Saturday, November 25, 2017

Pennsylvania Whiskey History on Paperweights

In March of this year at a Philadelphia convocation of distillers, many of them running boutique distilleries, I spoke on the history of whiskey-making in Pennsylvania.  Subsequently my attention has been drawn increasingly into understanding the nature and extent of that industry in the Keystone State.  This has focussed me on stories behind the Pennsylvania items in my whiskey paperweight collection.  Shown here are nine weights, with details on the four companies of their origins.

Phillip H. Hamburger, a German Jewish immigrant, was not the first distiller to conflate Pennsylvania whiskey with the Monongahela River that flows through the Keystone State. That waterway had been identified with strong drink since the 18th Century. But Hamburger made the Monongahela the centerpiece of his merchandising and his rye whiskey was, as a writer recorded in 1904, “not only known from ocean to ocean, but in every civilized country on the globe.”

Beginning as a liquor wholesaler, Hamburger moved gradually into distilling, initially through an investing lin a primitive distillery at Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, on the Monongahela River owned by George W. Jones.  After Jones died, Hamburger took it over, changing the name to the Ph. Hamburger Co.  Once he had achieved full ownership, Hamburger moved ahead boldly to expand his facilities and his market. He built significantly onto the original plant and warehouses. A contemporary publication reported: “The Hamburger Distillery, Limited, is one of the largest plants of the kind in the world, covering about fourteen acres of ground. 

Hamburger marketed his brands extensively in newspapers and magazines. He featured three brands, all advertised on paperweights here. In addition to “G.W. Jones Monongahela Rye,” both “Bridgeport Pure Rye” and “Bridgeport Pure Malt” boasted the Monongahela origin on their labels.  All three acquired a national and even international customer base. In 1914, Hamburger’s whiskey won a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Nottingham, England, and again in 1915 at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco. During his lifetime Hamburger had been an important force for make Pennsylvania rye whiskey recognized worldwide. 

Beginning his career as a baker, John Dougherty, an Irish Catholic immigrant, soon moved into distilling, opening his own whiskey-making facility in 1849. Dougherty’s “Pure Rye Whiskey” met with almost immediate success, capturing a market in the Philadelphia area and beyond. The company’s first still was a wooden one of 750 gallons. It soon was joined by a second copper still with a 1,200 gallon capacity. Both were fueled by steam. A new larger warehouse was built in 1864, with a capacity of 3,000 barrels.  

In 1866 John Dougherty died at the age of 78.  Son William took over as senior manager and the company name was changed to J.A. Dougherty’s Sons. The business continued to grow. Three new warehouses were built over the next several years adding 12,900 gallons of storage capacity. The complex employed some 30 workers. In 1879 the first warehouse was enlarged to hold 4,000 barrels.  Year after year the fame of Dougherty whiskey grew.

At the age of 67 William died in 1892 at his residence in Philadelphia, leaving his brother Charles as the manager of the firm. The youngest Dougherty son continued the successes forged by his father and brother. He discarded the wooden still in favor of a second copper pot and in 1893 rebuilt one warehouse to hold 3,800 barrels and added new floors to another to increase capacity to 25,000 barrels. The continued expansion was indicative of a growing national market for Dougherty Pure Rye.

In contrast to Hamburger and Dougherty, William C. Wilkinson was born in Philadelphia and of old Pennsylvania stock.  Originally a partner in a local wholesale liquor house, when the partner died in 1893, Wilkinson bought the entire business and changed the name to his own.  His flagship brand was “Stylus Club.” Philadelphia’s Stylus Club was an organization restricted to editors, reporters, publishers and other contributors to local newspapers and magazine. Founded in 1877, it was largely a social gathering where, it has been speculated, a fair amount of drinking went on. 

