Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sonn Brothers: Jewish Cowboys in Manhattan?

In July 1888 the New York Times reported court appearance in which one of New York’s “Finest” described how he, a cop policing his beat along Seventh Avenue in Manhattan,   saw a two men, both on horseback, charging down the busy central city street at what he  described as a “furious gallop.”  He gave chase and caught one of the men and arrested him but the other rider got away.  The culprit’s name was Henry Sonn, one half of Sonn Brothers, well known in the Big Apple as liquor merchants.

Was Henry Sonn trying out to be a cowboy?  Was his brother, Hyman Sonn, the horseman that got away?  Were the Sonn Brothers, in effect, in the way of becoming Jewish Cowboys in Manhattan?   It could be argued that the siblings exhibited many of  the positive characteristics attributed to  cowboys, namely, fearless against the odds, adventurous spirits, multi-talented and coming out winners in the end.

The Sonn brothers were far from the “manor born.”  Their father, Hess Sonn, was a emigrant from Bavaria whose occupation was given in the U.S. census as “peddler.”  Hyman was born overseas in 1851 and as a mere babe accompanied his father and mother when they emigrated to the United States the following year, settling in New York.  Henry Sonn was born in New York a year later.  Both received public education and were schooled religiously in their Jewish heritage.  When and how they entered business is obscure, but in 1875 a business directory lists the Sonn Brothers selling fish at at 119 Warren Street.  In succeeding years they were recorded in New York City directories as grocers, first at 181 Reade Street and subsequently at 83 North Moore Street.

As grocers, they also sold liquor and about the turn of the century, the brothers made a shift in their mercantile interests and established Sonn Bros. Company, wholesale and retail liquor dealers.  The 1900 census found them living on West 74th Street in Manhattan in adjacent townhouses.   Their store initially was located at 410 Washington Street, with a move to 145 Washington by 1906.  Shown here is a Sonn wall sign from a Washington Street location.

Hyman and Henry were not distillers, but rectifiers, taking supplies of “raw” whiskey, mixing them to taste and bottling them in flask sized and larger glass bottles embossed with their name.  Bottle diggers continue to find Sonn containers in privies and dumps in the New York area.  Unlike many wholesalers who featured a blizzard of brand names in hopes of snaring customers,  Sonn Bros. bucked the trend and essentially featured only two labels.

Their flagship brand was “Buckingham Rye,” whose trademark the firm registered with the Federal Patent and Trademark Office in 1906.  The label featured a shield with the brother’s logo on it.  The brothers may have revolted against industry wisdom by sticking to two brands, but they were in the mainstream of their trade in being generous with their giveaways to bars and restaurants stocking their brands.  If a saloonkeeper featured Buckingham Rye he could expect to be offered a colorful reverse glass sign for his establishment.   The Sonns also could supply him with shot glasses and a back of the bar bottle with attractive an ad for Buckingham Rye.  Nor did the brothers neglect their second brand, “Old Cabinet Rye.”  That whiskey could boast shot glasses, one fancy with a rosette design and another plain, as well as a back-of-the-bar bottle with a gilded label that featured Old Cabinet on one side and Sonn Bros. on the other.

As their liquor trade grew, the brothers expanded to offices in Philadelphia and Chicago.   As early as 1900 the Sonns also opened a thriving real estate business in New York City, demonstrating their many talents.  The 1900 census listed Henry as a realtor with no mention of the whiskey interests. The brothers also were prominent in Jewish philanthropic affairs, contributing considerable amounts of money to less fortunate members of their religious community.  For a time Hyman was active as a member of the Board of Jewish Charities of New York.

Through their multiple enterprises the brothers continued to grow prosperous.  That was made clear in a New York Times story headlined “Fire’s Havoc in Mansion.”  It recorded an early morning blaze that raged through the four story residence of Hyman Sonn. It was located at 29 West Seventy-second street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  The fire destroyed, the story said, “sumptuous decorations and many valuable works of art.”  Hyman and his entire household escaped to the street in their night clothes but were able to snatch $30,000 worth of jewels (worth at least 10 times that today)  from the flames.

Another disaster was on the horizon for the Sonns with the coming of National Prohibition in 1920.  Unlike other liquor dealers who were bankrupted by its advent,  the brothers had been provident in being able to fall back on their flourishing real estate business.  The 1921 Manhattan telephone directory no longer listed them as liquor dealers, but rather as "Sonn Bros. Import & Export Co.” at the same Washington Street  address.  In the Exporters' Encyclopedia, 17th Annual Edition, 1922, they were described as having  “Foreign Markets: Africa, South and Central America, Far East. / Goods specialized in: Machinery, chemicals, paper, textiles, general merchandise." The Sonn Bros. import/export business stayed at that address until approximately 1925. After 1925 Hyman and Henry seemed to have been engaged exclusively in real estate.

Oh yes,  we never settled on Henry Sonn riding roughshod down Seventh Street in downtown Manhattan. He was adamant in claiming he was not trying to emulate a cowboy. He told the judge that he was just learning to ride a horse, that he lost control of the animal while practicing with an instructor, and the horse on its own charged down the street with Henry hanging on for dear life.  The second rider clearly was not his brother, Hyman, but his unnamed riding instructor, who had fled police rather than be arrested.  As it turns out, the Sonns, who had many positive qualities expected of cowboys, were not emulating their Wild West riding style. The judge bought Henry’s story and dismissed the charges.

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