Monday, October 28, 2013

John Sebastian Thoner Kept Christmas in a Jug

Market Street, Wheeling
Many whiskey men gave away miniature containers of liquor with Christmas greetings inscribed. that contained at most a swallow or two of liquid.  John Sebastian Thoner of  Wheeling, West Virginia, upped the ante by giving away pint-sized pottery jugs that not only were attractive but held a respectable amount of whiskey.  Called “the man nobody knew,” by his son, Thoner remains memorable for this line of holiday gifts as well as for the house he lived in.

The Thoner family owed its American origins to John A. Thoner, born in Germany in 1832.  Although he was trained as a weaver, upon arriving in Wheeling 1854 at the age of 22 he found little work in that trade and turned to doing a variety of odd jobs including gardener, waiter and a bottler in a brewery.   A thrifty man, in 1868 he had enough money saved to open a small business selling liquor.

During the following decade the Senior Thoner built a thriving business that, in turn, gave him the funds to build what was called “a fine brick premises of three stories” at  2240 Market Street, on the main commercial avenue of Wheeling.  It was a narrow two-and-a-half story structure with a steeply pitched roof.  Two cornice lines accentuated the south facade and visually emphasized the separation between the commercial and residential functions of the building.

Thoner moved his liquor business into the downstairs and his family upstairs. The 1880 U.S. Census found the family at the Market Street address.   His wife was Francis (spelled with an “i”) and there were three children, Thomas, 17;  Mary, 11; and John Sebastian, 8.  The father’s occupation was given as “liquor dealer.”

By 1881 Thoner Senior had expanded his operation into a drinking establishment.   In June of that year he ran an advertisement in the Wheeling paper that said:  “John Thoner takes this occasion of
informing his old customers and the public, that he has taken out a coffee house license and fitted up a first class saloon at his old stand, No. 2240 Market Street.  His bar will be constantly supplied with the best wines and liquors, beer and ale, that the market can produce.” A recent photo from the interior indicates how small Thoner's bar must have been.

Whatever success the saloon brought, it was short-lived for John A. Thoner.  At the age of 54 in 1886 he died of cancer.  That left his widow, Francis, in charge of the liquor business and saloon.  She persevered and for a period of years was accounted the proprietress of the liquor business,  one of the few women in the annals of the industry to be so recognized.   Mrs. F. E. Thoner, as she was listed in city directories, was involved in a variety of financial dealings with local banks and city officials on behalf of her enterprise.
When John Sebastian Thoner came of age,  his mother turned the business over to him in 1894.  His son treasured a picture of John standing in front of the store.  Written on the window are the words, “Family Liquor Store.”  This same son called him “the man nobody knew” and yet believed that he was “the rock of the family who watched for their best interests and led a quiet and responsible life.”

In 1895 new proprietor changed the company name to “J. Thoner Wines and Liquors,”  and remodeled the store front.  When the structure originally was built, the store on the first floor had two doors and two windows.  In Thoner’s renovation the door leading to the second floor was left in place but the shop door, which was centered between the two windows was moved to the far right and a single large display window inserted.

Soon after the remodeling Thoner began issuing the Christmas bottles for which he is remembered. The banks of the Ohio River on which Wheeling is located were a rich source of pottery-making clay.  As a result,  Thoner would not have had any difficulty finding excellent potters to make his holiday giveaways.  Particularly attractive are two similar containers, each  about six and one-half inches high with blue cobalt stenciled lettering.  One is done in a white Bristol glaze,  the other on a gray salt-glazed body.  A third jug is also gray salt glazed and here the proprietor is “J. S. Thoner.”

A fourth jug has a dark brown Albany slip top and a Bristol glaze body with a distinctly inferior, cheaply done, label.  It appears to have been applied over the glaze, a process that leads to deterioration over time.  Although it is impossible to assess the order in which the first four jugs were issued, The final one in Thoner’s Christmas series was dated 1913 and noted “Last Wet Christmas.”  It referenced the fact that earlier in the year the voters of West Virginia had adopted statewide Prohibition,  some six years before the entire Nation went dry.  Thoner was forced to terminate his liquor enterprise.

Despite this setback,  John Sebastian continued intermittently to run a store downstairs from his residence.  In 1917, at the urging of his wife,  he moved his family into the shop and remodeled the building.  Initially the residence was on two levels, with the kitchen, dining room and pantry on the first floor behind the shop.  Acceding to his wife’s wishes, Thoner moved those uses upstairs so that the living space was on one level   He continued to run a store until Wheeling taxes on joint commercial/residential properties caused him to discontinue sales.

Thoner died about 1958 at age 86.  After renting the building for a variety of uses, his inheritors sold it in 1971 and it eventually came to be owned by the Friends of Wheeling, Inc., an organization aiming to preserve the city’s architectural heritage.  In 1984 the Thoner’s Market Street home was put on the National Register of Historical Places, from which much of the information here was obtained.  More recently operated as an antique store, the building, shown here as it looks today,  has been up for sale.  It stands as a continuing reminder of John Sebastian Thoner, a man who put Christmas in a jug.

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