Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Groves: "By Their Fruits Shall Ye Know Them"

It is unusual to begin a biography with a gravestone, but in the case of Charles A. Grove, a whiskey man from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, it is one of the few images that tell us something about him. Facts about Grove and the two sons who succeeded him in his liquor business are sparse, indeed, and so a biography must be cobbled out of the artifacts the Grove family left behind them.

Charles Grove was born in 1850 according to his gravestone in Lancaster’s Greenwood Cemetery. He was a father and from other sources we know the names of his sons were Charles E. and George F. Grove. The family ran a liquor store, its interior shown here, at 15 Centre Square in downtown Lancaster. The company first shows up in local directories in 1899 as the Charles A. Grove Company. Later the name was changed to Charles A. Grove & Son.

With their father’s passing in 1907 at age 57 his sons took over the management of the company. They changed the name of the firm to Charles Grove’s Sons. Throughout the life of the firm they remained at the Centre Square location, closing with the advent of National Prohibition. Those are the family vital statistics. The rest is gleaned from interesting and colorful artifacts the company produced during its 20 years in business.

The senior Charles apparently was keen to put his whiskey into attractive ceramic jugs. Two of them are shown here, one with his name and address in decorative cobalt script. While the second jug is more conventional it also has a blue-and-white motif not often seen in whiskey ceramics of that era. The third jug was commissioned from the Fulper Pottery, a Flemington, New Jersey, ceramics manufacturer that advertised its “fancy” jugs along with a line of art pottery.

The Grove firm featured at least three brands. The flagship label was “Golden Rod Whiskey.” Others were “Spring Grove” and “Great Eastern.” The Groves had a flair for merchandising through giveaway items to taverns and saloons that carried their whiskeys. An excellent example is the bar sign of two dogs sitting a table smoking big cigars and drinking from lidded steins. Dog motifs were favorite saloon art and no doubt found a place on the walls of many a drinking establishment.

Tip trays were another traditional giveaway item. The idea was that when the waiter brought his change, the money sat on a metal tray, usually about 12 inches in diameter, that carried an attractive image and an ad for a whiskey. Three tip trays are shown here. The first is of a winsome lass talking on a vintage telephone. The legends on the tray read: “Always Good Taste...With Your Meals.” It bears a 1913 copyright and was made by American Art Works of Coshocton, Ohio. This was one of the foremost manufacturers in the U.S. producing high quality lithographs on metal.

While the exact provenance of the next two tip trays is unknown, the picture of the coiffured woman in a low-cut filmy dress was a standard of the times. It was the era of the Gibson Girl and this tray reflects the tradition. The final tip tray links a pretty girl and a horse, again a demonstrated “crowd pleaser.” While such trays individually were not as expensive to make as the signs, a saloon had to be furnished with a dozen or more in order to sustain the merchandising impact.

A final Grove artifact is a “back of the bar bottle” that features more expensive gold lettering. This bottle would have sat behind the bartender filled with dark liquid that the customer could assume was Grove whiskey. Because such bottles too often were filled with something fraudulent, they were outlawed after the end of Prohibition. Today whiskey must be poured from original bottles.

What can we surmise about the Groves, father and sons? First, they limited the number of brands under their label. Second, they took care to bottle their whiskey in attractive and unusual containers. Third, they had a knack for merchandising, as evidenced by the images portrayed on their signs and tip trays. Space does not allow for showing a more complete line of Grove giveaways, but they included shot glasses, pocket mirrors, and New Years noisemakers.

On the personal side of the Groves, Charles A. was born in Pennsylvania in 1850 in a family of native   Pennsylvanians.  His early occupation, according to census date, was as a horse jockey.  About 1871 he married Sarah A. Emig,  Pennsylvania born in 1852 into a family of Pennsylvanians.  The couple would have a daughter, Anna, born in 1873, and two sons,  George J., 1876, and Charles E., 1879.  As each boy matured, his father took him into his liquor business.  Sadly, Charles E. would die just shy of his 40th birthday of cirrhosis of the liver.  According to his death certificate he was a "chronic alcoholic."


  1. I own one of their bar signs of the dogs, an exact copy. The artist is Cassis Coolidge. His paintings sell for 550,000 and $650,000.

  2. Dear Trex: Congratulations on the excellent Grove bar sign. In good condition it would be quite valuable. As for Cassis Coolidge I did a piece on him for my Bottles, Booze and Back Stories blog in August 2013 that you might wish to look at. Thanks for being in touch. Jack