Sunday, March 31, 2019

When Authors Sold Booze

Authors being affectionate toward, and sometimes addicted to, strong drink is a tradition almost as old as literature itself.  Writers and alcohol bear an identification that a number of distillers and brewers over the years have believed would sell their products.  This post is devoted to examining the advertising approaches to accomplishing that goal.

Shakespeare has been a perennial favorite for peddling booze.  An example is a Budweiser ad from the 1940s that has a picture and a seven paragraph blurb about the Bard’s life and character.  Only in the last graph, does the ad get down to business, reminding us that Shakespeare and other “literary giants” met at taverns where their conversations were held “over foaming tankards of beer.”
Then we learn that “Budweiser sparkles with life,” presumably in a tankard.

 A more contemporary look at the Bard is provided by the label from “Soul of Wit” beer, likely designating a Belgian whit beer.  It derives from a line from Hamlet, Act 2:  “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.”  Rather than use that line the label spoofs Hamlet’s soliloquy as “To drink or not to drink, there is no question.”  Shakespeare light.

The Canada Dry distillery featured a portrait of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great British encyclopedist, to sell its “Fine Arts Whiskey.”  The connection was a portrait of Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds where the artist blended his colors to create a masterpiece.  Similarly, the distillers of Fine Arts are extolled in the ad for blending  straight whiskeys to create “a masterpiece of flavor.”  The presentation ignores the fact that Johnson himself was a teetotaler.  

A St. Louis brewery called “Old lnkwell” issued a line of beers whose labels featured a line of safely dead American and English authors, both men and women. Among them was a brew was called Midnight Draught, “a biting and bitter New England dark ale inspired by the troubled writer and poet Edgar Allen Poe.” The label fails to mention that, among his troubles,  Poe struggled constantly against alcoholism and that his addiction cost him employment, relationships, reputation and ultimately led to his death.

Mark Twain, who wrote often and favorably on alcoholic spirits,  was another favorite author of the distilling trade. [See my post of April 4, 1910 on Twain].  Shown here are two ads from an Old Crow whiskey series that feature the American humorist and novelist.  Although at one time the whiskey had been the top selling bourbon in the United States, it underwent a swift decline after Repeal of National Prohibition because the whiskey developed a taste many drinkers found unpleasant.  Parent company National Distillers may have conceived the Twain series as giving a patina of age and quality to Old Crow.

Another Old Crow ad, however, contained an almost comical error.  It purports to show the Western writer, Bret Harte, discussing a manuscript with his friend good friend Mark Twain.  In matter of fact, the two could not stand each other.  In his Autobiography Twain wrote:  “In the early days I liked Bret Harte and so did others, but by and by I got over it; so also did the others.  He couldn’t keep a friend permanently.  He was bad, distinctly bad;  he had no feeling and he had no conscience.”  The scene in the ad could never have happened.

When Heublein Cocktails got two authors together it matched friends, playwright Moss Hart and celebrity author/publisher Bennett Cerf.  Although the text emphasized a “slight disagreement” (over how to make a martini), the photo showed the two men with dueling sabers.  Reproved by his wife for the image, who pointed out that he didn't need the money, Cerf is said to have replied:  “Everyone needs money. Besides, I like the publicity and I'm all dressed up in a dueling outfit in the ad.”

Cerf (1898-1971), who is remember by old timers for his participation on an early TV show called “What’s My Line,” also provided an endorsement for National Distillers’ featured brand of scotch.  “When I drink Scotch, I ask for today’s Old Angus.  It’s an excellent whiskey.”  For a man known for his wit, this endorsement seems by Cerf seems rather uninspired .

Another Old Angus ad featured  Ogden Nash (1902-1971), an American poet well known for his light verses, of which he wrote more than 500.  Considered America’s premier author of humorous poetry, Nash made guest appearances on radio and early TV and spoke on college campuses.  His take on alcohol was summarized in the verse:  “Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.”  In contrast, National Distillers has Nash intoning the utterly prosaic:  “Folks to whom we serve Old Angus — thank us.” 

Lucius Beebe (1902-1966) was the author of some 35 books, many of which involved high society, railroads and the Old West, and a journalist who once ran the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada.  The newspaper was relaunched in 1952, and by 1954 had achieved the highest circulation in the West for a weekly newspaper.  Once again the Old Angus ad saddles this colorful  writer with a line he would never have written himself.

