Saturday, April 9, 2016

Shakespeare’s Falstaff: An Icon for the Drinking Public

Just as Charles Dickens gave us Mr. Pickwick, and the movies, W. C. Fields, Shakespeare created one of the world’s most famous topers in Sir John Falstaff and featured him in three plays —  Henry IV, Part One, Henry IV, Part Two, and upon command of Queen Elizabeth I,  “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”  Falstaff subsequently has been treated in many forms, among them prominently in American beer advertising.  

Although Englishmen in Shakespeare’s time usually drank ale, Falstaff is best identified with a kind of brandy-fortified wine called “sack,” a drink the old rogue claimed gave him “excellent wit” and contributed to “the warming of the blood.”  Heedless of Sir John’s drinking habits, the Lemp brewery of St. Louis embraced him in an effort to sell beer.

Lemp was an immigrant from Germany who opened a brewery about 1840 and upon his death his son, William, took over and enlarged the complex, adopting Falstaff as the name of the brewery’s flagship brand and eventually the name of the brewery.   As shown right, Sir John usually was depicted as a jolly grandfatherly figure, belying the picture that Shakespeare draws of him:   “What a devil hast thou to do with the time of day?  Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes capons and clocks the tongues of bawds…and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench….”

The Lemps issued a lithographed tray to saloons and restaurants carrying their beer entitled:  “The Home of Falstaff.”  It shows a “fair hot wench” filling up Falstaff’s tankard, presumably with his own beer, as onlookers seem enthralled with his presence.   Over the mantle is written:  “Choicest Product of the Brewer’s Art.”  There is nothing in Shakespeare about Falstaff having a cozy home such as depicted here.  The old rogue has been domesticated for an American audience.

That was not the only misperception that Lemp foisted on Falstaff and, in effect, on the American people.  Look at the illustration on the front of a book of toasts that the Wm. J. Lemp Brewing Company provided to retail customers.   Falstaff is shown holding a water glass of beer.  Not a mental tankard, not a wooden schooner, not a ceramic stein, but a receptacle that would not be invented until centuries after Shakespeare died.  

Simlarly , a 1904  Lemp trade card illustration of Falstaff features another clear anomaly as Falstaff is “drinking his brew” from a kind of glass bottle that would wait a long time to be invented.  A so-called “mechanical card,” it once held a white granular substance that trickled down to a bottle on the flip side of the card, one being filled by a young boy.  Lemp obviously did not care about historical verisimilitude so long as Falstaff was shown downing the company brew.  

Two other American brewers also overtly  drew on Falstaff in its advertising. One was the Gund brewery.   Founded in 1854 by John Gund, a German immigrant who started making beer in a log cabin in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The brewery by 1897 had grown into a complex that covered five acres and produced 60,000 barrels of beer annually.  Trade cards spoofing operas and plays had become popular with Midwest brewers like Anheuser Busch and Schlitz, impelling Gund to issue a set of Shakespearean cards. One showed a scene from the last act of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” in which Sir John is depicted calling for Gund’s Extra Pale LaCrosse Bottle Beer.

Schlitz also featured the old rogue on one of its trade cards. It shows him in a scene from Henry IV, Part II.  Falstaff is drinking from a tankard and intones:  "If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principal I would teach them would be to foreswear their palations [tastes] and addict themselves to Schlitz Milwaukee beer."  
The success of the Lemp’s and other breweries in marketing the Falstaff image clearly impacted the trade.  Shown above is a label from Tru-Age Beer, a product of the Standard Brewing Company of Scranton, Pennsylvania.  This brand was founded by Otto J. Robinson and Patrick Cusick in 1904 and was the prime seller in the local beer market until National Prohibition.  It reopened in 1933 but closed for good in 1953.  Note that the Falstaff wannabe is wearing hat almost identical to a Lemp characterization. 

Similarly the gent shown on the serving tray shown here is a dead ringer for Falstaff from any angle.  He was advertising the Bohemian Beer of the Providence Brewing Company, a Rhode Island brewery founded in 1896 by James Hanley and John Good.   This facility was known for producing beers, ales and porters of a high quality.  With the coming of Prohibition the company attempted to survive on “near beer” and other products, failed, and closed in 1925.

Well, hello again, Falstaff!  Here the look-alike is hefting a foaming tankard of beer from the Commonwealth Brewing Company of Philadelphia.  This brewery is something of an enigma since it is recorded as having opened in 1898 and closed the same year.  Apparently it had just time enough to design and issue this serving tray.  At the time Philadelphia is said to have been home to 455 breweries, giving rise to speculation that Commonwealth’s demise was due to cut-throat competition.

Across the Keystone State, the Pittsburgh Brewing Company was enjoying a better fate.  It was one of a number of brewery “trusts” that formed in the late 1800s.  This one initially encompassed twelve local breweries, soon growing to 21, many of them eventually shut down.  Pittsburgh Brewing thus became the largest brewing operation in Pennsylvania and the third largest in the U.S.  It was able to survive even during Prohibition by marketing other products.  Its pre-Prohibition advertising booklet featuring on the cover a swaggering gent with a beer stein in his hand that easily might be mistaken for Shakespeare’s man.
We also might take the figure above as Falstaff that graced a serving tray for the Star Brewery Company of Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington.  Founded about 1859, with several owners and names through the years, the business became the Star Brewery about 1894.  The company made national news in September 1898 when it sent 330 cases of its beer to the Philippines upon the news that Admiral Dewey had destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay.  

The final Falstaff image here did not advertise beer but Autocrat Whiskey, a product of the Edwin Schiele Company of St. Louis.  Looking closely at the picture on the serving tray, however, it is the same image as the Star Brewery tray above.  The image clearly is meant to advertise the barley brew.  Two beer steins grace each side of the item, one ceramic, the other metal.  More important, the Sir John look-alike is drinking from a foaming glass. Beer foams, Mr. Schiele, not whiskey.   Nor does one drink whiskey in the copious quantity indicated here without falling into a stupor — except perhaps a tippler like Falstaff.

“Let a cup of sack be my poison,” cries Sir John in Henry IV, Part One.   Shakespeare’s might have wanted to poison his tosspot creation if he had known that American brewers would transmute Falstaff from the boozy, bawdy braggart of his plays to a kind of Medieval Santa Claus, a cuddly elderly bearded gent albeit one with a taste for alcohol.   


  1. Hi, Jack! I believe I am a descendant of Frederick B. Fiske. I read that you have been unable to find much information about him but I was wondering if we could exchange what information you have found? I am very interested in doing more family genealogy research and would like to present it to my father if possible. Please reach out if this is a possibility? Thank you!

  2. Kristin: I would like to know more about Frederick Fiske but that relates to my other blog, re "whiskey men." How you got here I have no idea. Have you seen my article there? What you see there is about all I have. We can continue this dialogue but send me an email at