Sunday, September 17, 2017

Examining Risqué Bitters Advertising

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.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Fortune Cookies Have Told My Life’s Story

No, not really, but I have collected several dozen fortune slips over the years that have had particular interest.  My modus operandi is to take a Chinese fortune of note and scotch tape it to a beer mug.  Every so often, as the mug surface fills up, I take them off and paste them on paper.  Because Wednesday, September 13, 2017, is National Fortune Cookie Day, I am prepared to reveal much of what they have told me, beginning about 1975 and up to the present day.  

Early Fortunes:   One fortune that clearly caught my attention went this way:  “It is very possible that you will achieve greatness in your lifetime.”   Well, that really did not happen.  I have not sought anonymity but it has pursued me relentlessly throughout my life.  More promising was another cookie fortune:  “Your family is young, gifted and attractive.”  I’d like to think that was true — both sons proved to be gifted and achieved advanced degrees — but none of us is young anymore.

My career involved a great deal of travel and I was able to work all over the world, but occasionally got becalmed with home office work and chafed to go abroad.  Perhaps that was the situation when the following came to me:  “Traveling more often is important for your health and happiness.”   Another cookie provided a formula for successful travel:  “You have the ability to adapt to diverse situations.”

2002-2009 Fortunes:  This one seemed at least partially appropriate, if not exactly predictive:  “You are a lover of words.  Someday you will write a book..”  By the time this showed up I had written the only serious book I would ever write — about the war powers of the President and Congress.  During this period, however, I cobbled together three books on whiskey containers that were self-published and in limited editions, sold out.

“Cleaning up the past will always clear up the future!”  Now that is something to think about.  At the urging of friends I did a brief autobiography called “Memoirs of a Spear Carrier.”  To my knowledge none of the revelations there about my past life really cleaned things up.  Nor, it now seems, did the future become any more clear.  For that one needs more fortune cookies.

During this period I received a cookie that had its own irony attached.  It read:  “You have a deep appreciation of the arts and music.”  It was a reminder that for a time on a newspaper I was assigned to review performances of classical music, of which I actually knew nothing.  My standard line for concerts of stringed instruments was to compliment “deft fingering.”  After comparing the cello to “a beautiful woman,” and throwing in a note on deft fingering, the paper relieved me of those responsibilities — to my great relief.
2009 to Present:  In the most recent period, I find some fortunes prophetic.  For example:  “You may attend a party where strange customs prevail.”  I can think of one in Micronesia a few years ago.  We sat outside in a circle and a drank a liquid pounded from the root of a muddy pepper plant, strained through a palm frond.  After I took one sip of the green slimy stuff, pity was taken on the haole (white person) and I was give coffee as a chaser.

Another is:  “You would make a good lawyer.”  That is the profession my mother had in mind for me and over the years I have been involved in making laws (Congressional staff) and criticizing them (local government).  The city attorney in my city assumed I was a lawyer.  My reaction is to be thankful I chose journalism instead of the law.  Lots more fun and fewer responsibilities.

As I move into the twilight of life, some fortunes clearly are out of touch with reality.  For instance:  “You shall seek out new adventures.”  And: “You have an important new business development shaping up.” Still others seem problematic:
“You will maintain health and enjoy life” and “Your winsome smile will be your sure protection.”    More cogent is the following cookie-born advice:  “Relish the transitions in your life — they will happen regardless.”  

Ten days from now when Fortune Cookie Day rolls around, you can be sure I will be ordering in Chinese food and asking for my fortune cookie.  Who knows, it may give me something to think about — and perhaps paste up for future reference.