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.