With the world being in the throes of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, gold medals are on everyone’s mind. One gold medal has been on my mind since I won it on an internet auction site recently. Shown here, it actually is a bronze reproduction for use as a paperweight. The medallion has an interesting bas-relief design showing a woman wearing a crown, trailed by a small boy and a man carrying an ax who seem to be encountering three individuals dressed somewhat haphazardly in togas. Not an easy message to decipher.
The clue to its identity lies in the writing below. It represents a medal awarded at the “Exposition Internationale de Gand,” that is, the World’s Fair in Ghent, Belgium, in 1913. Such expositions tended to give out gold medals like lollipops in a kid’s barbershop to all kinds of products that bothered to participate and demonstrate their wares. In this case, turning the medal over, shows -- perhaps suprisingly -- that this medal was awarded to the American whiskey maker, Jack Daniels.
Depicted here on a paperweight, in 1857 Daniels began his career as a teenage apprentice to a man who was both a distiller and a Lutheran preacher in Tennessee. After a visit from a woman prohibitionist the preacher gave up the distillery, located on interestingly-named Louse Creek, and Daniels took it over. About age 14 he was making wagon trips to Huntsville, Alabama, to sell his whiskey. After service in the Civil War he was able to acquire distillery property near Lynchburg, Tennessee and about 1866 he registered with the state as Jack Daniels Distillery.
Within a few years Daniels with his nephew Lem Motlow had build his whiskey business into one of the largest in the the United States. Daniels believed in advertising and publicity. When an international fair was held in Liege, Belgium, in 1905, his whiskey was represented and won a gold medal. By the time of the Ghent fair, however, Daniels, a bachelor, was dead, victim of a gangrenous injury in 1911. Having no wife or children he left the distillery to Motlow. The latter was of the same mind about publicity and took his whiskey wares to Ghent.
The Exposition, shown here in panorama. was held on an area of 130 acres not far from the center of town, close to a recently completed railway station. Renovations were made to a number of buildings in Ghent. The construction is said to have been controversial and the fair ended on the eve of World War One when many Europeans were not in a fair-going mood Despite having been sold to townsfolk as an economic boon, the Ghent Expo ended seriously in debt. By that time, however, Motlow was home in Tennessee savoring his gold medal.
The medal design was by Godefroid Devreese (sometimes given as “de” Vreese) Shown here, he was born at Courtrai, Belgium, in 1861. From the age of fifteen he practiced sculpture in the studio of his father, Constant Devreese, a well known Belgian artist. At the time of the Exposition, Devreese was considered one of Europe’s outstanding sculptors in the mode of “art nouveau.” That style had been the rage during the latter part of the 19th Century but was slowly going out of fashion in the 20th. Nonetheless, Devreese created his gold medal in the art nouveau style.
It is worthwhile comparing the Devreese original with the Daniels reproduction. A primary difference is in the backgrounds. In the original the wall behind the figures is utterly plain. It emphasizes the six figures shown. The Devreese design indicates that the woman with a crown likely is greeting three Greek muses, probably those associated with music, “Aoid”, song; “Melet,” practice, and “Mneme,” memory. This may be why the boy behind the woman has is throwing flowers from a basket toward them. Concertgoers know that performers are thrown flowers. None of this pageantry is evident in the Daniels paperweight. There a pebbled background obscures the grace of Devreese’s design and makes it look clumsy and “heavy.” Moreover, the molding of the figures on
the reproduction is crude, particularly when compared with the elegant original.
Nevertheless, the Jack Daniel whiskey folks are proud of their medal, despite it having been supplied by a little known and apparently unsuccessful World’s Fair. As further evidence the distillers have included it on a shot glass of their issuance. Shown here, it is rendered in gold and carries a reminder that it was bestowed on Jack Daniels at “Ghent, Belgium, Gold Medal, 1913.” The discovery of this glass opens a question: Was the bronze paperweight issued at the time of its award, which would make it an antique or manufactured and issued more recently? I lean toward a later, post-Prohibition date. Although such signs sometimes can be misleading, the item lacks the patina and evidence of wear that artifacts of that vintage can be expected to display.
Moreover, Jack Daniels is a whiskey producer that has outdone all of its U.S. rivals in the number and variety of paperweights it has issued over the years. In my collection I have no fewer than nine, all of them circulated post-Prohibition, and there are many more. Among those in my collection are an attractive etched black glass weight, decorated with ears of corn and sheaves of wheat, shown here. It carries a sticker on the back identifying it as a product of the Fenton Glass Works of Williamstown, West Virginia, one of America’s oldest and most successful. Founded in 1905 Fenton glass appears to have weathered the onslaught of foreign competition and at least the last time I looked is still doing business under direction of the Fenton family.
The Jack Daniels crowd, however, do not always “buy American.” Shown here is a weight that displays a variety of whiskey labels related to the Tennessee whiskey. It bears a sticker on its felt-lined base that identifies it as from the “Waterfill Glass Collection.” Research discloses that items so marked come from China. This post closes showing a weight that display souvenir shot glasses that the company has sold through its Lynchburg General Store.
The “back story” of the Jack Daniels gold medal weight has led from Louse Creek and Lynchburg, Tennessee, to Ghent, Belgium, and then on to Williamstown, West Virginia, and China, finally returning to Lynchburg. That odyssey is recalled each time I look at the bronze paperweight now sitting on a pedestal in my office.