Sunday, December 15, 2013

Holiday Flasks and Spirits of the Season

From ancient times, the holiday season has been identified with the imbibing of alcoholic beverages.  It has nothing to do with the religious aspects of Christmas and everything to do with celebrating those two other occasions that come along about  the same time.  I refer to the Winter Solstice, when daylight slowly begins to return to the Northern Hemisphere and to the inauguration of the New Year.  Both events traditionally have involved considerable liquid celebration.

In the English-speaking world, the secular and religious aspects of the season have been conflated, it seems, almost since colonial times.  One historical expression was the Christmas flask, very popular in the Victorian era until about 1920 when National Prohibition shut down bibulous celebrations.   Nevertheless, these flasks are, in their own right,  interesting artifacts and worthy of attention, particularly at this time of the year.

These glass bottles typically held a substantial drink of rye whiskey (in the U.S.) or similar distilled spirits (U.S. and elsewhere).  They were given away to favored customers by distillers, wholesale liquor dealers, saloon keepers,  and even druggists, many of whom stocked whiskey for “medicinal” purposes.  Today the flasks are avidly collected and often displayed year ‘round and not just at the holidays.

My favorite holiday flasks are those illustrated by birds.  A particularly delightful one, shown here, depicted an avian singing on a branch of a blooming fruit tree.   I had identified it as a robin red breast when my wife, a master birder, walked in and said “nonsense.”  It appears to her to be a bluebird,  so I correct my identification.  Two other bird flasks shown here neither of us was able to identify the species or even the family. Probably an artist’s fancy.

All three were  label-under-glass (L-U-G) bottles, that is, the container was hand blown, probably in a mold, with a recessed area in the front.  Then the painted or lithographed image was placed into the recess, sometimes held by bee’s wax.  Then another very thin piece of separately prepared glass as very carefully put over the top of the image and glued. 

The process of creating these bottles obviously was tedious and time-consuming. Wages  for glassblowers and other workers at that time were very low.  As a result, glass houses could produce the bottles in great numbers at low cost and sell them cheaply to a wide range of organizations in the whiskey trade.  They in turn would fill them with no-name liquor and put their own identifying label on the back, not wanting to spoil the image on the front.  Usually these labels began with the words, “Compliments of....”  Almost without exception, Christmas flasks were never sold -- until today when they command healthy prices.

None of the following L-U-G flasks have labels identifying the benefactor.   These  have long ago been washed off, either by accident or on purpose.  Washing does not damage a label that is under glass.   With time, however, some spotting can occur on the glass-protected label, often by discoloration of the substances used to adhere the labels and glass cover.   Two shown below are often referred to as “union-shaped,” that is, a bottle that is a semi-oval, sloping symmetrically toward both the neck and the base.  The third is a straight-sided flask, the most common shape for this size whiskey flask.  Note that  all the examples feature a screw-type metal top.  Such a closure also could be conveniently used for having a quick “snort.”

John Hrobsky & Son obviated the problem of having their label washed off their Christmas  flask by including it under the glass label.   Their saloon was on Vliet Street on Milwaukee’s near North Side and not far from my Milwaukee residence of several years.  My favorite tavern on Vliet Street was the “Trails End Lodge.”  As a frequent customer during the 1950s I sometimes was given a bottle of egg nog preparation for the holidays, the special recipe of the owner, Mitzi.  Although the bottle in which it came was not special like Hrobsky’s, the egg nog was excellent.

Even less expensive for a giveaway than a L-U-G flask was buying a standard bottle and slapping on a personalized printed label   Those labels are much less likely to survive in their original mode than a protected one but on did on a flask from 1902-1903, shown here.   Proclaiming “Holiday Chimes” it was a standard label to which the distributor would overprint his name.  In this case it was Otto F. Lieders. My research has discovered that Mr. Lieders was described by a contemporary as “one of Buffalo’s most popular hotel men.”   No doubt giving away whiskey was a contributing factor to his popularity.

