Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sam'l Klein Risked the Risque'

In the pre-Prohibition era only adult males frequented saloons. Many drinking establishments, without fear of offending women, featured a nude or other suggestive picture, usually somewhere over the bar. Whiskey men were quick to recognize the merchandising possibilities in this custom. A few marketed their liquor by use of, let us say, “racy” images.

Key among them was Samuel H. Klein, called Sam’l, of Klein Brothers in Cincinnati, Ohio. To advertise his Harvard Rye brand, for example, he provided a bar picture showing two university lads dressed in cap and gown, presumably from Harvard University, sporting with two ladies in what appears to be a house of ill repute. The image found its way into a number of saloons, one shown here centered over the bar.

The image of the rowdy college boy also appeared on Klein Bros. bottles. The multicolored back of the bar bottle is particularly impressive. So identified was Klein with Harvard Rye that when a cartoonist caricatured him it was with a scholar’s mortarboard and a book in hand, sitting on a keg of the whiskey.

For his Spring Lake brand, Klein could get even more daring. He had copied and distributed for bar use a painting of two courtesans, nude from the waist up, dueling in a Paris park. This picture first appeared in the French Salon of 1884, painted by a well-known and popular Parisian artist named Emile Antoine Bayard (1837-1891). Bayard called it “An Affair of Honor.” The image caused a sensation wherever shown and became a favorite of the saloon crowd.

With a brother, Klein founded his firm about 1875 at 340 Walnut Street. Soon the volume of business caused the firm to move to larger quarters at 49 Vine Street. Further expansion forced a move to a building at 17 Sycamore St. About the same time Sam’l took Elias Hyman as a partner and the firm became Klein Bros. & Hyman. The partners did a vigorous business, eventually opening their own distillery in Kentucky.

Their brands gained regional and even national attention, including Keystone Rye, Spring Lake Rye, Lynchburg Rye, McBride, and Independence whiskeys. The partnership lasted about ten years. After the partners dissolved it in 1897, Sam’l set up again as Klein Bros., located at 121 Sycamore in Cincinnati.

Throughout his career as a leading “whiskey man,” Klein demonstrated an extraordinary flair for merchandising. In addition to his creative use of advertising, Sam’l employed the artistic genius of Liverpool Ohio’s KT&K Pottery to produce ceramic containers for his Spring Lake and other whiskeys. He also marketed his Keystone Rye in Fulper Pottery “fancy” jugs. I n the process he was responsible for some America’s most attractive whiskey jugs. Attractive shot glasses also were part of Klein’s legacy.

Sam’l died in 1914, widely mourned as an Ohio business leader and philanthropist. He left the whiskey business to family members, his last testament envisioning that the firm he founded would exist well into the 20th Century. But that was not to be. Five years after his death, Klein Bros. Company suspended operations because of Prohibition and never reopened.

Today the name of Samuel H. Klein is kept alive by a family foundation in Cincinnati that honors his name. We also can remember him for the flamboyance of his merchandising techniques, as well as his willingness to risk -- for his time-- being just a little bit risque’.


  1. Do you know where in KY Klein had his distillery and what it was called?

    1. Harold: I don't think that Klein ever owned outright a KY distillery but rather that he was getting his whiskey from as yet unidentified distilleries and then "rectifying" it -- blending and compounding. In 1887 a local directory listed Klein as a "distiller" but that was often done by rectifiers. Other directory entries have him as a wholesaler. Many wholesalers were rectifiers. Some times it is possible to find out from Federal records what houses were drawing from what distilleries. Have not got that for Klein. Hope this is helpful. If you find the distillery let me know. Jack