Friday, April 26, 2013

The Barrel, Post Cards and George Orwell

George Orwell,  the famed British writer and novelist of the 20th Century, was among the earliest authors to recognize the  social clues and analyze the cultural values to be gleaned from contemporary ephemera.  In 1941 he wrote an article called “The Art of Donald McGill” that subjected the comic  English post cards of his day to critical analysis -- many of them bearing illustrations attributed to the probably fictional McGill.

As I was contemplating a post on the use of the barrel as an icon on the comic post cards of pre-Prohibition America,  a period roughly 1880 to 1920,  the Orwell article came to mind and I reread it.  As a result, some of his observations will be woven in with my own notions.  Obviously the barrel image marks a clear line to drinking and often to drunkenness.   That identification is understandable since in an earlier day both whiskey and beer were transported  in barrels and decanted from there.  Orwell observed that drunkeness is ipso facto funny.  That continues to be true for the post cards shown here.  They all are meant to be humorous.  The British author also comments that on post cards “drunkenness is something peculiar to middle-aged men.”  In those he reviewed, he said, youths and women were never involved.

By and large that is true for the U.S. pre-Prohibition era, but there are exceptions.  Shown here is a “In Good Spirits” post card that appears to have four kids playing in two barrels marked “whiskey” and “alcohol.”  That same notion of “being in good spirits” is the message of the next two cards of a man diving into a whiskey barrel.   The second card virtually identical but made of leather.  Leather was a short-lived fad in sending messages during the early 1900s,  mostly of a humorous sort.  Since the divers’ heads are fully immersed in both items, it is impossible to determine age.

Orwell is generally right about  middle aged men.  Most of the post cars shown here are of  males in middle age.  A good example is the post card entitled “Happy at Chippewa Falls, Wis.,” dated 1916.  It depicts a gentleman on a hammock sipping from a barrel strung above his head.  His eyes seem glazed.  We are not sure what beverage he is swallowing.  But given the location in Wisconsin, beer is a likely guess.  The following card, “Cheer Up the Best is Yet to Come”  depicts a gent with a less elegant means at getting at the contents of a barrel.  He has hoisted it to his head and is sucking on the bung hole,  ignoring the fact that his hat has spilled on the ground along with a good bit of liquid.

Humorous photographic images were a subcategory of post cards in the pre-Prohibition era.  Here in a carefully staged tableau entitled “Those Were the Happy Days,” are two hobos who somehow have come upon a barrel of whiskey.   Despite their shabby clothes, these two are imbibing in a delicate fashion.  The one on the right seems to have an empty beer can he is filling while his companion tips the container.  This card dates from 1914.

The next card is an enigma.  Rendville, Ohio, now accounted the smallest village in the Buckeye State, was home to more than 1,000 people during the 1880s, many of them black miners and their families.  The town was noted for being filled with saloons and gambling institutions. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. is said to have been a hard-living miner here in the late 1800s before he surrendered his vices and was “saved” at a religious revival at the local Baptist Church. He later became pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City’s Harlem  and a civil-rights leader.   None of this history explains the card which seems to show an inebriated gentleman with a bottle in his hand and a barrel at his back.  The title “Down with Drink in Rendville, O.,” fails to explain if the card is to be taken as against alcohol or a sarcastic dig at the Temperance crowd.

The following postcard leaves no doubt.  It is is from North of the Border where liquor continued to flow freely during the American “Great Experiment” that  banned liquor from 1920 to 1934.  The point here is the availability of all kinds of alcoholic beverages in Canada,  so abundant in fact that the American tourist is willing to let three bottles spill on the ground.   Again the barrel appears as an icon of the “wet” culture.

Orwell’s article made a great deal of the abundant sex jokes in the souvenir post cards he examined.   He noted that newlyweds, old maids, nude statues and women in bathing suits were frequent subjects for racy images.  U.S. post cards were sometimes similarly have double entendre, as in the illustration of an attractive woman drawing a stein from a barrel marked “beer.”   The hobo’s comment behind her, “How happy I could be with either,”  has a definite sexual innuendo.   Another card in the British mode originated in Florida where a bald man with an overflowing glass of beer from a nearby barrel is ogling the bikini crowd.  A verse is appended:  “The gals suits here make you pop-eyed, Specially those that are occupied.”

The final presentation is a gentleman carrying a barrel on his back, labeled “booze,” while he pulls a second along and a third lies at his feet.  He also has a number of jugs and bottles tucked and tied around his person.  Jovially he asks, “How do you like my load?”  Once again the barrel was presented as the recognizable icon for the drinker.  In addition to the examples presented here,  the barrel image is repeated in dozens more postcards involved with drinking.  A substantial collection would not be difficult to amass and quickly so.

While some may believe impolite post cards from the past, and others like them, are politically incorrect or in bad taste,  I leave the last word to George Orwell:  “They express only one tendency in the human mind, but a tendency which is always there and will find its own outlet, like water.  On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time....I for one should be sorry to see them [comic post cards] vanish.”

Alas, in politically correct 21st Century America, Mr. Orwell, such post cards have all but disappeared.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Budweiser Goes to the Opera

What is going on here?   We have a picture of three bare breasted women frolicking around a mountain peak being spied on by a dwarf with a long beard.  The headline says “Dusk of the Gods,  Act III, Scene 1.”   At mountaintop we spy a bottle of beer. Below the image is a tag line that tells us,  “Budweiser Beer is the beauteous star of Beers.”