Timepieces such as pocket watches and alarm clocks also were frequently copied in glass for Christmas season figurals.  Our last example is molded from milk glass and featured gilded and letters and numerals.  Much of the gold has rubbed off the embossing over the years.  This flask celebrates the turn of the last century as 1899 turned into 1900.  The clock is set to a quarter to twelve midnight.  With such an interesting and unusual item it is disappointing that the issuing party cannot be unidentified.

Christmas flasks disappeared with the coming of National Prohibition in 1920.  When Repeal came only 14 years later,  the Congress passed elaborate new laws on how liquor was to be prepared, labeled, packaged and sold.  Among restrictions were those on giveaway items.  Liquor purveyors could sell their products in special containers for the holidays but they could not give them away.  Thus the tradition of the small Christmas flask was not resurrected.  Most examples,, including those shown here, either have reached the 100 year “antique” standard or soon will do so.

Note:  Thanks go to John R. Pastor, the publisher of the American Bottle & Glass Collector magazine and a collector himself of Christmas flasks.   Several of the images shown here are from his collection.  Moreover, by featuring Christmas flasks in his magazine recently, he gave me the impetus to devote a post to these artifacts and display images “in the spirit of the season” that I have collected in recent years.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

“Four Roses” and Tom Wesselmann

Still Life #2

One might think, looking at the first image here that it was an ad for the Four Roses brand of blended whiskey or possibly for Salem cigarettes, or both.  But no.  Instead it is a work of art called “Still Life #2.”  It is by the American artist, Tom Wesselmann, who like other artists of the 1950s and 1960s was reacting to postwar American consumerism by incorporating well recognized commercial products into his paintings.

In a work entitled “Still Life #2” Wesselmann featured as its major element the Four Roses bottle,  a very well recognized label, and placed it on a slanted table with a pear, ala Cezanne.  To the bottle he has added the cigarette pack, a plate of spaghetti and a bud vase with a flower.  Several of the objects, including the Four Roses bottle and the flowers, have been cut from magazines and pasted in the picture.  In the background is a wall that is blue at right and red flocked wallpaper at left topped by a window through which we view two men on horseback.

The still life has been a staple of artists almost since paint was invented.  Wesselmann sought to bring a new approach to an old genre by mixing various elements in a way to cause the observer to stop,
Still Life #3
study and contemplate what the artist is trying to convey.   An interplay among the various depictions of reality was a key element in Wesselmann’s artistry.   He believed that the juxtaposition of painted objects and paper collage in his artworks was important.  Their dialogue among them, he said:  “Helps establish a momentum throughout the picture... At first glance, my pictures seem well behaved, as if—that is a still life, OK. But these things have such crazy give-and-take that I feel they get really very wild.”

Unlike other artists previously featured in this blog, including Andy Warhol and A.D.M. Cooper, Wesselmann’s own life was not “very wild.”  Although Wesselmann became perhaps better known for his nudes than his still lifes, his own conduct through life was reasonably staid.  Born in 1931 in Cincinnati, Ohio, he served in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s and finished a degree in psychology in 1954, subsequently entering art studies at New York’s Cooper Union.  There he met Claire Seeley who became his model and future wife.

Never a struggling artist living in a Manhattan garret,  Wesselmann’s talent achieved early recognition.  He also was riding the “Pop Art” wave of the 1960s in which artists adopted and adapted elements of popular culture, particularly the culture of consumerism, into their works of art.   Although Wassermann rejected the label of “pop artist,” declaring that his purposes were different than theirs,  his still life series,  done during the 1960s, seemingly puts him firmly in that mode.  Like him, Pop artists were trying to get people to look at the world around them,  paying attention to everyday objects that might not normally be noticed.

