Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Tall Tales of Tolu

   Time was when the patent medicine manufacturers of America -- some called them “snake oil salesmen” -- reached out for exotic sounding botanicals as a means of endowing their remedies with an air of mystery and antiquity.  As a result, the lowly tolu plant shown here was magnified into a mighty cure for a range of illnesses, including tuberculosis and malaria.

The name Tolu comes from the native pre-Columbian people who inhabited a area near the Caribbean Ocean in the Sucre Department of Northern Columbia.  A small town named Tolu still exists there.   The resin, leaves and fruit of the plant traditionally had been used by the peoples of Central and South America to relieve coughs and to treat wounds.  In the hands of U.S. nostrum peddlers, however, it became “the Best Remedy for Pulmonary Diseases and General Debility connected with Loss of Appetite and Strength.”

That was the claim of Henry Bischoff,  a Charleston, South Carolina,  grocer and liquor dealer with a penchant for concocting medicines.  Although the historical record on Bischoff is scanty, he appears to have emigrated from Germany to the United States before the Civil War.   During that conflict he joined a Confederate cavalry unit known as the German Hussars as a second lieutenant.   He married a local girl, Jenny Melchers, from a prominent German family in Charleston.  Henry then settled down to run a profitable wholesale grocery,  one that specialized in liquor.

Bischoff made no secret that his Carolina Tolu Balsam contained alcoholic spirits.  In one ad he explained that in addition to containing tolu, other medicinals and rock candy,  his potion also included rye and rice whiskeys.   “This rice whiskey is commonly known as Arrack in the South and Samshoo in China,”  he explained.   “It has been used for many years by the Chinese and also by negro laborers in the southern rice fields as the only antidote to malaria and rice fever.” Despite this admission that alcohol was involved,  the promoter did not hesitate to depict children in his advertising. Seen here is a trade card showing some innocent tots playing on a beach.

Most of Carolina Tolu trade cards had more jocular themes.  It could be a large monk wolfing down a chicken drumstick while cradling a dollop of mashed potatoes on his fork, or a frog apparently making peace between a male mallard and his newly hatched chick.  My favorite
is an angry looking bird with a large beak in which he is holding a placard for Carolina Tolu Tonic.   The tonic sold for $1.00 a bottle, a day’s wage for many at the time.

If the funny stuff was on the front,  the back of Bischoff’s trade cards was all seriousness. It promised to “cure” chronic coughs, consumption (TB) and all diseases of the throat and lungs. The tonic was claimed to have the “best recommendations from prominent physicians who, in the most obstinate cases, use it successfully among their patients.”  As further evidence of the validity of Carolinia Tolu Tonic, Bischoff cited the fact that it had been verified as to its medicinal qualities by General Green B. Baum, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue.  The product bore a proprietary medicine tax stamp which meant it could be sold by dealers without a liquor license.

Bischoff had competition in a Chicago outfit called Lawrence & Martin.  They were listed in local directories as wholesalers of liquor and wine and importers of cigars.  in 1880 they introduced a patent medicine called “Tolu Rock and Rye.”  Like the Charleston quack, they heralded it as “the Great Cure for Coughs, Colds and Consumption and All Diseases of the Throat and Lungs.”  A trade card from about 1881 shows a young buxom woman, presumably a sufferer from one of the referenced maladies, tarted up for a night on the town and drinking from a bottle of Tolu Rock and Rye.  A second  card showed an angel bearing a bottle of their tolu tonic, apparently bring a sheaf of rye to the process.

Business for both firms was apparently was brisk for a time.  Bischoff opened a New York outlet.  Lawrence & Martin in 1882 created a separate company, located at the same address, called the Tolu Rock and Rye Company. They also launched an ad campaign in druggists’ magazines that plugged their nostrum as a “sure cure.”  As proof they cited a letter from Commissioner Baum similar to Bischoff’s. In it the revenue man stated:  “This the opinion of this office, would have sufficient quantity of the Balsam of Tolu to give it all the advantages ascribed to this article in pectoral complaints, while the whiskey and syrup constitute an emulsion rendering the compound an agreeable remedy to the patient.”

Whether Baum’s laudatory judgment about medicine was highly flawed or he was receiving some compensation for his letter of endorsement remains unclear.  Reputedly a military officer under Ulysses S. Grant,  Baum may have been a holdover in the Internal Revenue position from the notoriously corrupt Grant Administration.  The record indicates he later was removed from office.

The tolu boom proved to be short-lived.  The Tolu Rock and Rye Company was defunct by 1883 and Lawrence & Martin disappeared from Chicago business directories by 1885.  I have no information on how long Bischoff sold his Carolina Tolu Tonic, but the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 virtually put an end to nostrums claiming to be cures.  Increasingly federal and state authorities, allied with the American Medical Association, were cracking down on proprietary medicines.  In 1912, Baum’s exemption was repealed.  Tolu Rock and Rye were placed on a list of “booze medicines” that required sellers to have a liquor license.

