Wednesday, May 23, 2012

C.H. Ritter of Detroit and a Sense of Design

As evidenced by the elaborate logo he adopted for his firm,  as well as other artistic expressions,  C. H. Ritter, a Detroit whiskey dealer of note, had a sense of good design.  While other advertisers were indulging in Victorian scroll work,  Ritter went avant garde.  He chose to be identified in the mode of “art nouveau,” which was the artistic rage from the late 1800s until World War One.

Details of Ritter’s personal life are scanty, but he shows up in local business directories in 1879 as a young partner of M.H. Chamberlain,  a businessman who would go on to become a mayor of Detroit.   They ran a wholesale liquor and bottling outfit that featured a whiskey called “Silver Rye.”  Indications are they were bottling the products of the Burk Springs Distillery, located in Marion County, Kentucky.  (See my post on J. H. Kearns for more information on that facility.)

Sometime in the early 1880s the partners went separate ways.  Perhaps it was related to Chamberlain’s decision to pursue a political career.   Ritter took the Chamberlain Silver Rye brand name with him,  indicating that the split was an amicable one.  Shown here is a teapot the Ritter company issued to saloons, advertising the brand.

For the first few years of its existence C.H. Ritter & Co was located at 25 Monroe Avenue in downtown Detroit.  As the firm prospered and grew,  it incorporated in 1907 and shortly thereafter moved to a large three story building at 142-144 Jefferson Avenue.  Shown here, the company advertised itself as “wholesale liquor dealers” and billboards on the roof advertised two of its major brands --  “Westminster Rye Whiskey” and “Caravan Old Special Reserve Whiskey.”  Ritter registered both with the U.S. Patent Office in 1905.  

Ritter’s ad, shown here,  features all three brands as “Our Leaders.”  The ad displays the artistically designed labels that graced every bottle.  Note particularly the illustration of the teapot that appeared on the Silver Rye label.  A fourth brand from C.H. Ritter was “Mellow Monogram.”  Once again his sense of design was evident in selecting one of the Fulper Pottery “fancy jugs,” featuring gilded gothic letters and hand-painted flowers, to hold Mellow Monogram.  Similarly Ritter commissioned the prestigious Heisey Glass Company to provide his firm with an elaborate, multi-fluted shot glass.

Despite advertising all his brands,  Ritter appears to have put special emphasis on Westminster Rye.  He issued shot glasses advertising that whiskey, one of them with fancy lettering.   He also issued an attractive ceramic Westminster   “mini-mug”  shown here. Mini mugs were fairly common giveaway items to saloons and other favored customers.  They held wooden safety matches and featured a serrated base for striking a light.

Ritter was also noted for issuing a clever saloon sign for Westminster Rye.  Done by fine lithograph, the image was of a young man offering a drink to  a local farmer.  A closer look showed  a pig lying dead in the road, apparently struck by a roadster from which three passengers are watching. The title is “Settled Out of Court” and implies that a drink of Westminster Rye is so appealing that the farmer will let he motorist off the hook for the death of his hog.  Representing the dawning of the automotive age, Ritter’s sign appears to have been a favorite of the drinking crowd.

No amount of good design, however, could protect the firm from the woes of Prohibition.  The particular target of the “Dry” lobby, and financed by teetotaling Henry Ford,  Michigan  in 1915 was the first industrial Midwest State to pass a law banning alcohol completely, a full five years before National Prohibition.  Although plenty of booze flowed into the state from over the Canadian border and for a time from Ohio,  the effect on Michigan’s liquor industry was disastrous.   The doors of the establishment C. H. Ritter had founded were closed and the business disappeared from Detroit directories.
Note: Personal details about  Charles (C. H.) Ritter are scant.  The 1900 census found him living in the Ninth Ward of Detroit.  He said he had been born in Germany in 1844 of German parentage and had emigrated to the United States as a young man, settling in Detroit.  Although he said he was married, he was living with a woman named Daisy Ludlow, identified as his sister-in-law and housekeeper.  By 1913, although the liquor business still bore his name, Ritter was gone from the firm, either retired or deceased, and a longtime partner, Edwin A. Burch, was heading it.

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