Wesselmann perhaps went a step further than the usual Pop Art by his side by side representations of disparate objects and elements.  Given the name of this blog, I have concentrated on those paintings that incorporated bottles -- some of them containing whiskey or beer.  “Still Life #3” shown here repeats the Four Roses bottle but the message here seem more clear than Still Life #2. The artist just juxtaposed an American flag motif (including the table cloth) and a picture of George Washington
Still Life #20
against the whiskey bottle and a luscious sirloin steak.  Wassermann seems to be asking if the American revolution and ideals have involved down to just liquor and meat on the table.

The artist sets another table with bottles, this time Ballentine Ale (his home town Cincinnati brew) bottles, for “Still Life #20.”  This work is a real wooden cabinet above an actual sink.  The light can be turned on and off and the cabinet door opened and closed.  He has then painted and collaged other items, including reproducing an abstract painting by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1874-1944) whose paintings were spare in line and color but had caught the public fancy and were being reproduced widely on curtains, dresses and other fashion items.  Wesselmann often
Still Life #28
included reproductions of works by other artists in his still lives, apparently to demonstrate that art, once to be seen almost exclusively on museum walls, had joined the commercial world.

“Still Life #28” offers yet another view of the Ballentine beer bottles along with other familiar motifs including the slanted table and the pears.  This painting is dominated by a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.  As with Washington in Still Life #3, Wesselmann has painted this portrait himself rather than using collage.  Perhaps it is to be seen as his mark of respect for these two great American Presidents.  This still life incorporates a functioning television set, at this moment showing an auctioneer selling a bottle.  Created at the dawn of TV, Wesselmann seems to be asking whether people will be able to concentrate on static images once the moving screen came into their lives.

In the following still life,  Wesselmann has poured the bottles of Ballentine into two beer glasses and grouped them with what appear to be two radios, a bouquet of leave, a soft drink bottle and two tomatoes.   It obviously is a depiction of an American home interior of the 1960s but further meaning escapes me.  I similarly stumped by the next still life that shows a bottle and other objects only in outline, against a wall with a mounted fish and a picture of the Statue of Liberty.   Did Wesselmann just get tired of painting bottles and other containers?  Or, more likely, was he telling us that in the Great American Mercantile observing and appreciating packaging gets short shrift in the search for brands and labels?  That still does not explain the fish.
Still Life #30

Pop artists often used “mixed media” to put across their ideas.  Wesselmann’s 1963 “Still Life #30” took that concept to new heights.  Here is the official description of the materials he used: Oil, enamel and synthetic polymer paint on composition board with collage of printed advertisements, plastic flowers, refrigerator door, plastic replicas of 7-up bottles, glazed and framed color reproduction, and stamped metal.  I am tempted to wonder why the artist did not throw in the kitchen sink. This painting also marks a move away from whiskey and beer bottles to softer beverages.  Wesselmann made a carton of six bottles of pint Royal Crown Cola bottles the centerpiece of one collage and paint still life.  I am intrigued by the fact that the blue lines on the table cloth have purposely been painted irregularly, unlike those on previous works.

In this final painting we have come full circle, the four roses are rendered but this time they are in a vase, not represented on a whiskey label.  The central item is a large bottle of Coca Cola, possibly prefiguring the many representations of that iconic American drink beverage from Andy Warhol who would take the image of a Coke bottle to new heights, displaying 210 of them in one painting and selling (posthumously) the image of a single bottle for $35.4 million. (See my post  on Warhol, January 2011).

Although no Wesselmann painting of a bottle -- or of anything else for that matter -- has ever sold for that extravagant amount,  his work brought him fame and fortune during his lifetime.  Plagued with heart disease during the last decade of his life, Wesselmann died following surgery in December 2004.   He has continued to spark interest in the art world  and his artworks can be found in many museums in the U.S. and abroad. It must be confessed, however, it is Tom Wesselmann’s pictures of nudes, not bottles, that gain the most attention.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What Gives with Beer and Tiny Angels?

