The use of American Indian themes in selling a range of medicinals was common in the 19th and early 20th century. Native peoples were believed to have herbal and other cures beyond Western medicine. Not so in whiskey advertising and marketing. Perhaps discretion was suggested by the rampant alcoholism among Indians and their association with liquor often not deemed appropriate. Nevertheless, over at least a decade of looking, I have found a few examples where Native Americans were used in whiskey merchandizing.
My first examples are two whiskey jugs issued by Martindale & Johnson, a Philadelphia liquor house headed by Thomas Martindale, esteemed as a big game hunter and civic leader. Both jugs bear the name “Minnehaha - Laughing Waters,” the female heroine of the poem “Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The ceramic at left shows the Indian maiden sitting by a waterfall as if looking expectantly for her love. The jug at right apparently shows Hiawatha in a canoe shooting arrows at a fire-breathing sea dragon. The scene, by the way, has nothing to do with Longfellow’s poem.
The Indian brave made another appearance on whiskey jugs issued by George Benz & Sons of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, a German immigrant who specialized in packaging his whiskey in attractive containers. Hiawatha is shown against a background of wigwams, striding down a path with bow and arrows. He appears to have an Indian war club tucked in his tunic. The jug at right recently sold at auction for $332.
“Indian Hill” was a whiskey produced by William Cate of Knoxville, Tennessee. Not only did it bear a paper label showing Indians, embossed into the glass were the heads of two chiefs. Cate had a difficult time with prohibition forces, moving several times from state to state to avoid local or state restrictions on making or selling alcohol. This brand survived through the period of National Prohibition and was re-introduced by another distiller after Repeal.
The Indian maiden illustrated in “Tippecanoe,” a double fire copper whiskey from Union Distilling Company, a Cincinnati rectifying (blending) operation. For saloon signs, almost always displayed in places where women and children were excluded, the husky lass was shown barebreasted. When used on the label of a bottle that might find itself on a grocer’s shelf or a druggist’s display case where the eyes of the world might see, the maiden was more chastely dressed.
The man who produced the tray of the Indian brave hunting a buffalo was a larger-than-life character who called himself Andrew Madsen Smith, “The Wandering Dane,” and eventually settled in Minneapolis. Leaving Denmark as a boy his career took him to many adventures as a ship’s cook, a London street urchin, and then back to sea and, through jumping ship, into the clutches of Indians in the jungles of Brazil. He also had encountered Native Americans in the West during a period living in Utah.
“Red Chief Whiskey” was the product of another man whose life reads like a novel and who knew plenty about Indians. He was Jack Danciger, born in 1877 in Taos, New Mexico, His was only one of two non-Spanish, non-Indian families in the small town. His father ran a general store in Taos and owned a ranch outside town where he raised cattle. One story told about Jack is that at six years old he was kidnapped by a nearby Indian chief who was childless and wanted the boy as a son. When Jack’s whereabouts were discovered, his parents through careful negotiation were able to retrieve him.
The picture of the Indian princess, Pocahontas, as displayed on the letterhead of R. T. Dawson & Company of Baltimore does not inspire confidence that she appealed to John Alden. Her nose and chin seem woefully drawn on the Baltimore wholesale whiskey dealer’ letterhead from 1911. “Pocahontas Whiskey” appears to be Dawson’s only proprietary brand, trademarked by the company in 1907. My hope is that the bottle label carried a better image.
The final example is the label of a post-Prohibition whiskey called “Indian Trader,” from Frankfort Distilleries Inc. This was an outfit that originally came under the ownership of Paul Jones with a distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, and offices in Louisville and Baltimore. The operation survived the period of National Prohibition by being licensed to sell “medicinal” whiskey, with its brands surviving into the 1940s when it was taken over by Seagrams.
Here they are, a dozen images of American Indians in whiskey advertising and merchandising that have taken years to collect. Looking them over, it is clear that when Native Americans were depicted, in virtually every case they were presented in heroic or at least dignified ways.