That left tolu to be used as a flavoring for candy and gum.  The dry resin is said to have a complex taste and aroma consisting chiefly of cinnamon and vanilla.  As early as 1873 a Louisville pharmacist named John Colgan was making a “Taffy Tolu Gum” by adding an extract of the plant to chicle.  By 1890 the gum was such a success Colgan and a partner founded the Colgan Chewing Gum Company.  Until he retired Colgan saw his tolu gum sold throughout the United States, Canada and Australia.

Today, according to sources,  tolu is still an ingredient in some cough syrups. Its main use, however,  is in perfumes, where its aroma is said to be valued for “its warm, mellow, yet somewhat spicy, scent.” Meanwhile, with tolu debunked,  the world is still looking hard, but so far fruitlessly,  for those “sure cures” for tuberculosis and malaria.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Absinthe and Art

 Absinthe is distilled black licorice-flavored liquor derived from botanicals, including the flowers and leaves of a plant popularly known as “wormwood,”  along with anise, sweet fennel and other medicinal herbs.  Often sugar is added. Traditionally absinthe has a natural green color and was commonly known in Europe as “The Green Fairy.” It can be highly alcoholic,  ranging from 90 proof  (45% alcohol) to 148% (74%).   At the former number it has about the same spirituous content as most whiskey and beer.  At the latter, it is off the charts.

Absinthe originated in Switzerland, the product of the Kubler family, who produced it in its original formulation.   It became very popular in the late  19th and 20th Centuries in France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers.  Among the former were such giants of Post-Impressionism as Henri Touluse-Lautrec,  Vincent Van Gogh and Amedo Modigliani, all known absinthe drinkers.  It also inspired, as shown here a wide variety of advertising posters.

Note that many of them are in Art Nouveau mode, an artistic form that was highly popular at the same time as absinthe.  “Absinthe Robinette” epitomizes the style with its sinuous lettering,  backdrop of plants, and Medusa-like hair of the scantily clad lady holding the cup. Females in various stages of undress were a staple of the absinthe advertising.  Absinthe Blanoui” produced one that features both the lady and Art Nouveau styling.

Although the prior two signs showed us the spirits in a glass,  “Rosinette Absinthe” had a more traditional approach with a bottle sitting on a table.  The image also included a fully dressed woman with a rose hiding her cleavage.  The poster for “Terminus Absinthe” caused a minor scandal.   It used the images of two famous stage personalities of the day -- “Divine” Sarah Bernhardt and Constant Coquelin.  Sarah was outraged and sued the distiller for using her likeness without her permission.  She won in French courts and the posters had to be taken down.

“Absinthe Parisianne” inflated the bottle to full body size and apparently showed two Paris actors,  apparently anonymous,  having one heck of a good time as they consume the Green Fairy. Note that the body of the bottle says “sante” -- health.  The reference probably was occasioned because absinthe increasingly was being portrayed as a dangerously addictive, psychoactive drug.  In stark contrast to the gayety shown in the drink’s advertising,  famous artists painted a different picture.

For example,. Edgar Degas, the French Impressionist known for his upbeat pictures of ballet dancers and horses, here switched moods to give us a picture of a man and woman in a Paris dive drinking the verdant liquid.  The looks of vacant hopelessness on their faces bespeaks a tragic way of life.  Picasso in 1912 pictured a Pernod absinthe bottle done in a Cubist mode that seemed neutral about the drink.   A later picture painted a different picture,  showing a woman with a glass of absinthe with an abstracted glaze that is not unlike that of the Degas.

Perhaps the most gripping depiction of absinthe addiction was that of Felicien Rops, a Belgian artist and engraver who began his career in the 1850s.   In the black and white lithographic print shown here he shows us a young woman prostitute standing outside a dance hall.  One author has said of this image:  “M. Rops has created a type of woman that we will dream of...the type of absinthe drinker who, brutalized and hungry, grows very more menacing and voracious...the girl bitten by the green poison....”

Images like these helped to fire public opinion about the dangers of absinthe.  It was said to contain a chemical compound that caused addictive harmful effects.   By 1915 the liquor had been banned in many countries of Europe, including France, and the United States.  Even Switzerland, where it had been invented and manufactured by four generations of the Kubler family,  joined the ban.  Its prohibition there at midnight on December 7, 1910, engendered a satirical poster. The French title on the sign read “The End of the “Green Fairy.”  The fairy apparently was the half nude woman at the bottom of the picture stabbed to death with a large sword.

Although widely denounced, even up to the 1970s, there is little evidence that absinthe carried any more risks than any other spirits.  The problems identified likely were the result of the high alcoholic content.  Moreover the beverage was cheap and available to people of ordinary means.  Britain had a similar problem in the 1700s with gin.   Moreover, any beverage approaching 148 proof is likely to have rapid and deleterious effects.