The identification of beer with winged babies, usually thought of as “cherubs,” apparently goes back many centuries.  Shown here is a 17th frieze of a brewery scene that features in the center two of these adorables, both holding pitchers full of brew.  The identification of beer and babies has followed down the ages and expressed itself frequently in brewery advertising of the late 19th and 20th Century.  Illustrations of this phenomenon abound but do they tell us why?

The first example  is a lithographed serving tray from the Terre Haute Brewing Co. of the Indiana town of the same name.  It is advertising a brand called “Champagne Velvet,”  characterized as, “That Ever Welcome Beer.”  The picture seems to show a group of American colonials around a table receiving beer in their upturned glasses from a gaggle of four cherubs.  Originally founded in the 1850s this brewery was bought by Terre Haute business men in 1869 and continued to grow and expand to 100,000 barrels a year by 1893.  Champagne Velvet was the brewery flagship brand and the name was trademarked in 1902.  This beer was very popular regionally until Indiana went “dry” in 1918.  After Repeal, the brewery re-opened but all production stopped in 1958 and  equipment dismantled and sold.

The saloon sign from The American Brewing Co. of St. Louis has two cherubs crowning a bottle of its A.B.C. Bohemian beer as “King of All the Bottled Beers.”  The ad also asserts that these suds are “Famous the World Over.  Some hyperbole is evident here. This brewery was relatively short lived.  Some sources say it started in 1882, others in 1890.  All agree it closed in 1906, long before Prohibition forces reached Missouri.  It may have been the fierce competition in St. Louis.  During the lifetime of American Brewing  that city was recorded as boasting 108 breweries.  As one observer has noted, “which is quite a few.”

Among the St. Louis breweries that survived Prohibition, the Great Depression and two World Wars was the Anheuser-Busch giant that now ranks as among the largest producers of beer in the world, maintaining 13 breweries in the United States.  The tip tray shown here was produced during the company’s early days when giving such items to favored saloons was a favorite merchandising ploy.  I find the color lithographed illustration fascinating.  Shown are no fewer than eleven winged youngsters, most of them with bottles of Budweiser and other Anheuser-Busch in hand.  They surround a gowned woman who seems to be wearing a metal bustierre.   Prefiguring Wonder Woman?

If the prior illustration dazzles with its detail, the trade card advertising Lang’s Beer is all sweetness.  It show a single cherub hopping amidst a bed of pansies confronting a butterfly that is lapping at foam from a brimming goblet.  The little one is admonishing the insect not to “drink it all.” Terminally cute.  It also is puzzling as a ad for a beer that those rough, tough cowboys were guzzling in the rowdy saloons of Denver and points West.  This beer was the product of Philip Zang, a Louisville brewer who caught “gold fever” and headed out to make his fortune in Colorado.  Tiring of mining in about a month, he got back in the beer trade.

Eventually becoming the largest beer producer west of the Missouri River, Zang believed in colorful advertising and the development of chromo lithography for metal surfaces suited his interests  Here is a tray that carries Zang’s name as well as that of the the bottler depicting two cherubs, both holding bottles.  They are hanging from a bower, identified by the flowers as being a hops plant, an important ingredient in beer.

Unlike most of the cherubs flying around,  the next tray depicts one standing on the ground playing a flute and entertaining a woman in a diaphanous grown.  This was the product of the Willow Springs Brewery of Omaha, Nebraska.  The first distillery in the state and incorporated in in 1871, it grew to be the third largest in the country.  In addition to beer Willow Springs produced a variety of alcohol and spirits, including gins, pure rye and bourbon whiskeys.  When Prohibition in the United States stopped the production of alcoholic beverages in 1919, the company became known as Willow Springs Bottling and featured only near beer, malt and soda pop.

