”

In the wake of the Food and Drugs Act of 1906,  health authorities targeted the fig remedies.  The American Medical Association (AMA) Journal wrote:  “Syrup of Figs is a laxative whose chief advertising asset is its name.” It continued that any purging action was due to the presence in the mix of 25%  senna, a tropical herb with well-recognized laxative effects. The AMA also noted that the syrup was 6% alcohol, about the potency of beer.  Eventually Federal officials forced the fig syrup floggers to list senna and alcohol on the label.  In England, however, the product continued to be sold the old way.  California Fig Syrup Co. simply prepared two different boxes and labels.

None of this meant much to Fridolin Madlener.  He was a Chicago liquor blender and wholesaler.   Seizing on the popularity of fig remedies, he melded fig syrup with the rye whiskey he was mixing up in the back room and, eureka, Fig Rye was born.

Madlener was not content with merchandising Fig Rye as  a laxative.  His advertising touted it  as “an ideal health whiskey.”  Ordinary whiskey, he claimed, was distilled totally from grains and “destroys the lining of the stomach, makes the liver hard as a rock, and causes disease of the kidneys.”   By contrast,  Fig Rye neutralized all those bad effects and was recommended for “the dyspeptic, the consumptive, the debilitated, the weak....”   According to one Madlener ad,  Fig Rye was used in 1,500 hospitals across America and prescribed daily by thousands of doctors.

After Fridolin’s death in 1897, his son Albert continued to promote Fig Rye vigorously. The firm advertised in national magazines and sold it by mail all across America. One Madlener ad claimed that 100,000 bottles were sold annually.  On the strength of its profits Albert commissioned the construction of a grand new house in Chicago’s Gold Coast.  Currently on the National Register of Historic Homes, the mansion can be characterized as “the house Fig Rye built.”

Because whiskey was not subject to the labeling requirements of the Food and Drug Act,  The AMA and the Federal food police could not lay a hand on the Chicago-based company.   The coming of Prohibition, however, did spell a finish to Fig Rye.   Fridolin Madlener,  the man who gave the world Fig Rye, is buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.  His grave lays beneath a huge monument bearing the family name and ornamentation that looks, at least to me, like hanging bunches of figs.