Friday, August 14, 2015

Mr. Pickwick — The “Old Gentleman” Advertising Alcohol

When British Author Charles Dickens created the character of Samuel Pickwick in 1837 he gave the world a kind and wealthy “Old Gentleman,” as he termed him, whose fondness for strong drink has followed his figure down through the centuries.  Captured in ceramics, glass, and newspaper ads, Mr. Pickwick, like W.C. Fields in our own day,* has become a classic icon for advertising alcoholic beverages.
Dickens' novel, written under the pseudonym “Boz” and known as “The Pickwick Papers,” follows his protagonist, perpetual president of the Pickwick Club, with three friends as they journey to places outside London in order to research the “quaint and curious phenomena of life.”  These excursions are lubricated by a great many drinks of punch, wine, and ale as the group traipses around England.  The original cover of Dickens' book indicates the alcoholic nature of the club’s “perambulations, perils, travels, adventures.”  The illustration at bottom shows Pickwick snoozing while fishing, presumably having imbibed deeply from a bottle sitting on the bow of his boat.
Royal Doulton Pottery, renowned for its “character” jugs, created the first ceramic pitcher shown here.  It was part of a series the company produced in limited numbers for the Pick-Kwik Wines and Spirits, Ltd. of Derby, England, advertising its Scotch whiskey.   Doulton produced a bespectacled and pudgy Mr. Pickwick, looking slightly woozy.  His hat described the lip of a pitcher and the handle was a bottle marked simply “whiskey.”  This was an edition of 2,000.

Plck-Kwik Wines and Spirits also produced a line of mini-jugs, each containing several swallows of its liquor, probably to be given away to favored customers.   The handle side of each featured a standing figure of Pickwick, raising his hat in greeting and a bottle of the whiskey with the same image as the label.   The series features scenes from a number of Dickens novels in well-executed under-glaze transfer printed images.   Several, like the two below, feature well-known scenes from The Pickwick Papers.

The mini-jug at left below captures a scene in which Mr. Pickwick, standing at far right, is addressing the club all of whom have been drinking the wine glasses on the table.  Typically, as Dickens told it, the Old Gentleman’s discourse would have shown the effects of the amount of drink consumed before he began.  The jug at right is the first meeting of Mr. Pickwick, again far right, with another famous Dickens character, Sam Weller, at left.  Weller, a young man with an array of talents, will become Pickwick’s “man,” helping him out of several scrapes. 
The next Pickwick jug carried a full fifth of what the labels calls “Finest Old Blended Pickwick Rare Scotch Whisky.”  Although, as on the mini-jugs, Pickwick’s figure appears on the rear, he has been pre-empted on the front by Santa Claus.  This ceramic jug, the product of Buchan Pottery of Portobello, Scotland, was made for the 1982 holiday market in the U.S.  All Scotch whiskey is a blend but in this country blends must be identified as such.  In Scotland what Americans call “straight” whiskey are known as “single malts.”

U.S. distillers also saw a benefit from using the Pickwick image.  The Kentucky bourbon,  Jim Beam, commissioned Doulton Pottery to undertake its own version of the Dickens character.  This was a “two-headed” version with the back side being the visage of a winking Sam Weller.  The handle was a Jim Beam bottle rendered in yellow.  Compared with the earlier Doulton jug, this Pickwick has a definite sly look in his eyes and a jaunty red bow tie.  The backside also carries the motto:  “The world’s best bourbon.”  Beam also commissioned a second version of Pickwick, this one largely in white porcelain.  Here the Old Gentleman seems contemplative, perhaps thinking about the inscription at the bottom:  “Jim Beam Sells Whiskey.”
Another American distiller and whiskey wholesaler that picked up on the Pickwick story was George Benz, a German immigrant to Minneapolis whose liquor “empire” extended south to Kentucky and east to Baltimore.  His flagship brand was “Pickwick Rye,”   

Benz advertised the product as a quality whiskey — “Its well worth going after.”  To illustrate the point, his ad shows a portly Mr. Pickwick himself, aided by two friends, being boosted to a point where he can grab a bottle — one with his picture on it.  Always generous with his giveaways, Benz provided saloons and restaurants carrying his whiskey with attractive “back-of-the-bar” bottles bearing the Pickwick name.

Although Dickens’ character would not have been familiar with American bourbon, he would have recognized “the tang of good old ale.”  That is why Rudolf F. Haffenreffer, described as a Rhode Island industrialist and Massachusetts brewer, called two of his beer brands “Pickwick Pale” and “Pickwick Stout.”  A late 1930s ad shows a fashionable couple arriving in a roadster at “ye tavern” serving those brews.  Haffenreffer, who later became president of Narragansett Brewery, did not include a picture  of the Old Gentleman on his bottles.
The final ad appears to be a rival American-made Pickwick Ale, as advertised on a theater program.  It claimed to be “…always served on draught, never in bottles.”  In this case, the advertiser presented us with a picture of Pickwick enjoying a stein of ale while sitting jauntily on a large wooden settee.  This Pickwickian image marks a fitting conclusion to a brief look at a fictional character whose drinking habits have made him an iconic figure for alcoholic libations ever since.

Note:   *My post on W.C. Fields can be found on this blog for March 2015.

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