No one who knows anything about Earnest Hemingway would peg him as a beer drinker.  The hard stuff — whiskey, rum, etc. — were his libations of choice.  Ballentine Ale must have paid him a princely sum to endorse its brew.  What is more, the brewer added a long screed that purports to be by the author’s own hand putting “a glass of Ballantine Ale into words.”  Unfortunately the text “ad-speak” fails to reflect Hemingways distinctive writing style.

The final ad is from Smirnoff Vodka showing Truman Capote looking pensive while in his right hand he holds a drink that mixed virtually tasteless alcohol with orange juice, popularly known as a “screwdriver.”  Some believe the mixed drink was invented by interned American fliers during World War II.  Capote’s presence in the ad is an ironic reminder that he, like Poe and Hemingway, struggled with alcoholism during much of his life.

Today few if any authors are celebrated as were those cited above.  Literary fame means little to most Americans in the 21st Century.  Liquor and beer ads today feature movie stars, sports heroes and other celebrities, and almost never writers.  Thus we are spared seeing the Nation’s “literary lights” brought to banality by the ministrations of admen.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Thousand Dollar Pocket Mirror and More

Shown right is a figure of a woman, strangely clothed and awkwardly positioned.  She is part of an advertisement for The Owl Liquor Co. of Eureka, Nevada, that appears on a pocket mirror, likely a giveaway item for the liquor house.  This artifact recently sold at auction for a whopping $1,100 plus a buyer’s premium of $247.50.  This sale spurred me to devote a post to liquor-related pocket mirrors, of which I have a small collection.

If it had not been for the efforts of a New York inventor named John Wesley Hyatt to find a substitute for elephant ivory in billiard balls, these items would not exist.  As the result of his experiments he created a substance we call celluloid — the world’s first industrial plastic.  Put into mass production in 1872, celluloid rapidly became popular for its ability to be shaped and to carry elaborate colored lithographic images. In particular it was suited as backing for small mirrors that could be stowed away in a pocket.  Because celluloid took color well it proved a good venue for advertising.

Among those who recognized the marketing value of these pocket mirrors were J & A Freiberg whose Cincinnati liquor house enjoyed a 62-year life from just after the Civil War until the coming of National Prohibition.  One of their many brands was “Puck Rye,” a mischievous character in Shakespeare’s play, “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  Puck is represented here  on a pocket mirror by a small boy with a top hat and whiskey bottle.  

Comely women often were depicted on pocket mirrors.  George Alegretti, a grocer, liquor dealer and saloonkeeper in Stockton, California, provided the world with the archetype beauty of the time, replete with bouffant hairdo and bee-sting lips.  Alegretti’s giveaway illustrates in the flowers how well celluloid took delicate colors.

The “Harvest King” brand presents a photographic image of a woman in advertising its brand of whiskey, said to make “A sick man well and a well man happy.”  This brand originated with the Danciger Brothers of Kansas City who fashioned themselves as the Harvest King Distilling Company.  In fact, they were “rectifiers,” blending whiskeys bought from authentic distilleries.  

Pocket mirrors came in two shapes, both round and ovals, with typical size for the latter at 2 3/4 by 1 3/4 inches. An ad was on the back, a reflective surface on the front.  As shown on this example for “Good Friends” whiskey, often the ovalsrepresented a whiskey barrel with one end devoted to the advertising.  Although Samuel Goodfriend of Wellsburg, West Virginia, meant his to represent comity between Quaker and Native American, they could be passing a bottle.

It is not a coincidence that the pocket mirror for Bald Eagle Whiskey, would advertise the flagship brand of S. F. Petts & Co. The driving force behind the Boston liquor wholesalers, Sanford Petts, was himself a certifiable Yankee Doodle Dandy. Many of his forebears had served General Washington gallantly in the Revolutionary War.  By using the national symbol to sell whiskey Petts was invoking his patriotic heritage.

The Buffalo Springs Distillery was typical of the many small town distilleries that once abounded in Kentucky.   It originally operated from late fall until early spring, employing local farmers for the period between harvest and planting. As one of the few sources of non-farm employment, it dominated the local economy and was a powerful part of the commerce in Scott County.  It produced several bourbon brands.  After Prohibition it was substantially rebuilt and reopened.

John Casper, a well-known distiller in North Carolina was dislodged from the state by prohibition laws.  He thereupon moved some of his operation to Arkansas, as the “proprietor” of the Uncle Sam Distilling Company in Fort Smith. An ad for this firm indicates he took Casper brands like Gold Band and Golden Rose Whiskey with him.  His pocket mirror is unique for showing a primitive still.

