Saturday, May 6, 2017

Rise and Fall of Back-of-the-Bar Bottles


 While never owning any, I have been fascinated by back-of-the bar bottles (BoBB), the line of fancy containers shown above.  Gifted by distillers and liquor wholesalers in the pre-Prohibition era to favored customers like saloons and restaurants, the bottles were among the most expensive giveaways, often featuring fine glass and gold accents.  They were expected to catch the eye of the patron  — and did.  Because the legislation that accompanied the rollback of Prohibition outlawed them, today most of these bottles are more than 100 years old.  Displaying well, they are eagerly are sought by collectors.

A good example of the value these bottles have achieved is the the one shown right.  It was issued by Julius Goldbaum, a pioneer whiskey man in Tucson, Arizona.   Although most such bottles are clear glass,  Goldbaum chose his in amber with white and gold accents.  The results are a stunning bottle of which only a few are known.  One recently sold at auction for over $22,000.

In featuring back-of-the-bottles, it occurred to me to feature one wholesale house that stood out for the variety of attractive items it issued — Rosskam, Gerstley & Co.  Isaac Rosskam and his wife’s kinsman, Henry Gerstley, both immigrants from Germany,  had settled in Philadelphia and in 1869 opened the doors of their establishment.  The company initially was located at 336 North Third Street but within a year had moved to larger quarters at 402 North Third, where it would stay until 1876.”  Their proprietary brands were “Old Saratoga,” “Monogram," and “Fine Old Whiskey.”

Reflecting the rapid and impressive growth of its business volume, the partners that year moved to two new buildings.  One was five stories at 226 S. Front Street that advertised “Rye & Bourbon Whiskies” on the storefront.  The other at 133-135 Dock Street of six stories proclaimed “Old Rye Whiskies.”  Both locations allowed the firm adequate space to undertake “rectifying,” that is, blending whiskey bought from multiple sources to achieve tastes determined to have broad public appeal.

As their business grew the partners branched out into other cities. In 1870 the partners opened an office in Cleveland at 100 River Street.  About 1882 they located an outlet  in Chicago at 79 Dearborn Avenue, one of the Windy City’s premier commercial locations.  That was followed a year later by their establishing a branch  at 38 Broadway in New York City.   This proliferation of outlets indicated the kind of vigorous national customer base Rosskam, Gerstley built over time.

Because Philadelphia, and indeed the U.S., was loaded with distillers, rectifiers, and wholesalers, the partners had to combat stiff competition for the business of  restaurants, bars and saloons to stock their liquor.  They also had to appeal to members of the drinking public to request their brands from bartenders.  One way of advertising was to provide giveaway items that contained the name of a Rosskam, Gerstley products.  Although the partners gave away tip trays and shot glasses, they specialized in elegant back-of-the-bar bottles.

These included bottles in fancy molded glass with stoppers,ornate gold lettering, and in one case a metal or pewter body.  Shapes varied from bulbous bases to ginger jar shapes to straight sided bottles. At least one was metal.  Lettering might be in script, squared-off letters or san serif, and colored black, gold or cobalt blue.  I have counted at least twenty-one varieties of Rosskam, Gerstley & Co. bar bottles.  Nine of them are illustrated throughout this post.  No other distiller or whiskey house comes close in number or variety.  Isaac and Henry were the kings of the back bar.

At the turn of the Century, things changed at thePhiladelphia liquor house.  In 1899, Henry Gerstley died at age 61 at his residence.  As Rosskam aged he turned over the reins of management to his son.  A 1900 Philadelphia business directory lists William Rosskam as president of the firm.   In 1904 Isaac died, age about 70.  According to the press, he left a large estate.  Although the company continued to prosper for a time under William,  eventually it was forced to shut down by the enactment of National Prohibition.
The banning of bar bottles after the end of Prohibition was the result of their  having been used for purposes that neither Rosskam nor Gerstley would have approved.  Bartenders had a tendency when “Old Saratoga” or another whiskey had been dispensed from its fancy bar bottle to refill it with an inferior brand and cheerfully pour it out to customers under false pretenses.  Today bottles behind the bar must be the container in which the liquor was sold, carrying an original label and tax stamps.

That leaves a treasure trove of back-of-the-bar bottles.  They steadily grow older and all of them will have achieved “antique” status by 1920.  No more will be made and I have seen little evidence of fraudulence.  Many can be bought for under $200.  Attractive and displaying well, they are certain to accrue in desirability and value in the future.


  1. Thanks, Amy. Part of my motivation for writing the post was to suggest how collectable back-of-the-bar bottles are. They MUST precede 1920 and thus are antiques or soon will be so. They are decorative and historical as well.

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