Peoria, Illinois, was a center of both the distilling and brewing industry in America. The Peoria brewery featured here was founded as the Union Kaiser Brewing Co., but along the way dropped the Kaiser, presumably
with the outbreak of World War One when the German Kaiser was reviled.  The company was responsible for the ashtray shown here with three cherubs hovering at the center.  Because it was overprinted rather than under glazed, time has not been kind to this artifact. Nor was time kind to the Union Brewing Co.  It operated at 1700-1711 South Washington Street until closed by the Volstead Act.  After Repeal the facility reopened in 1934 under a different name but closed its doors for good in 1940.

The tray advertising Fehr’s Malt Tonic, another pre-Prohibition item, provided us a with a entire mob of winged little ones, all intent on getting a swig of a elixir that is supposed to provide health and strength.  Frank Fehr took over an existing brewery in Louisville, Kentucky, about 1872.  His initial name for his enterprise was Old Brewery but altered it to the Frank Fehr Brewing Co. in 1890.  In 1901 his brewery became a branch of the Central Consumers Co.  Shut down in 1920 the Frank Fehr Brewery opened again in 1933 and operated until 1964.

The true king of selling beer under the wings of angels was Christian Moerlein. Born in Bavaria he emigrated to the United States and Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1841 and began working as a blacksmith.  At some point during the late 1840s,  Moerlein began brewing beer in the rear of his blacksmith’s shop,  selling it to friends and customers.  His brew proved so popular that it soon eclipsed his forge work.   A Cincinnati businessman offered to invest with him in founding an actual brewery.   Thus, in 1853 Moerlein and his partner established the Elm Street Brewery.   The enterprise was an almost immediate success.

Beyond being an astute brewer,  Moerlein had an artistic sense that ran to the highly elaborate themes of his Bavarian background.  They included depiction's of cherubs, Christian wanted a distinctive ceramic bottle for his beer,  unlike anything else on the American market.  It would have a monogram of his initials and --- most of all -- cherubs.  He found a Scottish pottery, Port Dundas, who could fashion an underglaze transfer and proceeded to issue thousands of them, as shown here.

Meanwhile the brewery was expanding.  By 1876 Moerlein’s production was 26,000 barrels a year.  It became the largest brewery in Ohio and the 14th largest in the United States, with an international clientele.  After Christian’s death,  a son took over as manager but subsequently had to face the advent of Prohibition. In 1983 another Cincinnati brewery, in a salute to Christian Moerlein, brought back the brand.  Since then the name has passed to other hands but still is available for sale.

But that is not the end of the story of Moerlein and  cherubs.  During the 1880s Christian  build a mansion in Cincinnati as a wedding present for one of his daughters.  For the dining room he commissioned an elaborate mural that presented a theme dear to his heart:  It was a painting of winged cherubs. One is shown here, again amidst hops blossoms. In subsequent years, the mansion was turned into a restaurant.  Patrons over the years, possibly while quaffing a brew,  have noticed the similarity between the first floor ceiling mural and the figures on the Moerlein bottles and speculated about the artist.

None of these artifacts and illustrations, however, answer the question that opened this post:  What identified winged infants with beer?  Presumably cherubs are angels, related to “the Cherubim” of the Bible, one of the higher orders.  So what are they doing hawking beer?  Some believe they are not cherubs at all, but “putti.”  Art historian Juan Carlos Martinez writes "Originally, cherubs and putti had distinctly different roles, with the former being sacred, and the latter, profane....Putti arise from Greco-Roman classical myths (i.e., non-Christian). They are associated with Eros/Cupid as well as with the Muse, Erato; the muse of lyric and love poetry."

Martinez goes on to say that in our time the two have been conflated by illustrators and writers. That may clear up one point but it does not explain why cherubs/putti are so closely identified with beer -- icons really -- that brewers repeatedly would employ them for merchandising purposes.  The flying tots obviously emerge from a tradition that stretches far into the past, but I have been unable to find any plausible explanation.  And where do the hops plants fit into the picture?  If an Alert Reader of this post knows the answers, I would be happy to have and publish them.

