Saturday, May 23, 2015

Milwaukee and its Breweries Poking Fun at Beer

As readers of this blog know, I spent a greater part of two decades in Milwaukee and think of it as my home town of cherished memory. I still remember when it was the undisputed brewing capitol of America, “Beer Town USA.”  Although the largely German heritage population took their beer seriously, they could poke fun at themselves, as evidenced by the vintage postcards shown here.
One of my favorites is a card that announces “Touring in Milwaukee,” that shows a mustached gent driving a primitive automobile who is sitting on a crate of beer bottles and whose engine is a beer barrel.   A malt house and a brewery are shown in the distance.  It is particularly notable for its attention to other Milwaukee favorites including cheese (specifically here, limburger), frankfurters, sauerkraut and pretzels.  Those epitomize the town we know and love.
The breweries often issued their own comic cards.  The Miller Brewery, to my mind, was the most creative, poking fun at both Milwaukeeans and their beer.  “The Water Wagon in Milwaukee” is humorous in virtually every aspect, showing a group of townsfolk's riding a barrel of High Life beer while drinking from steins and goblets being filled by a man standing on the back of the vehicle next to a spigot.  As in the earlier postcard, the dachshund is the canine of choice, shown here as the source of locomotion.
The recently invented airplane was another theme for a comic Miller card, with a quaint little driver steering the flying machine quaffing a Miller beer while cruising over the Miller Brewing Company.   Note that the propellers are made of sausages as are the landing struts.  The theme here is “The High Life in Milwaukee.”

Miller Beer issued a card that clearly was aimed at a caricature of the beer-drinking resident of Milwaukee — a gent with a large “beer belly“ and a distinct German accent  drinking from a bottle of Miller High Life and intoning “How Is Dot for High Life Beer.”  Ish dot making fun of the drinking local drinking public?  Yah, dot ish! 

Schlitz beer usually took a more sophisticated approach to its humorous trade cards, featuring spoofs of Shakespeare’s plays.  Above right is a faux scene from Hamlet, Act One, Scene One.  Here Hamlet is in despair because of the death of his father and the quick marriage of his mother to the new king, his uncle (the murderer).  In the play itself the king utters most of the words on the card — except he and the queen are not holding foaming steins of beer, nor does he admonish Hamlet to try a Schlitz.
Shakespeare also is lampooned in a second Schlitz card.  The card depicts a scene from Richard III when Richard has been defeated in a pivotal battle and has been thrown from his steed.  As the Bard wrote it, he cries:  “My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse.”  In the Schlitz version, the king thinks that a glass of beer will do just as well as horse.  One interesting touch is that the Schlitz logo has been attached to the shield of the spearman at top left.
The next Schlitz card is something of a mystery, obviously meant for a Milwaukee audience and carrying local connotations.  It may be referencing the Eagles Club, a national fraternal organization that was very active in Milwaukee, perhaps hailing a national Eagles  convention.  A male figure at lower right is carrying the key to the city.  He is identified as Mayor Becker.  Elected at 29 in 1906, Sheldon Becker was known as the “Boy Mayor of Milwaukee.”  A Republican, he did not grow old in the job, defeated two years later by a Democrat and never ran again.  Thus, the card can be dated 1906-1908.

Joining Miller and Schlitz in promoting humor in advertising, Pabst tended toward more elegant settings for many of its trade cards.  There is implicit humor in a young woman dressed in what looks like a ball gown and pumps wielding a feather duster as if she is the cleaning lady.  The caption reads:  “A little talk over the wires with…”  When opened it appears she is phoning a local beer "stube" that carries a variety of Pabst products.

But Pabst could downright folksy sometimes, as exemplified by this “Greeting from Milwaukee” postcard.   Mimicking the familiar football cheer of the time, it depicted a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon being opened by a waiter for a customer.  As the cap is being lifted, a “Z-i-s” sound is heard.  Then as the carbon monoxide gas explodes out, a “Boom.”  Finally as the gent quaff the brew, a satisfied “Ah.”
The fourth member of the Milwaukee “Big Four” breweries of the time, Blatz, generally was more serious in its advertising.  I have been able to find only one Blatz card in the humor genre and that may have originated from a saloon in St. Paul, called the Corner Buffet.  The card, dated 1905, shows a row of the proverbial bald-headed men watching a burlesque chorus line.  A patron has thrown a bouquet of roses on stage with note, “meet me.”  The message is that kicking about the weather won’t help  but drinking beer from “world famous Blatz Brewery” would help some.
There they are:  Ten examples of how Milwaukee and its brewers could make fun of the city, its citizens, and Milwaukee beers. While engaged in serious competitive merchandising efforts, they also had concluded that smiles sold suds. 


Saturday, May 9, 2015

That Weird and Wonderful Bottle Maker — Michael Grafton

When I see an artisan that truly stands above the crowd in the imagination which he or she brings to the craft, it warrants attention for this blog.  When that individual makes bottles — in this case decanters — and identifies some of them with booze, it can’t be resisted.   That’s what happened when I happened on a ceramic piece by Michael Grafton, an artisan living in Panama City, Florida, where he creates, as his website puts it, “unique sculptural works of art.”  

