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.

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