Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Holbergs: Were Creditors Left Holding the Jug?

During the late 1800s and early 1900s a family named Holberg founded a whiskey dynasty that extended to at least three states but appeared to have found considerable financial problems at every turning.  A question remains:  Were their creditors satisfied or were they left as dry as the Holberg jugs shown here?

According to a descendant,  Abraham Holberg emigrated to the United States from Germany some time about the mid-19th Century with three grown sons, all named after heroes of the Torah:  Jacob, Joseph and Moses.   Jacob is said to have settled in Mississippi;  Joseph in Texas and Moses, the subject of this sketch, in Alabama.   The 1860 census found Moses living in Mobile.  Then 29 years of age he was married to Flora Laura Holberg, a woman ten years his junior who also was an immigrant from Germany.  Over time their union produced six children.
Moses gave his occupation as “merchant” to the census taker.  Although his company apparently first showed up in Mobile business directories only later, evidence points to his having founded Holberg Mercantile Company perhaps as early as the 1880s.  Almost from the beginning, Moses appears to have been in financial hot water.  The Mississippi Supreme Court recorded an 1882 case in which a man named Charles E. Levy successfully sued Moses in Noxubee, Mississippi,  receiving a judgment “in a large amount” against him.

This financial setback apparently did not deter Moses Holberg from pursuing his mercantile interests,  most of which involved selling liquor. The Holberg firm carried on a vigorous mail order trade targeting those growing numbers of localities in the South where liquor could only be purchased from the outside sources.   Moses sold it in a variety of ceramic containers,  including round and cone top jugs.   The underglaze labels featured the family name in script and the slogan “Ask Your Friend.”  Holberg Mercantile subsequently added Cincinnati, Ohio,  to its locations, although the firm did not appear in that city’s directories of the period.

As he got older, Moses took members of his family into the business.  When he died at age 59 in 1890, it is not clear who among his relatives assumed immediate charge of the company. It may have been a son, Henry C. Holberg.  Another son, Abraham S., named after his grandfather,  seems to have taken particularly to the liquor trade.   The 1900 census found him living with Henry and two sisters;  he was 19 and his occupation was given as “bookkeeper,” likely for Holberg Mercantile.

After Moses’ death,  change came to the company.  It began to use embossed glass bottles for its whiskey,  possibly because of their reduced shipping weight.  The firm also added a mineral water line to its products.   A letter to the “Carbonator and Bottler” publication by a Holberg employee reported that it was running “two Crowns and Hutchinson tables, also a Bishops & Babcock latest improved continuous machine.”  The firm also  featured a line of soft drinks including “Red Feather Ginger Ale.”

By 1906 Abraham had taken over running Holberg Mechantile and had opened an outlet in New Orleans.  The label of a ceramic jug shows the three locations.  New Orleans may have appealed because it was close to the State of Mississippi which was fast going dry.  Abe may also have had an eye on his native Alabama, also a state where Prohibition was a hot issue.  This Holberg also was having financial problems.  In 1909 the company was hauled into Alabama’s bankruptcy court by creditors and put into receivership.  During the process a U.S. District Court in New Orleans also moved against Holberg Mercantile on behalf of three Cincinnati creditors that included suppliers of both raw whiskey and glass bottles.

Emerging from that bankruptcy was a new company, located at 105 Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans.   Abraham  called it  A.S. Holberg & Co.  The move to Louisiana was a calculated one.  A survey of social workers nationwide later identified New Orleans as the the “wettest” city in America.  Another Prohibition era report declared southern Louisiana to be 90 percent wet. The state never declared statewide Prohibition. Abe issued a shot glass with his New Orleans address, adding that the quality liquor was from “Holberg Himself.”  

Aggressive advertising, however, was not enough to keep Holberg out of bankruptcy court once again.  A 1915 Wine and Spirits Journal reported that a petition had been filed in the United State District Court of New Orleans requesting that Abe’s firm be declared an involuntary bankrupt.  This suit was filed by some of the biggest names in the distilling industry, including Paul Jones & Company and D. Sachs & Sons, both major companies in Louisville. (See my posts on Jones, Sept. 2014, and Sachs, Oct. 2011).  My assumption is that Holberg had been receiving whiskey for his blends from these manufacturers and failed to pay them as promised.  This bankruptcy proved to be the company’s last.  The Holberg organization disappeared from New Orleans directories the following year.

Abraham S.,  married and still a young man, went on to other pursuits.  The 1940 census found him living in Birmingham, Alabama,  with his wife.  His occupation was given as manager of a clay products company.   Moses, with his wife, Flora, is buried in the Springhill Avenue Temple Cemetery in Mobile.  Their tombstones are shown here.  The full story of what lay behind the Holbergs serial bankruptcies have eluded my research.  Thus the question posed at the beginning of this post remains unanswered.


  1. I appreciate how you stole pictures of my collection without permission.

  2. Dear Wonkapete: I took my illustrations from a wide variety of Internet sources and was unaware that any were from a special collection. If you will let me know those to which you are referring with proof, I would be happy to give you attribution. Jack