Friday, September 26, 2014

North to the Klondike in a Flask

In keeping with the title of this blog, from time to time I feature a bottle or bottles.  This time the subject is a whiskey container known widely by collectors as the “Klondike Flask.”  It has been called “one of bottle collecting’s classical figural bottles.”

Only six inches high, the milk glass bottle is shaped like a mountain range or glacier with brown and gold paint on both sides that emphasize the rugged nature of the terrain being depicted.  It was the brainchild of George Smithhisler, the Ohio liquor dealer who designed it, provided the several swallows of liquor the bottle contained, and issued the flasks in substantial numbers, apparently as a memorial to the Yukon Gold Rush.
In 1847 George's father moved from Holmes County to Knox County, located in the central part of the Buckeye State,  approximately 30 miles north and east of Columbus. The county seat is Mount Vernon, named after the home of George Washington.  By the time the Smithhislers arrived, the town had about 2,500 inhabitants, a court house, a market house, churches and a number of taverns.  

I surmise that Smithhisler’s father may have been making some liquor on his farm for local consumption and that George grew up in a tradition of distilling. Initially a farmer, in time young Smithhisler established himself as a wholesale and retail liquor dealer, located at 15-17 West Vine Street in Mount Vernon.  A trade card indicated  that he was dealing in both foreign and domestic wines and liquor.  He is shown here with his first wife who unfortunately died at an early age.

Around the turn of the century Smithhisler issued his famous flask.  At that time the Klondike held great fascination.   A region of the Yukon in Northwest Canada, east of the Alaska border, it lies around the Klondike River, a stream that enters the Yukon from the frontier town of Dawson at the east.    Gold had been discovered in 1897 and precipitated a gold rush that saw thousands of prospectors heading there with dreams of riches.  
It also inspired Smithhisler to issue his small milk glass flask of whiskey.  It bore a round red label, announcing the contents as “Nuggets of Pure Gold from Klondyke” -- an alternative spelling -- and included his name and location. The flask also featured a metal screw cap that sealed the threaded neck and covered the ground-off top of the bottle.  

Through the years this artifact has attracted considerable attention from bottle and glass collectors.  It was blown in a mold that took a considerable amount of time and attention to create the mountain effect.  It also required painting by hand to overlay the glass with gold and brown pigments.   With time and wear, as shown here,  some examples have lost their labels and significant amounts of paint.  In one case an owner stripped the bottle down to its milk glass base, revealing the full extent of the ridges and valleys.

The noted expert on American glass and bottles, Dr. Cecil Munsey, has been fascinated with the flask, calling it a “classic.”  He has asserted the belief held by many that the bottle was inspired and made just before the beginning of the 20th Century to commemorate the Klondike gold strike.  My additional suspicion is that George, having lived all his life in Central Ohio, might himself have wanted desperately to go “North to the Yukon” to seek his fortune digging in the tundra for gold.  With a second wife, four children, a farm and a liquor business, that was a dream Smithhisler would never to be able to achieve.  His flask may well have been “Plan B.”
The inspiration for the flask design might well have come from newspaper photographs of prospectors struggling through the snows over the mountains, such as the iconic photograph here.  Taken by George C. Cantwell, it shows Klondikers carrying supplies over the Chikoot Pass.  Note that the contours of the peak at right, depicting alternating rock and snow are similar to those on the flask.
Although the bottle bears no mark, it almost certainly was the product of the A. H. Heisey Company established in Newark, Ohio, in 1896.  Heisey and his sons operated it until 1957.  The glassmakers were known for the crispness of their molding and they featured a line of milk glass.  Shown here is a Heisey toothpick holder that has a painted beadwork reminiscent of the Smithhisler flask.  

Little else about Smithhisler has entered the historical record. He seems never again to have designed and  issued a figural flask or a notable bottle of any kind. His liquor business  closed by 1916 when Ohio voted to go “Dry.”  In his later years it appears he relocated to Cleveland, perhaps to live with one of his children.  In November 1930, Smithhisler died at City Hospital in Cleveland at the age of 80. His body was returned to Mount Vernon where he had spent most of his life and was buried in Calvary Cemetery there.  Meanwhile, the flask that bears his name lives on in collections throughout America.


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