Anyone who pays attention to beer ads today, particularly on television, knows that comedy plays a large role in selling the suds. Even in the pre-Prohibition era, decades ahead of TV, brewery advertising employed a considerable amount of humor in trade cards, ads, and other ephemera. I have collected a few that may bring a smile to the beer aficionado.
The first example was issued by the Christian Moerlein brewery of Cincinnati (see my post of November 22, 2013). It is a take-off of the familiar nursery rhyme, reading: “Mary had a little lamb; Its fleece was white as snow. And everywhere that Mary went, The Moerlein’s Beer did flow.” The main humor here is Mary’s elderly teacher seen through a windows downing a glass of beer before class.
Schlitz brewery issued several trade cards in the early 20th Century, parodying scenes and lines from Shakespeare. Shown here is one taken from a climactic scene in Richard III in which the evil king has been bested on the battlefield and is seeking to escape. Shakespeare has him cry: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.” On the trade card Richard is willing to swap his kingdom for a glass of Schlitz Milwaukee Beer.
On two trade cards shown here, Miller Brewing of Milwaukee demonstrated a sly sense of humor. The first, entitled “The Water Wagon in Milwaukee,” shows eight people sitting on top of a keg of beer and being served up steins of brew by a gent standing on a rear bumper. The vehicle is being drawn by a brace of dachshunds toward the brewery buildings. Note that the tires are rimmed with sausages, another Beer Town specialty.
Miller also was responsible for a second card dominated by a large man wear a sport jacket and a cap who has his hand comfortably on what appears to be — to use the scientific term — “a beer gut” of enormous proportions He is sucking on a bottle and intoning in what must be considered a German accent, “How Ish Dot for High Life Beer.”
Not all humor cards were the work of well-known national breweries. Before the advent of the “walker,” the Atlantic City Brewing Company from the New Jersey city of the same name had illustrated an invention that allowed a customer to travel distances with two kegs and three steins. The rhyme in the corner says: “In my Walking Chair, I have no fear, of two big a load, of A.C.B Beer.” This was the principal brand of the brewery, opened in 1900 and said to be the only brewery in Atlantic City in the pre-Prohibition era. It closed in 1920, never to reopen.
Another invention meant to speed beer consumption was illustrated on a postcard entitled “Beer Lift.” It shows a pulley-like contraption that is carrying full steins of beer up to the waiting mouth of a seated gentleman and returning the empties from whence they came. The man seems to be operating it by turning a crank with his left hand. Although the sign on the wall says “Faust Beer,” a brand issued by the Anheuser-Busch Company of St. Louis, the card is from Herbert’s Bachelor Hotel in San Francisco. The hotel made headlines in 1913 when Al Herbert, its bachelor owner and operator, got married. One read: “Bachelors’ Hotel Invaded: Cupid Boldly Captures the Host.”
The following illustration, entitled “How McGinty and Family Enjoy Themselves after Drinking Dubuque Malting Company’s Beer.” The McGintys, none of them evidently wearing bathing suits, are holding a rope while someone intones, “”Now then, all together: One! Two!! Three!!! What they are doing is virtually inexplicable — but apparently the activity is fueled by beer. The company responsible for this ad was founded in 1892 by the consolidation of four small Dubuque breweries. When its new plant was opened for business in May 1896, a crowd of 20,000 early reportedly gathered for tours. By 1910 Dubuque Malting was the largest brewery in Iowa and among the largest in the Midwest. Statewide Prohibition closed the brewery in 1915. Legend has it that gangster Al Capone later used the facilities to brew and ship out illegal beer in milk cans.
The humor of young boys drinking liberally from a case of beer over the protests of a mother would certainly draw fire if the image were used today. Before National Prohibition in 1920 it was generally acceptable to use children to advertise beer. At least the D. G. Yuengling & Son Brewery of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, thought so. Established in 1829, Yuengling is accounted as the oldest operating brewing company in the United States, now producing about 2.5 million barrels a year. The trade card dates from the late 1800s.
Prohibition also drove some breweries to humor. Here is a postcard view of three men, wearing a variety of clothing, all dangling from ropes as if they have been hanged. The sign on the “hanging tree” says: “If this town goes dry, us Germans vill hang togeder.” A brewery in the background has been closed, but these are not the owners committing suicide —two have their hands lied behind their backs. Some one did this to them. But who? One would have to ask the Heileman Brewery of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, that question. That’s where the image originated.
The final example is the label from a self-identified “temperance beverage” whose humor is in its name, “Brother Wiser.” It is obviously a send up of Budweiser Beer. Note that like the brew, this drink was made in St. Louis, Missouri. Needless to say, Augie Busch and his company were not amused. But the lawsuit that sunk the Brother Wiser was launched in Alabama, not on the grounds of trademark infringement, but to enforce a law that prohibited selling any beverage in the state that had the color, odor or general appearance of beer. It made no difference that it contained no alcohol. That decision was rendered by an Alabama Court of Appeals judge named Hugo Black who later would go on to make a distinguished career on the U.S. Supreme Court.
I hope these ten examples have demonstrated adequately that beer and humor make a nice fit together. So lift one and have a good laugh.