With more scientific knowledge, countries one by one have been legitimizing absinthe again.  In 2006 the United States repealed its 92-year ban on the liquor.  The Kubler heirs got back in the business of making and marketing the drink.  Other brands followed.  There was enthusiasm that the appetite of Americans for this exotic and mysterious drink would be massive.  One major U.S. liquor wholesaler launched a major Kubler sales effort in all 50 states.  At first that company’s hopes seem realized, but as time has gone on, sales have slumped significantly.

It turns out that with only moderate alcohol levels permitted, those experimental first bottles failed to cause any distinctive highs or hallucinations.  People began to wonder what all the fuss had been about.  Moreover, a strong taste for licorice is not general in the U.S. drinking public.   Absinthe may always have its advocates but it will not replace the martini in America.  Whether pro and con, however, the “Green Fairy” has made a permanent contribution to world art.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Genteel Fad of Painting on Pottery

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, painting on china pottery became a huge fad, akin to knitting macramé in a later day.  Once painted, the ceramic was fired again to set the overglaze.  Probably fueled by the beauty of Limoge vases like the one shown here,  tens of thousands of American women and girls took up the pursuit as a respectable avocation, some for pocket money, others to pass the time. 

Who can say what starts a fad?  It may have been a book by James Carter Beard in 1882 entitled “Painting on China: What to Paint and How to Paint it: A Hand-Book of Practical Instruction in Overglaze Painting for Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain.”  Or it may have been the thousands of “blanks,” unpainted white, china forms shipped to the U.S. from France.  Entire local stores were established to sell the blanks and appropriate paints and brushes.  Many featured small kilns to fire and seal the decoration.

It did not take long for a prominent Ohio pottery, Knowles, Taylor & Knowles (KT&K),  to realize that there was a large and expanding market for plain white bottles.  Its East Liverpool factory is shown here as it looked in 1887.  While American china may not have competed with France in its fine qualities, it took paint equally well and moreover was less expensive and more durable.

As a result, KT&K made a major line of merchandise a jug shape that it also sold with decorated labels to whiskey dealers.  These ceramics were notable for their bulbous shape, their extended lip and, most of all, their handle that appeared to be a snake swallowing his tail.  KT&K sold thousands of these jugs throughout the United States to artists of varied talents, all eager to grab a paint brush and make their mark.

Not all such jugs, however, were the necessarily the product of talented (or not so) amateurs.  Timothy J. Kearns in his informative book, “Knowles, Taylor & Knowles:  American Bone China,” points out that the company itself employed artists who used the jug to produce items of beauty.  The subject matter for both professional and amateur generally were similar, commonly portraits, flowers, foliage,and fruit.

One way to make the distinction between pro and amateur is if the artist signed the artifact at the pottery itself.  Here is shown a highly sophisticated design of maroon flowers with a gilded handle, next, and lip.  It almost certainly was factory-produced and has been marked by the artist “McCutcheon.”  KT&K probably sold these jugs among its line of ceramics for home decoration and may also have used them as demonstration pieces for advertising purposes.   As in: “See ladies, what lovely objects can be made with our blanks!”

The next example, with pink flowers, bears a strong resemblance to the McCutcheon jug.  It is, however, unsigned.  Kearns speculates that most factory artists did not mark their pieces because they were paid by each completed item and that it was not worth the cost to the artist in time and money to sign and date each piece.  The jug with the portrait of a woman appears to be a transfer printed image. It would have been virtually impossible to accomplish at home so almost certainly was produced by KT&K artisans.

The next jug, depicting leaves and berries, is not so easily identified.  It well could have been the product of a talented young mother working in on her kitchen table in Keokuk, Iowa.   The distinction between professional and amateur also blurs when it comes to present value.  The key here is good design and good artistry, as those shown above.  Clearly amateur efforts, however, are regularly offered on Internet auction sites for substantial sums.  One such example is a thistle-decor jug where the design is interesting but clearly overwhelms the jug and handle has turned a dreary mud color.   The horse jug that follows is also a poor subject for the jug shape and, in this case, awkwardly drawn.

More intriguing are the homegrown artists who have taken a KT&K whiskey jug and overlaid it with their own designs, sometimes letting the part of the original label show.  This is evident in the jug with roses.  Note that in the lower left corner the mark of the Klein Bros. Cincinnati liquor dealership is still evident  The next jug is truly bizarre.  Amidst that those black streaks one can still make out the label of a Meredith Diamond Club Rye bottle.  That whiskey was a product of East Liverpool itself.

The passion for painting jugs ebbed sharply during the 1920s and KT&K went into bankruptcy in East Liverpool about 1923.  Nonetheless, the jug with the snake swallowing his tail goes on and on in professional, amateur and commercial guises, actively auctioned virtually every day.   KT&K may have thought they were “firing blanks” but they clearly hit the target at least for a brief time in history.