Not a distiller, Wilkinson represented a growing element within the industry, that of a wholesale liquor dealer selling whiskey under his own proprietary brand.  He might be buying whiskey from a Pennsylvania distillery and bottling it as it came, or mixing several whiskeys, sometimes adding other ingredients, in his own facility.  This process was known as “rectifying.”  Frequently rectifiers would trademark these brands, as Wilkinson did with “Stylus Club” in 1891.

A variation on that model was practiced by the Flemings, part of a prominent Irish family of Pittsburgh druggists.  Under the name, Jos. Fleming & Son, Joseph and his son George, turned a drug store rectifying operation into a national whiskey powerhouse.  Doing business from its single location at Market and Diamond Streets, the company advertised “Fleming’s Export Rye Whiskey” and “Fleming’s Malt Whiskey” across America.  Bottles similar to those shown on the paperweights here have been found all across the country, including one recently discovered in a Sacramento, California, state park. 

As druggists, the Flemings shaped their advertising to emphasize the medicinal benefits of whiskey.  Their ads are redolent with statements like “physicians should recommend…” and “physicians prescribe….”  As prohibitionary forces closed in, such medical claims became the best refuge for many Pennsylvania whiskey purveyors, the majority not druggists. 

Joseph Fleming died in 1890 and son George at a relatively young 51 in 1912. Shortly thereafter other family members sold the business and the whiskey brands to a local pharmacist who continued to operate the business under the Fleming name until the imposition of National Prohibition in 1920.

None of the four liquor establishments featured here survived the 14 “dry” years until Repeal in 1934.  Their histories and those of dozens of other pre-Prohibition Pennsylvania distilleries and liquor houses document the growth of the state’s whiskey industry from small farmstead stills to companies with a national marketing reach.  The paperweights they issued serve as a reminder of that dynamic era.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Oh, Those Radio Days!

Yes, kids, there was a time before the advent of television when people stayed glued to a box that that had only sound — no sight.   Those days were the apex of radio entertainment — the 1940s and into the 1950s.  As a youngster I was addicted to listening, morning (when not in school), evenings and weekends.   Reading a list of programs from that era, I am struck by how many were tuned to my dial.  From them, however, I have winnowed a list of just four for which I have a special fondness.

The first is The Shadow, a character adapted from a pulp magazine that first aired with a half hour on CBS in 1937.  It was my favorite show and still is.  The Shadow was characterized as having traveled through East Asia and learned  "the power to cloud men's minds so they cannot see him." As in the magazine stories, The Shadow was not given the literal ability to become invisible.  The introduction to the program sent chills through me — and still does as the character intones: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”  It was followed by haunting laugh.

On the radio The Shadow assumed the visual identity of Lamont Cranston, described as “a wealthy young man-about-town” who every week found himself emeshed in a crime, one often imperiling his girlfriend, “the lovely and talented” Margo Lane.”  She was the only person to know the crime-fighter’s real identity.  What the pair and The Shadow actually looked like was meant for our imaginations.  As depicted in the pulps The Shadow wore a wide-brimmed black hat and a black, crimson-lined cloak with an upturned collar over a standard black business suit.  Later a crimson scarf was added.

At the outset, The Shadow was played by Orson Welles, one of the most famous actors and directors of American history, shown here in a radio spot promo.  Although another actor intoned the introduction, Wells provided the stirring conclusion. At the end of each episode The Shadow reminded listeners that, "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Crime does not pay...The Shadow knows!"   That message got across to a young mind forcefully.  Welles left the program in 1838 and a succession of Shadow voices followed until December 26, 1854, when the program left the air.

My second choice, something completely different, was “Fibber McGee and Molly,” a situation comedy that ran from 1935 to 1936 on NBC. It followed the adventures of a working-class couple, the habitual storyteller Fibber McGee and his sometimes exasperated but always loving wife Molly, living among their numerous neighbors and acquaintances in the community of Wistful Vista.   The program as I recall aired on Tuesday nights after my bedtime on a school night.  But my parents thoughtfully allowed a radio in the bedroom with instructions to turn it off as soon as the program ended. 