The particular jug/decanter that got me going is shown above.  It is called the “Chainsaw Whiskey Jug” and appealed to me enormously because of the disembodied hands that are poised to operate this formidable looking tool.  Grafton, as he does frequently, has written his own commentary on this item:   “You might want to be careful drinking from this whiskey jug.   It was not made for those frilly, mellow - wimpy, mild - sweet on the lips - goes down smoothly - properly aged - and bring a smile to your face whiskey blends.    This jug is for that freshly made - 150 proof - rot your gut - put hair on your chest -  burn all the way down - tear you up inside - white lightning moonshine whiskey that you will never forget, until the next morning.  It also works well as chainsaw fuel.   Enjoy.”

Grafton seems somewhat obsessed with whiskey.  Shown above are three jug/decanters all made to resemble the well-recognized label of Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey.  Each of them carries its own dubious message.  The one at left, labeled Kool-Aid Jammer conjures up images of James Jones and the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guiana years ago.  The second, “Howling Wolf,” and its “wild nights” motto has me thinking of Lon Chaney Jr. running around as the Wolf Man when the moon is shining just right.    The third is a bit enigmatic.  My fancy is that “Old Yeller” of movie fame has wandered upon a rural still, lapped up some of the “dew,” and gotten sick.

Less whimsical and more to the point is the bottle above that he has christened “Toxic Moonshine Whiskey Bottle.”  He explained:  “The first cup or so of moonshine in a batch is where the impurities (such as the poisonous methanol alcohol) gather. Responsible distillers will toss this away, ensuring a relatively safe product for their customers. However, there are plenty of unscrupulous people in the business. Some moonshiners have been known to include bizarre ingredients to add to their product’s potency, including manure and embalming fluid. To make matters worse, the stuff is usually made in the middle of the woods in less than sterile conditions, the sweet mash drawing all manner of insects and rodents.”

Grafton’s “Toad Whiskey Jug” has a similar moonshine theme.  He postulates the following about its origins:  “Occasionally moonshiners will leave a few jugs of a particularly good batch of whiskey hidden deep in the woods for a full year to let the moonshine age. This brings out a complex bouquet of flavors and tertiary aromas that the high end moonshine connoisseurs will pay top dollar for. But that's only if the forest critters don't get to it first.”

The artist may have come by his clearly deep knowledge of moonshine by his Southern origins.  According to a biography he was getting an degree in architecture at Louisiana Tech, he was hired at the Odell Pottery in Lafayette, Louisiana.   Learning from its found and a master ceramicist, Peter Martin, he stayed seven years there before moving to Panama City where, with a partner, he designed, managed and handled the finances for the highly successful Round Tree Pottery.  In 2009 he started his own art-pottery company. 

Another persistent images for Grafton are undersea scenes — or more likely, undersea nightmares.  Living as he does in a town with a lengthy sand beach on the Gulf of Mexico, ocean-going activities are familiar occupations for him.  My favorite among these bottles is centered on a face of a very wary snorkeler looking at the array of fish and one crab who seems to be blocking his air tube.  All the fish appear to have extraordinary dental appendages.

It is likely that they are smaller, but no less nasty, relatives of a fish ceramic that Grafton dubs “Monster Fish Face Jug.”  He says of it: “You know those peaceful Summer days when you are at the lake, sitting on the dock, reading a good book and dangling your toes in the water. This monster fish loves those kinds of days.”  I am reminded of those Wisconsin “old wives tales” about muskies nipping off toes from feet dangling off docks “up North.”
As proven above, sea creatures other than toothy fish can be a hazard to mankind, as evidence by the Grafton bottle above.  One observer of his ceramics has suggested that the artist offers the viewer an opportunity to get “emotionally involved” with the people he sculpts, but it is up to the viewer to create the back story.  Referencing this double decanter, the observer asked:  “What is going on between this dude and the octopus on his face?”   Whatever it is, the “dude” is unhappy.

A third area of Grafton whimsey are pun-like send ups of familiar terms, legends and sayings.  The decanter above, named “Fish Tank,” employs one of Grafton’s monster fish that has been transformed into a formidable weapon of war.  It bristles with multiple guns and combat ready figures.  In looking over this highly complex ceramic, my favorite touch is the ladder that climbs up the side of the white neck of the jug.

A less threatening vehicle is the artist’s rendition of the fable of the tortoise and the hare.  In this case the rabbit is sitting confidently astride the turtle that is equipped with wheels and what appears to be a explosive propulsion force.   Yet from the position of both contestants on the sculpture, it appears that the turtle would once again cross the finish line first — by a nose.

The final example of Grafton’s fantastic imagination is a marvelous send-up of the feminist mantra:  “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”   This fish — evidently a male fish — not only needs but actually has a bicycle and seems to be thoroughly enjoying the experience.   Clearly this is a “must have item” for every male chauvinist on your Christmas list.  

Note:  Michael Grafton has a webpage on “blogspot,” the same free weblog publishing site that hosts “Bottles, Booze and Back Stories.”  The “ is his web address. The site contains dozens of pictures of his creations for sale.  Grafton also accepts custom orders.  When the “Chainsaw Whiskey Jug” recently came up for auction on eBay, it sold for $280 — a very reasonable price, it seems to me, for a truly unique bottle.