Friday, August 29, 2014

The Life and Death of “Mr. Dry"

In the decade of struggle over the banning of alcoholic beverages in the United States the proponents on each side were branded as “Wets” and “Drys.”  The Wets were those who opposed a ban on strong drink on the grounds that it was an unwarranted infringement on personal liberty and the Drys who saw alcohol as the devil’s work and knew America would be a much better place without it.
By careful manipulation of public opinion, such as marches by substantial citizens as shown above, the Drys eventually  were able to pressure “finger in the air” politicians into doing their bidding.  With the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and Congressional implementing legislation known as the Volstead Act, National Prohibition,the so-called “Great Experiment,” became the law of the land in January 1920.

Among those outraged by Prohibition was a middle-aged aged native of Illinois named Rollin Kirby, shown here in a portrait,  When Kirby’s career as an artist and illustrator proved disappointing, he turned to political cartooning.  After working for two other New York City newspapers, he made his home and reputation at the New York World.  He was there in 1920 when the saloons closed, bars were shuttered and liquor dealers by the thousands were left unemployed. 

Out of his anger, Kirby invented a character who would become the symbol to many of what Prohibition meant.  In an editorial cartoon that was dated January 17, 1920 he depicted a tall, lean foreboding figure wearing a frock coat, stovepipe hat, and black gloves, carrying a black umbrella.  He quickly became known as “Mr. Dry.”  In his first  appearance Dry was depicted standing in front of a giant water bottle looking like a choral director and commanding: “Now then, all together, ‘My country ’tis of thee.”  The image was an immediate success and Kirby followed up with other cartoons of Mr. Dry.  Christmas, a holiday that always had been a time of convivial drinking, had now been made bleaker by the ban on alcohol.  The cartoonist memorialized that sad situation by showing a grinning Mr. Dry dowsing an unsuspecting Santa Claus in the face with water from his syphon.
The figure soon “went viral” and became the icon for anti-Prohibition emotions being felt and expressed by millions of Americans.  It was natural then that others would adopt the image and turn it to their own mocking purposes.  Shown here is the patent design submitted in 1932 by inventor Alfred Flauder of Trumbull, Conn.  Here Mr. Dry is just a head with in two phases, an evil grin and a fierce scowl.  Approved as Design Patent No. 87,658, the device combined a bottle opener (the mouth), a jigger (the hat), a corkscrew, and on the back a swing down cocktail stirrer.  It was manufactured by the Weidlich Bros. Mfg. Co. of Bridgeport, Conn. and marketed as the “4 -in- 1 Friendship Kit.”
Multipurpose drink accoutrements proliferated to celebrate Kirby’s cartoon figure. The “Old Snifter” opener bears a strong resemblance to Mr. Dry even down to the umbrella.  Snifter’s hat concealed a swivel corkscrew, his hand is the bottle opener, and, as is helpfully noted on the box, the base can be used to crush ice.   This imaginative device was the brainchild of John Schuchardt of New York and the casting was done by the Dollin Die Casting Company of Irvington, New Jersey.

The wide and gaping mouth on the next Mr. Dry indicates that it has lost some metal over the years opening, I hope, bottles of beer.  Meant to be attached to a vertical wooden surface by screws though its ears, the cast iron face was the product of Wilton Products Co. which produced the item in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors.  The Wilton family began casting metal along the Susquehanna River in 1893 and eventually became known for producing hand-painted cast iron objects, including bottle openers, trivets, candle holders and a wide variety of novelty items.  From the number of them available on-line, this opener must have been a best seller.

In 1896, Gustav Schafer and Gunther Vater founded the Schafer and Vater Porcelain Factory in Thuringa, Germany, with the purpose of making high quality porcelain items. By 1910 the reputation of the pottery for craftsmanship and design had grown to international proportions and Sears Roebuck was importing and selling large quantities of Schafer and Vater pottery in the United States.   Among their products were a host of small figural liquor bottles for distribution by American distillers and saloons, often called nips.”  With the coming of National Prohibition to the United States, this major business opportunity was largely denied to the German potters.  Profits from their American exports were severely curtailed. The company response was to design and sell objects lampooning the notion of abolishing alcoholic drink.  Among them was this figural flask with a Mr. Dry look-alike who is drinking and described as “one of the boys.”

With the progression of Prohibition into the 1930s, Kirby continued to satirize its adherents.  In one cartoon published about 1930, shown below, he depicts the gent in three modes. In the first a neatly dressed Mr. Dry simply holds a sign reading "Thou shalt NOT!" The second Mr. Dry, gloating, holds a newspaper describing a "rum-runner" having been "shot by dry agent." In the third Kirby depicts a ragged Mr. Dry holding a tin cup and wearing a sign reading "I am starving.”  It was an allusion to the fact that a backlash against the ban on drink was taking hold in the Nation.
A statuette (and bottle opener) that reads “The End of the Trail,” is a spoof of the famous statue by American artist James Earle Fraser that depicted an American Indian warrior slumped over his horse.  Here Mr. Dry has replaced the Indian and a camel (who can go long without drinking) has been substituted for the horse.  The message was clear:  The era of National Prohibition is about over.  And it was.

The final picture here, taken shortly after Repeal, documents the “death” of Mr. Dry, hanged in effigy on a city street by a group of seven men.  The sign affixed to the dummy indicates considerable lingering hostility to those who had engineered 14 years without legal strong drink.  It read “Death to the Drys.”  

Mr. Dry disappeared from Rollin Kirby’s cartoons for the New York World but his ability was to win him the very first Pulitzer prize ever given to a political cartoonist.  He would go on in his career to be awarded two more.

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