The Orinoco brand of whiskey was created by an Irish immigrant named Edward Quinn in Alexandria, Virginia.  It subsequently was taken by his son, also named Edward, over the border to Washington, D.C. where he established a saloon and liquor store on Pennsylvania Avenue.  When as a young father he died about 1911, his widow sold the business to another local Irishman named D. J. O’Connell.  O’Connell also got the rights to the Orinoco brand name and made the most of it.

James Maguire was thumbing his nose at the notorious “Whiskey Trust” when he refused to buckle under to the monopoly and issued his Montezuma Rye. Retail customers could buy Montezuma Rye in glass bottles, sized from quarts to flasks, or get their liquor in an attractive canteen sized metal bottle that carried a bronze plaque on each side.  McGuire also featured giveaway items to customers, including pocket mirrors.  Through the excellent color qualities of celluloid, the latter provided an effective merchandising tool.

The final item shown here is from the Owl Liquor Company, the same outfit that issued the first pocket mirror shown here that sold for a hefty bounty of almost $1,350.  The picture on this mirror is of a sweet little girl holding a flower.  Unlike its companion above, it shows no discoloration of the celluloid, a common flaw on  these items and appears to be in mint condition.  The price tag is unknown but likely in the $1,000 plus range.  It reminds us that virtually all these artifacts date from before National Prohibition and are at least 100 years old or approaching it fast.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

This Fan’s Tribute to Jack and Misty


 To my recollection this is the first time in nine years of this blog that I have posted an article on music.  It is an act of necessity.  For years I have been a fan of Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan, a married couple who have been singing original songs together since 1967 and who I believe deserve considerably more recognition as American songwriters and musicians of note.

My first exposure to their music was driving to work in the 1970s listening to WMAL in Washington, D.C. and a program featuring disc jockeys Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver.  Weaver was a fan of the couple and almost daily played their “Somewhere in Virginia in the Rain.”  I was hooked and still am by that song:

I'm callin' from somewhere in Virginia in the rain,
I never thought I'd hear your voice again,
I heard the windshield wipers callin' out your name,
Somewhere in Virginia in the rain.

Its appeal is the effortless blending of male and female voices in a few simple lines and rhymes to tell the story of a money-short couple who have had an argument.  The man is calling from a road trip to make up — and she is very understanding.  One line told about his windshield patched with cellophane.  That particularly spoke to me, having myself ridden 350 miles in a car like that.

By some chance circumstance, Jack and Misty were born in the same hospital in Buffalo, New York;  Jack in 1942 and Misty in 1945.  Both lived in Ohio as children.  They met in 1963 in Florida, where Blanchard was working as a comedian and Morgan as a pianist.  By 1967 they were married and singing together.  

I am fascinated by the cover photo of what may have been their first album that identifies them as “Early Teenaged Rockers.”  Their subsequent music might have been classified as “country” but never “rock.”  Their novelty song, “Tennessee Bird Walk” made it to the top of the country charts and No. 23 on the pop charts.  The song got them a Grammy nomination for duet of the year. They also did well with other novelty songs like “Legendary Chicken Fairy,” “Humphrey the Camel,” and “Yellow Bellied Sapsucker.” 

Therein, to my mind, lies the difficulty in Jack and Misty being adequately being recognized for their work by the music world.  My experience as a journalist is that if you can write humorous material, something most in the trade cannot, it stereotypes you and shuts out serious reporting.  Something similar, I believe, has befallen Blanchard and Morgan.  Songs like “There’s More to Life,” “Bethlehem Steel,” “Miami Sidewalks,” are artfully crafted lyrics and marvelously sung.  These are just a few of the contributions this couple has made to the American songbook without adequate appreciation.

The last time Jack and Misty made the charts was 1974 with they hit No. 23 with “One More Song.”  During the 1980s and 1990s their careers slowed and they issued only two albums.  The 21st century has seen a revival.  As shown in the photo here they were inducted into the Buffalo Hall of Fame in 2010.  They have established a fan base in Australia, performing there frequently and issuing three albums on that country’s Omni Record label.  Now living in Florida, the couple has established their own record label, called “Velvet Saw.”  On it they have released earlier material as well as new songs.

In 2007, frustrated by my inability to get their music on CDs, I went for answers to their website and quickly had a reply from Jack Blanchard.  Purchasing several of their CDs directly, I received one called “Beginnings” that carried a personal message:  “Dear Jack, Enjoy” and signed by each.  It remains a particularly cherished recording and I play it often.  They also sent me two business cards that I keep as souvenirs.

My hope is that the music world, especially Nashville, will wake up and put Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  After all others known primarily for novelty songs like Tom T. Hall, Homer & Jethroe, and Grandpa Jones are there.  There should be plenty of room for Jack and Misty.