Friday, November 8, 2013

A.D.M. Cooper: Rembrandt of the Saloon Nude

A.D.M. Cooper
Picture an artist, who during his lifetime could command more than $60,000 for a single piece of artwork, using his talent to cage drinks from saloon owners across the West in return for painting pictures of scantily clad women, art meant for display behind the bar.  That would be A.D.M. Cooper, the unsurpassed “Rembrandt” of the saloon nude.

Ashey David Middleton Cooper was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1856.  He was the son of David M. Cooper, a respected physician and Fannie O’Fallon Cooper,  grandniece of the famous explorer, William Rogers Clark.  A family friend was George Catlin, the early artist of Indian life who appears to have been an inspiration to the young Cooper.  After studying art at Washington University in St. Louis, Cooper went West,  recording Indian life and landscapes in his drawings and paintings.  In his depiction's of Native Americans he was able to capture their dignity and bearing in the tradition of “The Noble Savage.”

In 1883 Cooper moved to San Jose, California, building an elaborate studio in the Egyptian style.  His artistry had a taste for the exotic as shown on a oil painting called “The Palms.”  It is a fanciful look at tropical vegetation with shorebirds in the distance.  At the time such views were the passion of many rich Americans.  Cooper’s paintings became the toast of  the California “nouveau riche.”   Among them was Mrs. Leland Stanford, the wife of the railroad baron.  She reputedly paid $62,000, at least 10 times that in today’s dollar, to Cooper for one of his canvases.

Despite his aristocratic background and acceptance by high society, and wealth, Cooper was inclined to “walk on the wild side.”  Edan Hughes, the author of a book on California artists wrote that of the 16,000 he had chronicled, “...None was as colorful as Ashley David Middleton Cooper. That man knew how to live. He was a true Bohemian, and he loved to have a good time. He knew how to party. And paint. And then party some more. He had a zest for life unmatched in the artistic annals of California.”

Cooper is said to have paid many bar bills as he roamed the West by paintings of nude women.  Those pictures came in all sizes and shapes, with one constant:  bare breasts. Saloon owners welcomed them as a known attraction for their almost entirely male clientele.  Shown here is one of Cooper’s most famous nude paintings, known as “The Kansas City Girl.”  It was exhibited throughout the United States, reputedly gathering crowds wherever it went.  It was a sensation at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898, held in Omaha, Nebraska.
"Kansas City Girl"

According to the story,  Cooper approached a nubile Kansas City lass known for her pretty face and voluptuous figure and asked her to be his model.  He assured her parents that the experience would not sacrifice her “maidenly modesty” and would help pay off the family mortgage.  They agreed and, with mother standing by, she posed for the painting.  A later interview with the young woman by a Washington DC newspaper found her to be not at all bashful about her experience with Cooper.  She was straightforward about the monetary reason for posing, the uncomfortable lounging posture the artist demanded, and  said that she never got tired of watching people gape at her picture.  She told the reporter: “I’ll tell you a secret—in your ear—it’s no profession for an ugly woman.”
"San Francisco Girl"

It probably was a good idea that mother was standing by the Kansas City Girl because Cooper,  handsome and charming,  also had a reputation as a lady’s man.  With those qualities went a penchant for strong drink.  He was a frequent and active patron of saloons wherever he went.  It is said that it was a rare drinking establishment from San Francisco to Santa Cruz that failed to have a Cooper nude hanging behind the bar or prominently on a wall.  One of  Cooper’s favorite bars, The Louvre, is said to have displayed multiple Cooper paintings.

The second nude shown here is called a “San Francisco Girl.”  Why it bears that specific distinction is mystery.  Rather than lounging like The Kansas City Girl she is standing.  Moreover, her settling is an exotic one with velvet curtains, a leopard skin rug, and  scattered flowers.  This kind of background was
"Exotic Me"
common for a number of Cooper paintings.  The one that follows, entitled “Exotic Me Nude” has a similar “Oriental” flavor with its wispy scarf as the total covering.  Also similar is the painting that follows.  Untitled, it clearly is an inferior work possibly painted while Cooper was suffering a hangover.

