Friday, July 12, 2013

The Hentzes of Philly Lighted Up Times Square

When the very first lighted billboard went up on Times Square in New York City in 1904, the neon sign flashed out its message for “Trimble Whiskey,”  the flagship brand of a liquor dealing family, not from the Big Apple, but from quaint, staid Philadelphia.  The family’s name was Hentz, well-known in the East Coast liquor trade.

The “pater familias” of the Hentz clan was Jacob, a native of Pennsylvania, who married a local woman by the name of Suzanna.  The 1850 census found them living in Philadelphia and gave Jacob’s occupation as “liquor inspector,”  probably a state or city government employee charged with assuring the quality of retail whiskey and wine.   The couple were recorded as having three children,  Susanna, born 1833;  Jacob H., born 1934, and William, born 1838.

Jacob H., perhaps to distinguish himself from his father, subsequently altered his name to J. Henry Hentz and was known by that throughout his adult life.  In 1949, while still in his teens, he enter into a business partnership with William R. White, an older man who may have provided the majority of the original capital.   They purchased a liquor dealership that traced its origins back to 1793 when Philadelphia was still a relatively small town.  Over the years several owners had followed. Indications are that J. Henry had started in the whiskey business clerking for the prior owner.  

After a number of years working together as White & Hentz,  White left the scene and although the name was unchanged,  Hentz was the sole owner.  The firm’s headquarters throughout its existence was located at  222-224 North Second Street.  Shown here, the smaller building was erected in 1793 and the taller one in 1860.  The facility extended back to Broad Street a distance of 200 feet with the receiving and shipping dock situated at the rear.

The 1870 census found J. Henry, 36,  living with his wife,  Elizabeth Smith Bloom.  The census taker recorded her name as “Lizzie,” but another source says she was called “Ma Bess” within the family.  At that time the Hentzes had three children,  J. Henry Jr., born in 1860;  Lillie, born 1862;  and William, born 1864.  A fourth child had died in infancy.  J. Henry was listed as a businessman in “wines and liquors.”  Indicative of the wealth he already had amassed in this business,  the family had four domestic servants in their home.

As J. Henry Junior matured,  his father saw that he received advanced education.  The son graduated from Pennsylvania University and subsequently began to work at White, Hentz & Company.  According to a biography of the firm,  Junior proved to be “very active and energetic and was admitted to partnership in 1885.”  Apparently believing that the firm was in good hands,  J. Henry made an extensive trip to Europe in 1879,  returning in November 1881.  He is recorded as having visited “all the leading markets of in Europe and returned with much knowledge, which can only be obtained by personal observation in the old world.”  Among his stops were Rheims and Cognac in France for their wines and brandies;  Rotterdam in Holland with its gin and schnapps;  the seaport of Cadiz in Spain, and Oporto in Portugal. 

Upon the father’s return, the Hentzes moved to expand their operations to other cities.  They opened a branch at 17 William Street in New York City, represented there by a D. Lieber,  who appears also to have handled the imports of wine and liquors generated by J. Henry’s visit.  They also opened a branch in Washington, D.C., initially four blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue and later in the Glover Building at 1419 F Street N.W.   The Hentzes featured a number of brands, including “White, Hentz Whiskey,  trademarked in 1905;  “Monogram Pennsylvania Rye,”  trademarked 1906, and “Pennsylvania Monogram Rye,” trademarked in 1907.

The company’s flagship brand, and the one it merchandised most vigorously was Trimble Whiskey,  a brand that inherited from prior owners and said to have originated in 1830.  They trademarked the label in 1905 and advertised it widely.  The bottle was distinguished by a green label and the slogan, “When you drink, drink Trimble.”   Other Trimble ads could be plain or sometimes fancy,  with poetry thrown in.   As shown here, the verse was:  “Laugh, and the world laughs with you/Weep, and you weep alone/For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth/But has trouble enough of its own.”

In 1901,  both Life and Puck, national magazines, found space for some puffery on Trimble Whiskey, calling it “a whiskey with a history” and adding:  “This history embraces a reputation for purity that has extended over one hundred years.  It is doubtful if any other whiskey on the market has every been before the public for such a length of time.”

Following the practice of the liquor trade of the time the Hentzes also featured a number of giveaway items to favored customers.  Some were aimed at the general consumer, such as a metal bullet corkscrew and Major League Baseball schedule and score booklet for the 1903 season.  The Hentzes also believed in distinctive signs.  Particularly impressive was a saloon sign done on reverse glass advertising Trimble Whiskey.   They also sponsored signs painted on the sides of buildings.  One shown here was recently uncovered on Bleeker Street in New York.

Thus, the Hentzes were receptive when approached by Oscar J. Gude, a master of outdoor billboards and electric light signs, who had an idea of turning a neglected uptown New York City intersection into the place we know today as Times Square.  As one author has said: "Times Square was already an advantageous place to hang things due to the sight lines created by long, even avenues. As one of the first electric signs, the Trimble name could be seen from almost a mile away down certain corridors. At night, the words 'Trimble Whiskey' could be seen reflecting into the new Times Square across the plaza. Theater goers leaving one of the new stages on 42nd Street stopped to take a gander at the glowing lights before boarding a trolley, or entering the crisp, new subway station."
Trimble Sign on Bleeker Street

A novel of the time captured the impact of the neon sign.  One character remarks on the brightness of Times Square and the following conversation ensues:

“I think it might be the brightness of Trimble Whiskey.”  Jess squinted at the billboard behind them

“Those clanking glasses almost make me want to drink Trimble...”  Jack laughed, glancing over his shoulder.

“It’s all anyone would talk about when the advertisement went up.”  David rolled his eyes....

“Why wouldn’t you drink Trimble?”  An unfamiliar voice of a man they were passing ahead.

J. Henry never got the full benefit of the buzz his Times Square flashing billboard had generated.  He died the same year that the sign went up.  J. Henry Junior took over the management of White, Hentz.  He continued to operate the liquor business with great success.  He had married at an early age to Anne, whose maiden name likely was Hammett.  She was a Pennsylvania native, born on Scottish ancestry.  They had two children,  Jacob (J. Henry III), and William.  Living with them were his wife’s sister and three servants.  The whiskey business clearly was remaining profitable.

The White, Hentz Co., survived at the same address under J. Henry Junior until the forces of Prohibition required its closure in 1918.  Trimble Whiskey disappeared. Nonetheless,  the family had run the liquor business for 69 years.  Moreover, they were recognized as pioneers in lighting up and “making” Times Square.   Should there be any doubt,  just look at the famous American site today.  Trimble Whiskey may be gone but the lights, the lights, gleam ever more brightly!


  1. Thanks for the post. J Henry Hentz is my GGG grandfather

  2. Dear Chris: You certainly can be proud of your ancestor, J. Henry. He was a "whiskey man" with vision and creativity. Since he must have been part of the planning for it, it is too bad that he died before seeing the Trimble sign lighted up on Times Square. All the best. Jack

  3. Wow! I had no idea there was a Trimble Whiskey. I am a Trimble, born in Philadelphia but my home is Louisville, KY. And....I love Bourbon and Whiskey. I love this history and wish I could learn more about the Trimble name. Thank you for this article .

  4. Thanks for your kind comment. Teresa. Wish I knew more about the Trimble name on whiskey.