Starting with the most innocent, but by current standards no way politically correct, is a trade card touting Gold Grain Whiskey from the Buffalo Distilling Company. It shows an African-American gentlemen, presumably blind, ogling a damsel who is lifting her voluminous skirt to fix her stocking. In one image this ad manages to give offense to African-Americans, the sight impaired, feminists, and for good measure, the Prohibitionist crowd. But at the time the Buffalo Distilling Company thought the illustration was a good way to sell whiskey. Times change. This firm first shows up in Buffalo, New York, directories in 1895. Likely blenders of other distillers’ product, it featured a blizzard of brand names. Prohibition killed this Buffalo liquor business in 1918.
The saloon sign that follows dramatized a somewhat different story. A young man has found his way into a house of ill repute and is romancing one of the ladies of the establishment, both drinking whiskey. He has been discovered by his top-hatted father or guardian who is pulling Romeo’s ear and tearing him away from a highly amused doxie. If we could read the label on the whiskey bottle and the crate on the floor, we would find that the liquor being advertised is “Blue Star Monogram Whiskey,” the product of Solomon Bloch of Cleveland, Ohio. Members of the Bloch family were involved in the liquor business in Cleveland from 1869 until about 1902.
We are still inside that bawdy house in the next saloon sign. Two women in scanty gowns are partaking in shot glasses of Wilson Whiskey. They clearly are waiting for the customers of the evening and imbibing, as the legend says, “A Nightcap of Wilson.” A large bottle of whiskey resides on a table, clearly ready for the party to begin. Although a discreet depiction of the erotic, it is nonetheless surprising because this sign was the product of two Baltimore blue bloods, both known for their lofty positions in business and social circles. They were Charles Goldsborough and his son, Charles Goldsborough Jr. The pair also ran the High Spire Distillery in Pennsylvania.
From suggestive we move to the frequent attempt by whiskey men to project images with bare breasted women. As we will see, these come in many varieties but a favorite one was the Indian maiden. On this saloon sign we see her paddling her canoe, apparently wary of some men standing on the far shore. The sign advertises Tippencanoe Kentucky Whiskey, the product of the Union Distilling Company of Cincinnati. Although this firm, founded in 1884, called itself a distiller, it likely was a “rectifier” or blender of whiskey.
Although a saloon sign could feature a bare bosom because women were not allowed in most drinking establishments, the label on the bottle of Tippecanoe was available to be seen by the general public. The result is shown here. Now this same Indian lass is well covered and the men on the far shore have disappeared. The Union Distilling Company in this case was bottling its whiskey for a Cincinnati whiskey retailer. Recorded as getting its product from the Latonia Distillery in Milldale, Kentucky, Union Distilling went out of business after Ohio voted statewide Prohibition in 1916.
Ads for whiskey that contain nudity appear to follow a certain pattern. Just as it was okay to show an Indian maiden in a state of undress, harem girls, Greek goddesses and legendary temptresses were fair game. An example is the label of Zulieka Whiskey, showing a semi-nude woman lounging on a couch. Zulieka was a figure out of Jewish legend who also shows up in Muslim texts. Jewish and Christian scriptural commentators have regarded Zuleika as a sinner and villainess. Thus she was fair game for John Casper to use on a suggestive label. Casper, one of the greatest whiskey pitchmen who ever lived, began his liquor operations in North Carolina; when that state went dry, he headed to Virginia. When Virginia followed the Temperance trail in 1916, he opened a liquor business in Florida. Casper disappeared with National Prohibition but is said to have died in Mexico. He probably went there to get a drink.
The ancient temptress theme is continued with a celluloid pocket mirror advertising “XXXX Baker Rye.” Here we have the lady, having shed her gown, posing casually in a vernal setting, apparently dreaming of a “Prince Charming.” Apparently copied from a work of art, the Garrett-Williams Company of Baltimore would send customers a duplicate of the pocket mirror for just the cost of a postage stamp.
The H. F. Corbin Company of Cincinnati provided an example of Grecian types at play, an activity that almost always required that they fling aside their scanty garments. This saloon sign is very subtle in that it appears to carry no advertising on the front. Only at the back does Corbin announce itself. This firm, dating from 1895 to 1918, featured a number of liquor brands, including "Buckeye Rye,” "Frank Gibson's Old Rye,", "H F C & Co.,", "H. F. Corbin's Old Windsor,”, "Hoffman House,” "King Rex,”"Lenox Club,” "Old Windsor Club,” "Palisade Club,” and "Robin Hood."
Note that in the prior illustrations, all the female figures have a piece of cloth modestly covering their nether regions. Full frontal nudity is almost never on view. But there are exceptions. The saloon sign shown here advertising Fenwick whiskey depicts a female figure in all its glory, an individual who has thrown her wispy wrap to the winds. She was given wings by a Detroit outfit, Fecheimer & Hart, as a merchandising gimmick to sell their Kenwick Sour Mash Whiskey. The idea may not have worked: the company listing in Detroit business directories was for only one year, 1890.
Individual retail liquor stores and bars seemed to be able to take a more racy approach in their advertising than distillers or wholesale houses. At first glance this trade card from Archie’s Package Store in Fort Worth, Texas, appears to show an intellectual looking gent with "pince nez” glasses who is smoking a cigar. A closer look reveals something more. Those are not just his eyebrows or his forehead. The caption below is revelatory: “It’s all in his head.” Yes, indeed.
But the crowning “full frontal” is on a pocket mirror issued by the Falstaff Bar, C. H. Reilly, Proprietor, in, believe or not, Salt Lake City, Utah, home of the Mormon Church. It shows four, count ‘em, four nubile, nude young women of whom three may be considered completely exposed. There seems to be an effort to make them seem like Grecian serving girls. One bears a statue in her hand; another has what appears to be a serving cup. An amphora sticks out from the right. Dating from around 1900, this gem recently sold at auction for $500, plus a $97.50 buyer’s commission.
There they are, the most recent installment of risque whiskey advertising, illustrating the progression from the merely teasing to the famous cry of the burlesque house: “Take it off! Take it all off!”