Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Brewery Millers: Laughter Amid Tears

Coming across a set of comic postcards that Miller Brewing Company of Milwaukee issued before National Prohibition, I decided to make the cards and several other examples the subject of a post.  Although I am from Milwaukee and knew something about the family, some additional research revealed that although the Millers could see humor in their brewing efforts, tragic events seemed to stalk them.

First the Miller cards:  It is a set of six, artist unknown, in which the comic theme was linked to various modes of transportation ostensibly available in Milwaukee.   Street cars were common in the city but none like the one shown below.  Entitled “A Trolley Ride in Milwaukee,” the card depicts a beer barrel teaming with passengers, all seemingly drinking beer, rolling down the tracks on bottle caps (!) in front of the Miller plant.  A pedestrian has been knocked down and a dachshund runs along side.

“The Water Wagon in Milwaukee” enlists two of those “weiner dogs” to pull another High Life barrel that has been transformed into a street sprinkling device while locals aboard enjoy steins and goblets of beer.  Note that the gent sitting right behind the driver holds an outsized bottle of Miller beer.  Unlike its Milwaukee competitors, Miller always sold in clear (not amber) bottles. 

Even a sightseeing van could become a vehicle using a High Life Beer barrel to hold customers.  The engine is case of Miller bottles, the wheels are sausages, and one of those weiner dogs is running along side.  Although the beer-swigging passengers are alleged to be “touring Milwaukee,” they appear to be in front of, what else, the Miller brewery.

One of Miller’s bottles became the “S. S. High Life” on the next postcard.  Although the ship seems to be steaming through choppy waters, the crew seems mostly intent on drinking beer, ignoring the mustached captain who is peering anxiously at the horizon.  Note that the ship’s antenna is a string of hot dogs.

An intact beer barrel became a substitute for a balloon in a postcard entitled “In Milwaukee Looking Over the Town.”  It illustrates three hirsute men floating over the Miller Brewing Co.  The pilot carries a stein of beer while one passenger carries a foaming goblet and a second is sucking at a hose directly connected with the barrel.  The propeller is four bottles of Miller High Life beer.

The final card in this series is an airplane with weiners and pretzels for struts and sausages for propellors.  At the single control is a little old man who seems as intent on his foaming stein of beer as he does on piloting responsibilities.  As aways the brewery provides the terrestrial scenery.

Although these postcards deserve special attention for the their ingenious designs and humor, Miller also provided other light-hearted cards, some of them linked to Milwaukee.  Seen here is one that presumably shows a stout German gentleman swigging from a bottle and intoning “How Ish Dot for High Life Beer.  The brewery issued it at a time when it was not uncommon to hear German spoken in everyday discourse.

A final card likely dates from the post-Prohibition era when Miller was able to resume making beer.  It shows a suited gentleman looking at a soaring thermometer in the heat of a summer while holding a towel to sop his brow. 
In the next frame, he has found a bottle of Miller High Life and as the cartoon indicates, the temperature is going down.

The use of humor by the Miller Brewery to sell beer, while not unique in Milwaukee, was taken to a new level by that company.  It made all the more interesting when one considers the tragic circumstances that have plagued the Miller family over the years.  I was in Milwaukee in 1954 when Frederick C. Miller, the president of the firm, and his college age son both were killed when their plane crashed on take off.

The original brewery founder, Frederick Edward John Miller, and also suffered heartaches.  He and his wife Josephine had six children, most of whom did not survive infancy.  Josephine is said to have died of influenza in 1860 while on a trip traveling back to the couple’s German homeland, leaving Frederick with a two-year old daughter who herself would succumb to tuberculosis at age 16.  

Although Frederick married a second time and sired five children who survived to run the brewery after his death, this marriage also produce several children who died in infancy.  In an 1879 letter, Miller offered a glimpse of his personal torments: "Think of me and what I had to endure - I have lost several children and a wife in the flower of their youth…."Whenever I think of all of them, how they were taken away from me so quickly and unexpectedly, then I become sad and melancholy….”

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