Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What’s In a Name?: For James Shea, a Lot

In his famous play, “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare has his heroine say:  “What’s in a name, that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”   Growing up in ireland,  James Sheehy may have known of the phrase but it was his coming to America that transformed him by name into James Shea and one of San Francisco’s leading whiskey dealers.

Sheehy/Shea, shown here as a young man, was born in Skibbereen,  Country Cork, about 1835.  Unlike many Irish immigrants,  he was a relatively old 28 years when he came to the United States, arriving in San Francisco in 1863  by way of Cape Horn.  He
apparently had brothers already living in Watsonville, California.  James may have left his future wife as his sweetheart back in Ireland.  She was Anne Shipsey from Clear Island in County Cork.  Annie arrived in California shortly after James via the Isthmus of Panama.  According to census data they were married in 1865 in San Francisco.

Sheehy had rapidly established himself in business, likely working for a San Francisco liquor  dealership named Sullivan and Cashman.  During this period he also had applied for and was granted citizenship under the name of “James Sheehy.”  Not long after, however, he repaired to the courts and had his last name changed to “Shea,” a move that some descendants believe greatly upset his brothers.  The reason for their concern may have been in part because of their Cork origins;  Shea was a Kerry name, across a sometimes contentious county border.
When Sullivan and Cashman retired from the liquor trade about 1868,  the newly anointed  James Shea took over at their location at the corner of Front and Jackson Streets.  With a partner,  he opened Shea, Hussey & Company.  After several years,  Hussey was gone and Shea was in business with three new partners.  They were the Bocqueraz brothers,  Antoine and Leon, both immigrants from Europe, and Robert M. McKee,  who himself had a history in dealing San Francisco liquors.

The  Front Street store they occupied is shown here with a group of men posing outside.  We may assume that Shea is among them.  The building was a large structure that had been divided into two businesses and separate addresses.  Next door was the M. Gruenburg Company, another whiskey wholesaler and a competitor.  Advertising themselves as “importers and wholesale liquor dealers,”  Shea, Bocqueraz & McKee were also “rectifiers,” blenders and compounders of whiskey from other sources, chiefly from Kentucky.

The firm used a number of brand names, including “Roanoke Rye,”  “Roanoke Rock and Rye,” “Springfield,” “Tea Kettle,”  “Golden,” and “Astor.”  Although they advertised several of these brands, their flagship label was “Tea Cup,”  sometimes merchandised as “Tea Cup Extra Old Bourbon Whiskey.”  It was the only one of their brands that the company apparently trademarked, registering the name in 1891 and again in 1906.  The brand likely had been brought to the firm by McKee who earlier had obtain the name rights.  Some observers speculate that the brand was a low quality, rectified product given the dearth of embossed bottles bearing the name.  Shown here is a labeled flask that depicts a elderly rustic couple drinking from tea cups.  Tea Cup Bourbon also appears on a ceramic miniature jug with a cobalt blue picture of a tea cup.

Whatever the quality of Tea Cup Whiskey, Shea and his partners advertised it heavily and also provided a number of giveaway items, particularly signs and shot glasses to saloons and other customers using their products.   Like other San Francisco wholesale dealers, they distributed fancy etched glasses,  some with gold rims, like one shown here.  The quantities that have survived indicate a generous flow of these items.  Unlike the risque saloon pictures favored by many whiskey men,  Shea and his partners issued a series of attractive  signs involving glamorous, well-clothed females.   These were color lithographs of paintings by Philip Boileau, a French Canadian artist who specialized in idealized portraits of women.  The signs advertised Old Teacup Whiskey and Springfield Straight Whiskey. 

In 1885,  McKee died and several years later the firm changed its name to Shea, Bocqueraz & Co., sometimes abbreviated as “S.B. Co.”  as seen here on a shot glass. A 1902 letterhead listed as officers James Shea and the Bocqueraz brothers.  In 1898 they moved the company from Front Street and relocated at 525 Market Street.   An ad for the partner’s Roanoke Rye Honey and Horehound gave that new address.

In the meantime,  James Shea was having a personal life.  The 1900 census found him, age 60, with his family, living at 1375 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco.  It would be their home for 40 years.  With Shea and wife Annie are recorded a number of their children, ages 26 to 18.  Additionally we have a wonderful picture of the Sheas, courtesy of a descendant, posing in a vernal setting.  Annie and the girls, Elizabeth, Ethel and Rose, all very comely lasses, are wearing identical blouses and neckwear.  Son Alfred, with cap and cricket bat, is leaning on his mother’s arm.  Papa Shea, in a straw hat,  necktie, and jacket seems almost lost among the foliage and the women.

Things would change drastically in 1906 for Shea, Bocquerez with the great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.  The Market Street location was burned out.  Located at the edge of a marsh, the whole area subsequently became a site for dumping the city’s disaster debris.  It later was filled in to accommodate the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 and is now the “Wharf” area of San Francisco, famous for its seafood restaurants and sea lions.  The wholesale liquor dealership was forced to make another move in 1907, this time to 509-517 Mission Street. The firm survived until 1919 when shut down by the looming National Prohibition.  

Members of the the Shea family are buried in the Catholic Cemetery, shown left, in Colma, California, outside San Francisco, known as the "Cemetery City."  James Shea built a mausoleum there and he, his wife and others are interred there.  

We are left with the memory of a pre-Prohibition whiskey man who, somewhat inexplicably, changed his name from one Irish moniker to another over family objections  and found a bountiful prosperity in the business that subsequently bore his new name.  James Sheehy/Shea could echo Juliet:   “What, indeed, is in a name?”

Note:  Some information that was lacking in an earlier version of this vignette has been provided subsequently by Peggy, a descendant of James Shea.  I am grateful for her help.


  1. Who are you? I don't remember giving you copies of my great-grandfathers family or of him. I own those original photos. Some of your information is incorrect.

  2. You have never replied. This incorrect information needs to be removed or corrected!

    1. Dear Tykee: I tried to communicate with you by a direct email that obviously did not work last November. My message was that I wanted to correct any incorrect information and asked you for details about what mistakes were made. As for the family photos, they are openly on the Internet and I meant no offense by using them. James Shea was a highly interesting whiskey man. He deserves to have correct information conveyed about him, and any help you can give on that front would be most appreciated. Sorry too my email last November never got to you. I have been wondering why you had not responded. Jack

    2. I register my contact information. Perhaps I did it wrong. Please contact me at
      I would really like to have information here that is wrong..especially about the burials and Alfred.

    3. Dear Peggy: I am so glad we have finally connected. My old computer crashed so I am not able to look back to see how I tried to email you. Now that I have the correct address will be letting you know again my interest in having the right info on James Shea. Jack

    4. A lot of your info is still very wrong, even where the Shea's are buried. I can be reached at that is zero one

    5. Dear Tykee/Peggy: I hope my email to you got through. The essence of it is that I want this to be correct and any help you can give in that direction would be most appreciated. Jack