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.

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