Wednesday, May 18, 2011
E.E. Bruce: Mixing Liquor and Drugs
During the Pre-Prohibition era it was common practice for pharmacies also to carry a line of alcoholic beverages. Often wine, whiskey and brandy package sales were the chief economic engine of such establishments and made rich men of their owners. Edwin Estelle Bruce of Omaha, Nebraska, shown here, was one of those American druggists who profited mightily by being in the whiskey trade.
E.E. Bruce originally was an Iowan. With three partners in the 1880’s he founded a wholesale drug company in Ottumwa, Iowa. Their success led them in 1887 to open an company in Omaha that was known as Blake, Bruce & Co. They billed themselves as “wholesale druggists, importers of drugs and stationers’ sundries.” Their location was 19th and Harney Street in a four-story up-scale brick building, shown here.
The firm quickly found success in Nebraska and beyond. Its trade was reputed to extend “throughout all sections of the West to the Pacific coast.” By the early 1900s thirty clerks, assistants and traveling salesmen were employed. During the same period Blake retired to Ottumwa and the firm became E.E. Bruce and Co. Despite the facade of wholesale drugs, Bruce’s advertising emphasized his wines, whiskey and brandy.
His flagship brand was Country Club Bourbon that he sold in elegant stoneware, a quart cylinder that was the product of Sherwood Brothers Pottery in far off New Brighton, Pennsylvania. His whiskey likely was obtained from distilleries in Kentucky. He also may have done some “rectifying,” that is, mixing several whiskeys to improved taste and smoothness. Bruce also used the highly collectible Red Wing pottery for his wine and whiskey, shown here in one and two gallon sizes, Each bears the Bruce logo.
Made rich by his drug and liquor business, Bruce and his family occupied a mansion, located in Omaha's Gold Coast neighborhood. Designed by Omaha architect John McDonald his house was, and still is, considered a distinctive example of the Georgian Revival style.
Bruce also was well-known in Omaha business circles, according to a contemporary account, someone respected for his ability, enterprise and ingenuity. He was a co-founder of the National Association of Wholesale Druggists, an organization some thought was an attempt to control drug prices and quash competition. He also was a board member of the Omaha Grain Exchange.
Presumably as a result of his strong business reputation, Bruce was tapped by the elite of the city to be a principal officer for a world’s fair known as the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition. This event was inspired by leading Nebraskans to illustrate the “progress of the West." It highlighted the 24 states and territories west of the Mississippi River and was meant to spur economic development. Held a mere five years after Chicago’s highly successful 1893 Columbian World’s Fair, the Trans-Mississippi Exposition ran from June to November 1898.
Bruce held the pivotal position of Exhibits Manager for the Exposition, an extravaganza that covered 108 city blocks on the borders of Omaha. He was pivotal in choosing and managing 4,062 individual exhibits. The success of his efforts can be measured in the 2.6 million people who visited during the six month run of the fair. Constructed quickly of flimsy materials, none of the Exposition buildings survives today.
In 1910 Bruce’s wife died of the complications of surgery. E.E. himself lived to see the onset of Prohibition and his liquor sales ended in 1920. The man who mixed liquor and drugs died in 1924 and is buried next to his spouse in Omaha’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. Bruce’s mansion still stands, listed on the Historical Register in 1982. We also can remember this Omaha druggist and whiskey dealer by the ceramic jugs, particularly the elegant stoneware bottle from Sherwood Bros., as part of his legacy.