The characters were created and portrayed by Jim and Marian Jordan, a real-life husband and wife team that had been working in radio since the 1920s.  Because of a clamor from fans to be able to see the personalities behind the disembodied radio voices, Fibber McGee and Mollie portrayed their characters in four motion pictures, often starring another favorite, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.  Athough the films were somewhat creaky by today’s standards, I eagerly await each of them.

Looking back, it may have been the fact that the McGees were Irish and my family was Irish.   More likely, however, it were the running gags.  For example, when Fibber tells a bad joke, Molly often answers, “Tain’t funny, McGee,” which became a catch-phrase of the times. Perhaps the show’s most enduring stroke was Fibber’s closet.  It involved someone, usually McGee opening a hall closet with the contents clattering down and out and, often enough, over McGee's or Molly's heads. "I gotta get that closet cleaned out one of these days" was the usual McGee observation once the racket subsided.  It never failed to get a laugh from the studio audience (no laugh track in those days) and those of us at home.

Among the many after-school radio programs aimed a young crowd — “Jack Armstrong,” “Dick Tracy,” “Green Hornet” — my favorite was “The Lone Ranger.”  It aired for a half hour on ABC at 7:30 p.m., after dinner but before homework and bedtime.  I always thrilled to the opening: “In the early days of the western United States, a masked man and an Indian rode the plains, searching for truth and justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when from out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!”

The Lone Ranger was named so because the character was the only survivor of a group of six Texas Rangers.  A posse of six rangers while pursuing a band of outlaws, is betrayed by a civilian guide  and ambushed in a canyon. Later, an Indian named Tonto stumbles onto the scene and discovers one ranger is barely alive, and he nurses the man back to health.  To disguise his identity, the ranger — dubbed The Lone Ranger by Tonto — dons a black mask.  The Lone Ranger’s horse was named Silver;  Tonto rode Scout.  According to the program introduction, the two men “led the fight for law and order in the early western United States! Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice!”  

In reality, the program was a well-scrubbed Old West.  The Lone Ranger always spoke with perfect grammar and without any slang.  When forced to use guns, he never shot to kill but tried to disarm his antagonists.  No scene ever occurred inside a saloon only "restaurants."  Nonetheless, this youngster thrilled each night to hear “Hi Ho Silver, the Lone Ranger Rides Again.”

My last selection may seem odd for a youngster, but it is Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club,” a morning variety show out of Chicago on ABC radio for more than 35 years.  While later it would have some personal ties, when I was a kid it was entertainment when I was home sick.  It was my fate to come down with virtually every childhood disease known to medicine including measles, mumps, chicken pox and scarlet fever.  Top it off with viral pneumonia as an eighth grader and I spent a lot of time with morning radio.

McNeill, shown here, presented a program that combined music with informal talk and jokes often based on topical events, usually ad-libbed. In addition to recurring comedy performers, vocal groups and soloists, listeners heard sentimental verse and a musical “March Around the Breakfast Table.”  He is credited with being the first performer to make morning talk and variety — now a staple of TV — a viable format.  I was an avid listener.  Perhaps too avid.  Asked to prepare the eighth grade graduation skit, I came up with the dialogue modeled on the show that the nuns thought too “adult” and nixed it.

To the personal.  For a long time McNeill was the most famous graduate of the Marquette University College of Journalism, where I went to school, and a friend of its longtime Dean Jeremiah O’Sullivan.  Later in life the O’Sullivan introduced us and I could tell McNeill that while he had married one of the Dean’s early secretaries, I had married his last.  The final Breakfast Club was taped in December 1968.  McNeill retired from broadcasting and public life, dying seven years later.

There are a number of other radio shows of that era that I might have mentioned — “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Jack Benny,” “Lorenzo Jones and His Wife Belle,” “Bob and Ray,” and the list could go on.  But these four shows mark for me the “crucial corners” of that talking box we called radio.  Those, indeed, were the days.