Having examined in four previous posts the risqué images that often accompanied whiskey advertising, attention here moves to the sometimes racy, sometimes double entendre, world of bitters beverage merchandising.
While some bitters may not have had the same alcohol content as liquor, they almost always eclipsed the amounts found in wine and beer. For most of the 1800s, they were advertised with extravagant claims about their ability to cure all manner of diseases including malaria, kidney stones, rheumatism and even impotency. With the coming of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 most purveyors toned down their advertising to dealing with problems of digestion and defecation.
In order to spark interest, however, bitters manufacturers often resorted to advertising in trade cards and postcards with images meant to titillate the viewers. Among the leading purveyors was Lash’s Bitters, a company founded in Cincinnati and later moved to San Francisco. It specialized in “hold to the light” cards in which a fully dressed woman when lighted from behind is shown in underclothing. One is shown here.
It also could go farther in its saucy images. Shown above is a tableau in which the five senses are cited. It shows a young woman who is seeing a figure in the distance, is hearing his approach at the door, smelling the bouquet he has brought, each feeling the warmth of their embrace, and finally tasting — what?It takes little imagination to understand what is going on.
Only rarely did the bitters makers resort to nudity but Lash’s provided the public with an example that was clothed in a medical context. A doctor is examining a very attractive female patient who, according to the caption, has “heart trouble.” She has pulled up her night gown so that the attending physician can listen. Although the stethoscope was invented in 1816 and was standard equipment for U.S. physicians in 1900, this doctor has decided that an ear pressed to a breast gives a better diagnosis — or something.
George M. Pond was the manager of Lash’s branch in Chicago. Having mastered the art of selling bitters, he struck out on his own, establishing a company he called the Ponds Bitters Company located at 149-153 Fulton Street, Chicago. For some 15 years, employing many of the merchandising ploys he learned at Lash’s, he thrived. Those included risqué advertising, with several examples shown here. The first, “Stopped for a Puncture, with an outrageous double meaning, is my favorite.
The ad “Maud with her little bear behind,” shown front and back, was a somewhat bizarre take on an old knee-slapper anecdote. Shown below left is a Ponds card titled “Taking in the Sights” and the card right bears a caption indicating that the man on the phone is giving an excuse to his wife about being late for dinner.
In June 1916, the city prosecutor of Chicago filed suit against Pond’s Bitters Company, A test of the product by the health commissioner had found that Pond’s Bitters were more than 20 percent alcohol and required the company to obtain a license for selling spiritous liquor. The suit sought $200 in damages from Pond’s which likely was instantly coughed up since the amount was a small price to pay for immense profits being reaped from the bitters.
Many distillers and whiskey wholesalers featured a line of bitters — for good reason. As “medicine” they did not fall under the liquor revenue laws and escaped significant taxation. Second, bitters could be sold in dry states, counties and communities where whiskey was banned. Among those taking advantage of these opportunities was Alexander Bauer, a Chicago liquor wholesaler, with a reputation for chicanery, as well as the ribald. Look closely at this Pepsin Kola and Celery Bitters ad and the story becomes clear.
Carmeliter Bitters and its “come hither” lady bearing an “elixir of life,” poses something of a mystery regarding its origins. The several variants of the bottle are embossed with different names, including Frank R. Leonori & Co. and Burhenne & Dorn. Leonori was a New York City organization located at 82 Wall Street. Burhenne & Dorn was a liquor house in Brooklyn at 349 Hamburg Avenue. This nostrum was alleged to be for “all kidney & liver complaints.”
Union Bitters advertised that it would be found “grateful and comforting” where manhood needed to be restored or where “men have lost their self-respect.” The Union Bitters recipe is recorded containing gentian, peruvian bark, roman chamomile, quassia bark, bitter orange peel and most important, 50% alcohol. As if those ingredients were not enough to strike an erotic spark, Union Bitters provided a “mechanical” trade card which initially purports to show a peeping gent seeing a woman’s bare behind. Opening the card, it is revealed as a a pig’s hind end.
The final trade card is from Dr. Roback’s Stomach Bitters. Those in the know relate that Dr. Roback was neither a doctor nor named Roback. He was an unsuccessful farmer turned salesman who in 1844 escaped debtor’s prison in his native Sweden and headed for America. As Dr. Roback in Boston he sold horoscopes and founded an astrological college. Then he moved into patent medicines and a bitters nostrum, selling his stomach bitters first from Philadelphia and later from Cincinnati where he died in 1867.
Although the dozen items shown here are just a few example of the risqué advertising from bitters manufacturers, they demonstrate the range of images chosen to intrigue and sell a customer.
Note: For anyone interested in seeing the images from my four posts on risque' images in whiskey advertising, they appeared in January 2011, July 2012, July 2013, and January 2017.