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.


  1. You mention ABC closed in 1906, but others say it remained until 1940. Are you referring to a specific brewery site vs the brand name, or is there some other explanation?

  2. Jas: Sorry to answer belatedly but my computer crashed in April 2015 and it has taken me time to get things restored. Am not sure about ABC closing date. Used the best references I could find. Thanks for being in touch.