The next painting is derived from the myth of Pygmalion, a Greek sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory and named her Galatea.  Falling in love with his creation, he prayed to Venus. Then he kissed his ivory statue and found that its lips felt warm. He kissed it again, touched its breasts with his hand and found that the ivory had lost its
hardness.  Galatea had become a woman and later Pygmalion’s wife and a mother.  The Cooper painting depicts the moment of the statue becoming human.

The artist also reached back to Greek mythology for a the final nude shown here.  She is a nymph.  Nymphs are personifications of the creative and fostering activities of nature, most often identified with the life-giving outflow of springs.  True to form, this figure is garlanded with water lilies.   It is difficult to divine if the look on her face is “come hither” or a kind of world weariness.  Only the artist would know.

After years of painting the unclothed, Cooper married at the advanced age of  62.  The daughter of family friends,  his wife was 26 years his junior.  By all accounts it was a happy union.  But brief.  Only five years later, after a long battle with tuberculosis, the artist died in 1924 at his home in San Francisco and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. 

Subsequently A.D.M. Cooper’s reputation as an artist has had its ups and downs as taste in art has changed over time.  Moreover, the saloons for which he painted were shut down during Prohibition. After Repeal, as more and more women frequented drinking establishments,  such paintings increasingly were deemed offensive and stashed in a back room or discarded.  Nevertheless, if one should come across an art work with the signature shown here, it likely still could be pricey to own a painting by the Rembrandt of saloon art.

Friday, October 25, 2013

“The World’s Tallest Man” and Blatz Beer

At the Wisconsin State Fair in 1938, Clifford Marshall Thompson who recently had quit a job with the Cole Brothers Circus, strolled through the crowds wearing a sign that read “Drink milk, look what it did for me.”  He was stopped by a brewery executive who jokingly told Thompson that he should be hawking beer, not milk.  That is how the “Tallest Man in the World” came to be a star salesman for the Blatz Brewery.

Thompson was born in Ramsey County, North Dakota, in 1904.  None of his family were unusually tall.  A Blatz trade card he widely handed out bore a photo of him with his father.  That Thompson was much taller and larger than most people became apparent while he was still young but he did not stop growing until he was 27 years old.

Obviously intelligent, Thompson’s objective was to be a high school math and science teacher. He obtained a certificate from the Wisconsin teacher’s college at Stevens Point but was unable to find a job.  By now over eight feet tall, he speculated that school officials feared he would frighten the children.  Frustrated, Thompson joined the circus and rapidly became one of America’s best known circus big men, billed as “The Scandinavian Giant,”  “Wisconsin’s Paul Bunyan,” and “Count Olaf from Norway.”

A photograph from that era shows him standing behind “Johnny Jones Famous Midgets.”  He is dressed in a suit and tie with a stove pipe hat that accentuated his height.  Moving from one side show to another and often pitched as “The World’s Tallest Man,”  Thompson eventually wound up with the Barnes Circus in Los Angeles where his proximity to Hollywood put him in motion pictures.

In 1932 Cliff received screen credits in a short film, “Seal Skins,” with Zasu Pitts and a monkey named Jocko.  In 1934 he appeared in feature length pictures, including “Twentieth Century,” with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard and “Murder in the Private Car”  with Charles Ruggles and Una Merkel.  These were largely “walk on” roles designed to startle the audience.

Still a young man, Cliff made personal appearances and traveled with the Ringling Brothers organization and later with the Cole Brothers Circus.  There he met and fell in love with Mary Mars, a 5 foot, 6 inch dancer from Milwaukee who had left her career as a night club performer to join Cole Brothers in 1938.  Seeking a more stable lifestyle once they were married, they moved to Milwaukee where Thompson sought to capitalize on his fame and size as a product spokesman for a Ford dealer and milk producers.  That is when Blatz beer came into his life.

