Friday, February 27, 2015

Black History Month: A Fourth Look at Whiskey Advertising

February as Black History Month has, year by year, brought to the fore individuals, organizations, activities and events that have helped shape the Nation.  My feeble contribution has been to resurrect vintage whiskey advertising that depicted blacks and to provide some analysis of the illustrations and dialogue evident in those commercial appeals.  My first post on the subject, for anyone interested, was in January 2010.  The second in February 2011 focused on the depiction of African-American waiters.  The third post demonstrated that since the 1960s distillers and liquor dealers have taken different racial attitudes.
For a time those posts exhausted my supply of relevant images.  In the ensuing three years, however, I have been able to collect other examples.  For this post I have grouped them around three themes:  1) The use of what apparently was believed to be black language patterns, 2) the depiction of children, and  3) blacks shown at an occupation.  For last I have saved an illustration that, at least for me, was startling.
We recognize that generations of hardships imposed on the African-American community created distinctive language patterns. Slave owners often intentionally mixed people who spoke different African languages to discourage communication in any language other than English. This, combined with prohibitions against education, led to speech patterns that whiskey interests at the turn of the century apparently thought would have advertising value.
The first example here is from the Schuetz-Renziehausen wholesale liquor dealers of Pittsburgh, an outfit founded about 1880.  It was a highly successful enterprise, occupying an eight-story building on Liberty Street. Frederick C. Renziehausen also became a major distiller of Pennsylvania rye whiskey.  A trade card illustrates two well-dressed black youths who are riding in the back of a wagon driven by a similarly well-dressed adult and pulled by a mule.  The wagon carries a huge bottle of whiskey.  One of the boys is remarking to the driver:  “Golly Boss, der will be no Bellyache dis trip — its ’Diamond Monogram.’”
The second example has the center black figure similarly enthusiastic about the whiskey he is carrying, in this case “Star Whiskey.”  He is remarking “It ‘zactly suits dis chile.”   The ad identifies the spirits as a whiskey distilled and warranted pure by C. L. Dixon of Cynthiana, Kentucky and names a New York distributing agent named W.B. Crowell Jr.  Seen her in a multicolor chronograph, the same trade card was issued in black and white.
The next ad features “Old Harvest Corn whiskey.  The picture is of a black couple sitting in a cabin in front of the fire.  The woman has a small baby on her lap who reaches eagerly for a whiskey bottle.  She is saying “He’s gittin’ mo’ like his dad every day.”  But there is a second message in this scene as the sign, meant for saloons, indicates that Old Harvest Corn “was the cause of it all.”  Are we to assume that whiskey was involved in the conception of this child?
Unlike the three previous examples, all of which were issued prior to 1920 and National Prohibition, the final ad organized around a speech theme was issued after Repeal, probably in the late 1930s.  It has a waiter theme.  The faithful retainer here is offering “Dere sho’ am a run on dis Gibson celebrated rye whiskey.”  Note how the diction changes when the text gets to the product name. 
My second theme is the use of sub-adults in such ads.  We already have seen several youngsters.  Here are three more, led by a small black boy with an ax who is menacing a chicken.  It was issued by the National Distilling Company, an outfit that bought up distilleries and stocks of whiskey during Prohibition and by the mid-1930s was vigorously merchandising its products.  The message here is confusing, seeming to identify the boy with Carrie Nation, the axe-swinging anti-alcohol zealot who had been long in her grave.
Although many of the youngsters shown are smartly dressed, the kid shown above is the real dude.  He wears a straw hat, a checked coat, a cravat, a vest and striped pants.  This dandy is saying in small letters on the base:  “I take Old Continental Whisky!  What do you drink?”   Note that this young man is speaking “The King’s English.”  This trade card was issued by the Bernheim Brothers of Lexington, Kentucky, whose ads did not always treat blacks subjects with the same respect.
The final youth is carrying a signboard, both front and back, a job that was not uncommon in that day but less so today.  His sign advertises Kentucky whiskeys from a B. Kaufman and touts “Old Liquors for family use and medical purposes a specialty.”  Although no location is indicated on this trade card, my research indicates that Bernard Kaufman was a wholesale liquor dealer in business from 1880 to 1890 at two addresses on Washington Street in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Now we move to adult blacks seemingly engaged happily their respective occupations.  The first is the label of a post-Prohibition whiskey called “Cotton Picker Corn Whiskey.”  It depicts an elderly gentleman in the South standing amidst a field of fluffy cotton — definitely an idealized picture. The Old Quaker Company that issued it, however, existed north of the Mason-Dixon line in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
Another whiskey that celebrated a happy black worker was “Singing Sam” brand of Kentucky corn whiskey.  The label illustration is a figure playing a banjo with notes streaming from his mouth while he leans against a pile of wood that he likely just chopped.  This post-Prohibition brand was issued by a Kentucky distiller named Artie Cummins.  He had purchased what was left of an abandoned distillery at a worker village called Athertonville, rebuilt the plant, and operated it until 1946. .
The final worker is also our only female, clearly looking very well after a squalling infant.  Among the messages on this trade card is that the liquor is:  “Emphatically…’The Whiskies of our Daddies.”  Maybe that is why the baby looks so distressed.  My considerable research about “Old Maryland Dutch Whiskey” has revealed nothing about its origin except a claim that it was distilled on the Eastern Shore of the state.
The saloon sign for Hapstone Rye that ends this post still has me scratching my head.  It appears to show a smartly dressed gentleman of color standing with a white woman with a low bodice who is eyeing him intently while in the midst of hiking her dress to fix a stocking. The sexual implications are evident. This was one of many pre-Prohibition brands from the Samuel Westheimer Co. of St. Joseph, Missouri. Given the anti-miscegenation laws in place in the South, one wonders what point Westheimer was trying to make with this image and how it was received. 
There they are: eleven whiskey advertisements, including trade cards, newspaper notices, bottle labels and saloon signs  — all depicting American blacks.  If issued today most would be readily identified as racist — or at least distasteful.  Distain, however, should not blind us to such images. They remind us of a past we should never, never forget.   

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your 4 Black History Month posts! In the course of compiling the Earl J. Arnold Advertising Card Collection-1885 I, too, have come across many disturbing African-American and Chinese caricatures as well as gender stereotypes typical of the late 19th century. I have linked to your posts on page 74 of the Arnold Collection.