Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Netters: “Wherefore Art Thou, Brother?”

The Netter boys were successful in the liquor trade in Philadelphia for a very long time as a band of brothers. Over time, however, each brother broke with the family business and set up on his own.   What caused the Netter brothers breakup has been lost in the mists of time.  Left to us are the bottles that defined the businesses.

The Netters were born of German immigrants who settled initially in California, possibly as participants in one of the gold rushes that regularly swept over Western landscapes.  Eventually the family migrated East.  There were four brothers:  Henry H., Seligman, David and Theodore. Theodore gave his birth year as 1865 in California. Their liquor store first shows up in city directories in 1886, located at 2323 N. Second Street in Philadelphia.  They called it Netter Bros. Company.  Within three years they had moved to larger quarters at 732 Third Street, near Brown Street.  This address is memorialized on an amber flask shown here.  The trade mark, in detail, is an enigmatic one:  a woman standing next to a shield inside the Man in the Moon.  The company used the brand name “Golden Gate All Rye,” perhaps reflecting the brothers’ West Coast origins.

Initially, according to Philadelphia business directories, three Netters were proprietors:  Henry H., David and Theodore.   Four years later they had been joined by a fourth sibling,
Seligman.  The first brother to defect appears to have been Henry.  In 1893 he appears in directories as Henry H. Netter & Co.  There his firm was noted as: “Producers of California and Ohio wines and brandies and Pennsylvania rye whiskies.”  Henry’s brands included "Del Monte Rye Whiskey,”"Highground,” “Roxana” and "Pen & Pencil.”  The last was his flagship brand, trademarked in 1905.

The next Netter to open his own business apparently was David in 1898. In partnership with Jacob Marcus he opened a store at 441-445 Market Street.  He was shown as a a wine & liquor dealer, importer, distiller and proprietor of “Telegram Rye.” David issued a series of shot glasses advertising that brand and on a cobalt bottle, both shown here.  The bottle claimed David Netter to have won a 1900 prize in Paris for his whiskey.

Seligman, perhaps as early as 1900,  opened his own liquor store under the name “S. Netter.”  Although several address are given, he appears to have located at several addresses on North Third Street until 1911 when he moved to 736 Arch Street. Seligman’s company used the brand name “Ryvalley Whiskey, for which it issued a shot glass, shown here. Seligman also continued to be listed as running Netter Bros., which he shut down in 1907 after a 21 year business life.

Although Theodore Netter was listed with Netter Bros. until 1900,  at least one author, rightly or wrongly, has blamed him for the breakup, citing intra-family tensions. Sometime in the late 1890’s Theodore, with his wife, Hilda,  established their own liquor business.  After initial beginning at 54 North 13th Street,  the firm moved to its permanent base at 1232 Market Street, next to Philadelphia’s Savoy Theater.  From 1907 to 1914 Theodore also had a branch office in Chicago.

The 1910 Census found him and Hilda living with his brother-in-law,  Benjamin Lyons and family, in Philadelphia 37th Ward.  Theodore is 45 and lists his occupation as “merchant, liquor.   Lyons is listed as a “salesman, liquor,” leading to the conclusion that the two also had a business relationship.  The Theodore Netter firm used a number of brand names, including "American Perfection,” "Crystal Creek Rye,” "Juniper Leaf Gin,” "Lord Cecil Gin",”"Netters Famous No. 10 Rye, "Netter’s Silver Label", and "Old Phillie."

Although Theodore packaged his whiskey in the usual quart size, he also became known for issuing his whiskey in unusual glass containers   Among them was a barrel shaped bottle that said “Greetings.”  It may have been a giveaway at holiday times. Theodore’s barrel came in clear, as the one shown, aqua and cobalt.  Even more unusual were Theodore Netter’s pigs, issued in clear and amber.  They may have held rum.  Some pigs bore the practical message that after draining the whiskey,  the porker should be filled with sand and used as a paperweight.

When Prohibition arrived, all four brothers were forced to shut down.  By 1919 Seligman had moved to 818 North Broad Street and was running an auto supply store, according to Philadelphia directories.  David remained at his address but his firm became “merchandise brokers.” Theodore seems to have gone into the cigar business,  advertising in 1920 that he was selling Havana cigars for $3.50 a box of 50.  A 1921 listing shows him involved in “dining.” Apparently he died not long afterward as Hilda Netter was listed as a widow in 1925.

Not withstanding Theodore’s death, after Repeal his firm’s name reemerged in the whiskey business, advertising liquor in regional newspapers and selling Crystal Creek whiskey for $1.15 a fifth. Whether any of the family members were involved is unclear.  Shown here is a post-Prohibition Netter bottle,  identified by the requirement to list “proof” on the label.

Was Theodore the problem child who broke up the Netter Brothers? He had a penchant for running afoul of the pure food and drug laws, being fined twice for adulterating his wines. In his advertising he continually emphasized that this Netter had only one store -- indicating that  he saw his brothers in definite competition.  His was, Theodore claimed, “the largest and leading liquor store.”  As to why the brothers all went their separate ways, however, the story remains untold.

Note:  Telling the Netter Bros story in a few paragraphs is not easy because of difference among sources as to dates and addresses.   I have tried to use the most likely information, but suspect that there are important gaps here.










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