When the State Fair concluded,  Thompson went to the Blatz head offices in Milwaukee where he convinced the management to hire him as spokesman for their products.  As shown here by an early Blatz ad, the company had frequently featured robust figures in their merchandising.  Buckeye Beer in Toledo was featuring a dwarf and midgets in its merchandising.  Why not a giant?

The financial security of the job allowed Cliff and Mary to wed.  At the time he was 34 years old and she was 32.  Over the next few years on behalf of Blatz, the couple traveled by automobile all over the United States,  logging approximately 40,000 miles annually.  At state fairs and other events, Thompson would walk through the crowds having his photograph taken, as shown here, and handing out cards with his picture on them, some with his father, some with Mary.  The back of the card provided vital statistics on “the tallest salesman in the world.”  It noted that all his clothing except neckties had to be made to order.  His automobile also had to be modified.  Thompson drove a 1935 Ford sedan which, in effect, he operated from the back seat.

The beer the giant was selling was from one of Milwaukee’s oldest breweries.   It had been founded by John Braun in 1846, shortly before Wisconsin achieved statehood, and was originally called the City Brewery. Braun's fledgling business produced about 150 barrels of beer annually – until 1851 when Valentine Blatz, a former employee, established a brewery
Cliff & Mary Blatz trade card
of his own next door to the City Brewery. Braun died later that year and Blatz soon married his widow, thereby uniting the City Brewery and his own operation.

At the time of the marriage, the combined breweries produced only 350 barrels per year. However, by 1880 total annual production reached 125,000 barrels. The brewery's growth continued, and in 1884 Blatz ranked as the third-largest beer producer in Milwaukee.  Blatz was the first Milwaukee brewer to market beer nationally. He set up distribution centers in Chicago, New York, Boston, New Orleans, Memphis, Charleston, and Savannah. He also was the first of the city’s brewers to include a bottling plant within his operation.
Trade card-back

In 1890 Blatz sold his brewery to a group of London investors, who continued to operate the plant until Prohibition.  With Repeal, the owners made Old Heidelberg, a German style lager their flagship. When it again became legal once again to make and sell beer, that Blatz brand was the first to be crated at City Hall in Milwaukee and sent to President Roosevelt.  Old Heidelberg was the beer Thompson was hawking nationwide to a customer base thirsty after 14 years of Prohibition.

Eventually tiring of his life on the road for Blatz, Thompson in 1942 enrolled in the law school at Marquette University in Milwaukee.  He was still enough of a celebrity to have the event noted in Billboard Magazine.  Several classrooms had to be altered to accommodate his size.  After graduation he practiced law for a time in Wisconsin, ultimately moving to work in Portland, Oregon.  Hollywood made him the subject of a short film called “The Paul Bunyan of the Legal Profession.”  A photo shows him as a lawyer towering over an associate.

For someone as large as Thompson, he lived a fairly long and fulfilling life.  While in his early 50’s, however, he developed a number of medical problems and died on October 15, 1955, four days short of his 51st birthday.  The cause was recorded as a combination of gallstones and what may have been cancer of the liver.  At the time of his death he weighed 460 pounds.

The question remains:  How tall really was Cliff Thompson?  Skeptics said that he made himself appear taller by wearing a hat and elevator shoes.  Recent analysis, however, indicates that he stood 8 feet and between 3 to 6 inches tall.  Clifford Thompson continues to be remembered by a mannequin at the Pioneer Village and Museum in Rugby, North Dakota, not far from where he was born.  His home town exhibit continues to describe him as “The World’s Tallest Man.”

Note:  A significant amount of the information for this article came from a 2010 article in the Marquette University Law Review by J. Gordon Hylton entitled “Clifford Thompson:  Marquette’s Giant of the Law.”