The image only makes sense when we consider Adolphus Busch Sr., the cofounder of the Anheuser Busch Brewing Company.   Busch had been born in 1839 in Kastel, Mainze, Grand Duchy of Hesse,  Germany.   From a fairly wealthy family in the wine and brewery supply business,  Busch was well educated, attending for a time the Collegiate Institute of Belgium.   Upon arriving in America, he served an Union officer in the Civil War and with his father-in-law,  Eberhard Anheuser, founded a brewery in St. Louis.  In 1891 he purchased the Budweiser name and the firm met rapid success.

Shown here is a photo of Adolphus with a picture of the brewery that appeared in Leslie’s Magazine in 1910.  The publication called the complex the “one of the most extensive business plants in the world.”   Like other beer barons, however,  Busch was not content with just counting his money.  As a cultured German,  he need to demonstrate his love of opera,  particularly German opera,  while never forgetting to serve the merchandising needs of his brews.   Thus was born the series of trade cards seen here. 

Richard Wagner was a particular favorite of Busch and his German-American clientele.  Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung”  is a cycle of four epic operas with themes based on Norse sagas,  written over  26 years, from 1848 to 1874.  The card above is from the fourth opera,  in German, “Gotterdammerung.”  In English “Twilight of the Gods.”  The next image is from the second in the Ring Cycle that featured Siegfried, a brave warrior.  He has in hand the same figure shown the first picture.  This was a dwarf named Mime who raised Siegfried but unaccountably later wanted to kill him.  Possibly because Mime did not like his beard pulled.

The following card pictured a scene from “Die Walkure” (The Valkyrie), an opera that featured Siegmund (Siegfried’s father) and his love,  Brunhilde.  She was a Valkyrie, one of a gaggle of goddesses sired by Wotan, the big cheese of Norse gods.  It is not clear what the three individuals illustrated were doing.  The warrior Siegmund apparently was shown  astride a horse while Brunhilde served up a brew to someone he might just have clobbered. 

Not all Adolphus cards, however, featured scenes from Wagner.  The next one celebrated a character from a trilogy of plays by German dramatist Friedrich Schiller called “Wallenstein,” after the principal character, a military leader.  In the play, a Capuchin monk came to Wallenstein’s military camp and excoriated his soldiers for their misbehavior.  In this treatment, by contrast, the friar apparently had lost his mind over the thought of a Budweiser beer.  The next card also is from a German drama, this one by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  It depicted a scene from his famous “Faust.”  In the original text Mephisto (The Devil) appeared among a group of revelers drinking in a beer cellar in Leipzig, Germany.  Among them was Faust’ s buddy, Altmayer.  Altmayer has asked if Mephisto is from St. Louis and Satan in a complete nonsequitur has replied that he wanted a “Tony Faust Beer.”

Tony Faust Beer?   We may ask: What the devil is going on?   Once again the answer lay with Adolphus Busch. A close friend of the Beer Baron was Tony Faust, a man who owned an Oyster House and Restaurant in St. Louis, shown here.  A contemporary account said of this watering hole:  “Few people in the West have not heard of Tony Faust’s resort, and fewer still of those who come to St. Louis that do not visit his establishment.  This noted place is located at the corner of Fifth and Elm streets, immediately in the rear of the Southern Hotel ruin, made conspicuous by an immense and ornamental gas lamp, which, when lighted, reflect all the primary colors blended beautifully.”

Busch is said to have had lunch at Faust’s restaurant every day.   Interestingly, he washed it down with wine,  often referring to his own beer as “that slop.”   Busch’s daughter Anna married Faust’s son in a lavish wedding in 1897.  Adolphus showed his respect and admiration for the restauranteur by naming a brand of beer after him and calling it “King.”   Moreover he issued a series of opera trade cards bearing the Foust name and the Budweiser logo.   The first shown here drew on “Tannhauser,”  an Wagner opera, this one based on German legends.  In this scene, our hero, Tannhauser is engaging in a bacchanalia with a lot of stripped down German cuties because, the script said, he loved Venus.  Here, however, Mr. T seemed to be dismissing carnal pleasures in favor of a beer.

The following trade card recreated a scene from an opera from a Greek legend known in English as “Orpheus and Eurydice” by Christoph Willibald Gluck.   It depicted another bacchanalia with a bare-bosomed Eurydice drinking beer and intoning “Evohe,” the well-known Greek cry of orgiastic frenzy.   Despite her vocal excitement and feeling in her heart the “sweet delirium”  of Tony Faust beer,  Eurydice seemed reasonably well composed, although somewhat exposed.

Although all the previous images have had their origins in German opera and drama,  a final trade card celebrated a French opera, “Carmen.”  It was the creation of George Bizet and was an instant international hit.  The trade card celebrates a moment when the toreador, Escamillo, is surrounded by his supporters.   At at time when he should have been at his most sober in facing a raging bull, Escamillo professed that to drink “would be a pleasure”  and he preferred Tony Faust Beer.

Tony Faust beer eventually disappeared from the Anheuser-Busch line of brews leaving behind this line of colorfully lithographed (and highly imaginative) scenes from theatrical productions, mostly German operas.  One suspects that these trade cards were collected principally by men who could ogle the bare breasted babes, think about beer,  and still claim they were acquiring them because of their deep love for opera.