Monday, July 29, 2013

Peter Welty: Known Through the Jugs He Issued

 Although facts about the personal life of Peter Welty of Wheeling, West Virginia, are scanty, he has left behind a strong legacy of strikingly decorated whiskey jugs by which to remember his apparent long career as a whiskey man.

Welty’s origins are relatively obscure.  His family were German immigrants and Peter’s birthplace appears to have been Germany  He first comes into the public record in the 1860s as a partner in an import and wholesale liquor business run by his brother,  Christian Welty,  known corporately as C. Welty & Bro.  In 1882 located at 11 South Main Street, according to Wheeling business directories, the firm later moved to 1118 Main Street.   From an 1887 invoice  it appears that Christian later retired from the scene and Peter Welty was running the liquor dealership.   The invoice is on C. Welty & Bro letterhead but signed by Peter Welty & Co. at the Main Street address, indicating a transition.

Shown on a 1889 letterhead here is an illustration of the Main Street entrance and a second outlet that Peter had opened at 1121 Market Street.  Two other names appear on the document,  C. Wm. and Samuel Welty.   Peter does not appear to be their father since the two men, brothers,  had been living with their widowed mother, according to the 1880 census.   Nor do the age differences suggest Peter could be their brother.  My guess is that he was an uncle,  but additional research is required.  Welty seems to have been particularly proud of his Market Street facility which he boasted extended “the full depth of the Square from Main to Market St.”   His ads showed a cutaway version of the building.

If you look carefully at the drawing, it is clear that lots of jugs are stacked inside, many containing whiskey.   Welty may have been one of the last whiskey dealers to employ the large, two gallon or more, saltglazed stoneware jugs with stenciled designs and lettering.  Shown here are three examples of those containers, all remnants of the Civil War era when whiskey often came in large containers. 

In the later part of the 19th Century and into the 20th, Welty shifted his containers to a more contemporary look.   Among them were stoneware quart jugs with a light glaze, brown necks and fancy gold lettering.  They held respectively,  “Monticello Rye,” a highly praised Baltimore Maryland product, and “Old Crow,”  a successful Kentucky bourbon.   So far, I have been unsuccessful in determining exactly what pottery or potteries made these containers.  No so, for a third jug that has a light top,  dark bottom, gold lettering and a hand-painted flower on the front.   Advertising “Dougherty Rye,”  a Pennsylvania whiskey,  this jug was made by Fulper Pottery of Flemington,  New Jersey.   Despite  having no pottery mark the link back to this pottery was  definitely made several years ago.   Welty seems to have fancied the Fulper jugs since there are at least five varieties that have come to light with his name on them.
The Fulper Jug

I find it interesting that although Welty also was a “rectifier,” mixing up his own blends of whiskey that he chose to put other people’s whiskey into the fancy containers. Those included the national brands noted earlier and the well-known “O.F.C. Taylor,” another Kentucky label. Among Welty’s own brands were “Smoke House,” which was trademarked in 1905;  “Old Eighty-One (81),” trademarked in 1909;  and “Old Fowler,” never trademarked.

Welty’s business success was not limited to dealing in liquor.   Wheeling was a center of the region’s insurance industry with one life and ten fire insurance companies located there.  Peter was the vice president of one, Aetna Fire and Marine.  About the same period he was listed as one of the incorporators of the Artic Ice and Storage Company with principal offices in Wheeling.  It was capitalized at half a million dollars.

It is difficult to determine exactly how C. William and Samuel Welty fit into the picture.  Although their names appear on company letterheads,  their titles and responsibilities do not.  In the 1880 census   C. William Welty, then 22, was recorded as a “clerk,” likely for a family owned firm.   Samuel, 18, was “at school.” At the time of the census ten years later in 1910, Samuel is listed as a liquor dealer and merchant, almost certainly working for Peter.

Meanwhile Prohibition was tightening the noose on the liquor trade in West Virginia.  As early as 1883,  the lower house of the West Virginia  legislature had passed a ban on alcohol but it was defeated in the State Senate.   By 1910 some 37 of the 55 counties in West Virginia were completely dry or had permited towns to pass “local option” laws.  In 1912,  statewide prohibition was put to the voters and passed by a majority of  92,342 votes.  As a result, liquor and beer were banned completely from West Virginia on July 1, 1914 -- a full six years before National Prohibition.   The New York Times reported that on that day 1,200  West Virginia saloons shut down, along with every liquor dealership.   The Times noted that “no serious disorder and very little excitement” attended the closings but that in final hours drinks were being sold at bargain prices.

Peter Welty & Co. had not waited around for that calamity to strike.  The business moved lock, stock, barrel and jug in early 1914 to nearby Pittsburgh and set up shop there at 103 Smithfield Street.  During this era, the company appears to have moved from ceramic containers into glass. Shown here is a clear labeled pint of  Old Fowler and an amber labeled quart of Old Eighty-One.   The company’s sojourn in Pennsylvania would prove to be relatively short-lived.  It disappeared from Pittsburg directories in 1918 as National Prohibition closed in on liquor sales everywhere.  Although neither the company nor its brands revived after Repeal,  Peter Welty left behind a legacy of fancy decorated whiskey jugs that today keeps his memory alive.  


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