Monday, July 4, 2011

Sanford Petts: Selling the Spirits of ‘‘76

It was not a coincidence that Bald Eagle Whiskey, represented here by a celluloid pocket mirror, should be 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.

Through his father Petts was related to at least six soldiers who fought in the War of Independence from Britain. The Petts clan was renowned for its military service, described in detail in a 1908 regional history. Afterward these forebears settled down to lives as farmers and merchants in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Petts’ father, Ferdinand, was a New England hustling type. In 1855 at the age of 20, by saving his money from a job in a glass factory, he was able to buy and operate the Marlowe House Hotel in Stoddard, New Hampshire. Ever restless, Ferdinand left New Hampshire in 1860 to run the Central House Hotel in Ashburnham, Mass., the year of Sanford’s birth. Five years later father Ferdinand became a grocer; within three years he had exited that business and was selling tobacco.

Given his father’s frequent moves, it is questionable how much formal education Petts enjoyed. Nevertheless, he had inherited an enterprising spirit. Although little appears in the record about his early years, by the age of 34 he had established his liquor business at 256 Friend Street in Boston and in time established himself as a noted local businessman. One contemporary account, asserting Pett’s prominence in Boston, said: “His success has been entirely the result of his effort.”

In addition to ambition, Petts showed considerable imagination. He contained his whiskey both both in ceramic jugs and in clear and amber embossed glass bottles. For Bald Eagle Whiskey he commission an elaborately etched shot glass, shown here front and side, and a elegant tip tray featuring a scantily clad woman and a flute-playing cherub.

Again harking back to his Revolutionary War heritage, Petts sold ‘his rum in ceramic jugs that invoked the “Spirit of ‘76.” His ads asserted he was selling: “The same kind of rum that George Washington drank in Ye Olden Time.” Other Petts brands of liquor were “Benjamin Franklin,” Old Reliable,” “Pett’s Malt,” “Suprema,” ”Jan Steen Gin,” and “Cedar Slope,” the last shown here. He also featured “Petts’ Fruit Punch,” a beverage that mixed juices with alcohol.

In the 1880s Petts married Nellie Cushing. From this union was born in 1889 his only child, Sanford Junior. With the success he had enjoyed Petts was able to give the boy the education he may have lacked. Harvard University lists Junior as a graduate in 1916. By that year Petts had exited the whiskey business. S. F. Petts and Co. disappeared from Boston business directories after 1914. The following year Petts was listed as a banking executive with the Old South Trust Company of Boston. He died in 1927, age 67.

With all the merchandising ability Petts had shown and the obvious success of his business, the question remains: Why did he quit? With the death of wife Nellie, he had remarried, this time to Catherine Lane. Perhaps this change of spouses was responsible. Perhaps Sanford Junior exhibited no interest in the whiskey business. Perhaps Petts foresaw the coming of National Prohibition. The record provides no explanation. What ever the case, over its 20 year life S.F. Petts & Co. had carved an attractive and patriotic niche in the history of American whiskey.


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