Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Flemings: Druggists Who Mixed the Drinks









My current collecting area -- glass paperweights advertising liquor -- has brought me in touch with Jos. Fleming & Son, Pittsburgh druggists in business for more than a half century, whose principal products were rye and malt whiskey. While it was not unusual for pharmacies in the 1800’s to sell spirits, druggists with a concocting bent usually put their alcohol into patent medicines.

The Flemings were different. Part of a prominent Irish family of Pittsburgh druggists, Joseph Fleming started as a clerk in a local drug store in 1840 and 15 years later owned the business. Although Joseph sold medicines under his own label, much of his output appears to have been whiskey. As shown here, bottles from these early days often were embossed with his name.

Joseph had six children, two sons and four daughters. In 1874 he put one son, George S. Fleming, then 13 years old, to work as an errand boy. George eventually worked his way up to clerk, then manager, and in 1888 at age 27 was made a partner by his father. At that point, the elder Fleming changed the company name to Jos. Fleming & Son. Two years later Joseph died and George became sole owner.

George Fleming, shown here in a 1892 cartoon, wasted no time in putting the pharmacy on the map. A contemporary account called him “undoubtedly the best known druggist west of the Allegheny Mountains.” 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. A square bottle similar to one shown here recently was found in a Sacramento, California, state park. It is embossed on two sides: “Fleming’s Export Pure Rye” and “Bottled Expressly for Family Use.”

George also featured as gifts to prime customers attractive paperweights and shot glasses, as shown here. They frequently stressed the role of physician endorsements,. as might be common for a druggist. Whiskey sales not only were brisk but apparently extremely profitable. A contemporary satirical poem about George Fleming averred: “For although he’s a druggist his earnings are high...From selling old rye.”

The same 1892 poem gave some clues to George’s personality. At age 31 he was still a bachelor but accounted handsome, something of a ladies man, but adverse to marriage. Also fun loving: “He’s a joker, you know, and will never let go, a chance to make merry with friend or foe.” In 1893, according to news reports, he had a narrow escape from death when the fishing boat on which he was aboard capsized off Atlantic City in a gale.

The Flemings were rectifiers, not distillers. They bought whiskey in bulk, mixed it with other ingredients to their taste, slapped a label on it and called it their own. Look at the cartoon again: George could be stirring up a cocktail of Fleming’s Export Rye in that giant mortar.

It appears that George Fleming died relatively young, reportedly in 1912 when he was about 51. Shortly thereafter other family members sold the pharmacy to a local druggist who continued to operate it under the Fleming name until Prohibition.

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