Monday, February 10, 2014

Isaac Rosskam Embraced His Heritage

In a recent book Author Marni Davis remarks on the the Star of David featured on the trade trade cards and other advertising of the Rosskam, Gerstley & Co., a whiskey wholesaler of Philadelphia.   She wonders if its use was a direct reference to Judaism.  Isaac Rosskam, shown here,  could have set her mind at rest.  Throughout his life Rosskam was a committed adherent of his Hebrew heritage.  He willed the current equivalent of four hundred thousand dollars to Jewish causes when he died. He also left a legacy of back of the bar bottles that will never be equaled.

Isaac was born in November 1837 in Ichenhausen, Germany,  a town of about 8,000 situated on the river Günz in the Bavarian district of Günzburg.  His father was Ulrich Rosskam and mother Edele (from Adelheit) Gerstle.  He grew up in Ichenhausen, was educated there, and eventually immigrated to the United States.  He settled in New York State, apparently finding employment in the liquor trade.  In Elmira about 1864 he married Bertha Gerstley, the daughter of Hirsch and Sophia Gerstley, who also hailed from Ichenhausen.   She was five years younger. Their first son,  Leon, was born in 1865 in New York State.

Within the next two years, the Rosskams moved to Pennsylvania and settled in Philadelphia.  There two other sons were born,  Joseph in 1867 and William in 1872.  In 1869 the firm of Rosskam, Gerstley & Co. “Fine Old Whiskeys,”  made its first appearance in the business directories of Philadelphia.  A trade card, shown here, featured the “Star of David.”  Isaac’s partner was Henry Gerstley,  also an immigrant from Ichenhausen and likely a close relative of Bertha Rosskam.    The company was first located at 336 North Third Street but within a year had moved to larger quarters at 402 North Third, where it would stay until 1876.

Reflecting the rapid and impressive growth of its business volume,  company in that year moved to two new buildings,  one of five stories advertised “Rye & Bourbon Whiskies” on the storefront.  The other at 133 and 135 Dock street of six stories proclaimed “Old Rye Whiskies.”  The buildings were shown on the company letterhead.  It also featured the Star of David.  Both locations allowed the firm adequate space to undertake “rectify,” that is, to compound and blend whiskey bought from multiple sources to achieve tastes determined to have broad public appeal.

Rosskam, Gerstley & Co. featured a multitude of brands including "American Rye,” "Faust's Own,” "Geo. M Walker V.O.P. Blend,.” "H. A. Rogers,” "Keystone Malt,” "Keystone Monogram,” "Metropolitan.” "No. 6 Monogram,” "Old Emperor,” "Old Keystone.” "Old  "Pat Hand,” "Philadelphia Club", "Quaker City Monogram,” "R. G. & Co.,” "R. G. & Co. Monogram,” "R. G. & Co. Special Reserve,” "The Register,” "Three Lilies,”, and "Top of the Morning."

Rosskam and his partner trademarked as proprietary a number of its brand names.  Those included Top of the Morning, filed in 1893;  Pat Hand and Philly Club in 1905, and Quaker City in 1906.   The firm also registered the signature “Rosskam, Gerstley &  Company” in script as shown on the trade card.  The company’s flagship brand was “Old Saratoga,” sometimes given as just “Saratoga,” trademarked in 1890, 1895 and again in 1897.  As shown here, this brand was sold principally in bottles.

As their business grew the partners branched out into other cities. In 1870 the partners opened an office in Cleveland at 100 River Street.  About 1882 they located an outlet  in Chicago at 79 Dearborn Avenue, one of the Windy City’s premier commercial locations.  That was followed a year later by their establishing a branch  at 38 Broadway in New York City.   This proliferation of outlets indicated the kind of vigorous national customer base Rosskam, Gerstley & Company had built over time.

Meanwhile Isaac having a family life.  The 1880 Census found the Rosskams living in Philadelphia with their three children, Leon, 15;  Joseph, 12; and William, 8.  Leon had been born in New York,  the other boys in Pennsylvania.   Isaac's age was given as 37 and his occupation as “liquor dealer.”  Eventually it would be the youngest son, William, who would join his father in the whiskey trade.

Because Philadelphia was loaded with distillers, rectifiers, and wholesalers, Rosskam had to combat stiff competition for the business of  restaurants, bars and saloons to stock his liquor.  He also had to appeal to members of the drinking public to request his brands from their bartenders.  One way of advertising was to provide giveaway items that contained the name of a Rosskam, Gerstley product.   Among the company’s gifted items was a color lithographed serving tray for Old Saratoga, showing dogs playing poker, always a popular subject.  But where Rosskam made his mark was in his supply of elegant back of the bar bottles.  They included bottles in fancy molded glass with stoppers,  ornate gold lettering, and in one case a metal or pewter body.  I have counted at least 21 varieties of Rosskam, Gerstley & Co. bar bottles.  A number of them are illustrated throughout this post.

Throughout its existence, Rosskam. Gerstley & Co. used the “Star of David,” as its logo and in its advertising. It is a symbol with special meaning for the Jewish people, as a generally recognized symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism.   In her highly informative book, “Jews and Booze :  Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition,” Marni Davis on page 21 remarks on the use of the pentagram star by the liquor firm.  She notes correctly that alchemists and medieval brewers also used the symbol.  For example, it notably was employed by Mennonite brewers in the U.S.  Ms. Davis goes on to say:  “Of these nineteenth century American alcohol producers, only Isaac Rosskam and the Gerstley family were Jewish.  It is unknown if they incorporated the star into their letterhead design because of its religious significance, or because it was a commercial practice for their trade.”

The answer to Ms. Davis’s quandary is clear.  Isaac Rosskam embraced and was proud of his Jewish heritage.  Throughout his business career he was cited in Jewish publications as being among the most active in “congregational and society” affairs in Philadelphia.  From 1879 until 1889 he was the president of the city’s Hebrew Education Society, responsible for a  religious school with upward of a hundred students located in North Philadelphia and a second school with sixty students in Port Richmond.   Moreover Rosskam’s will left the equivalent in current dollars of more than $400,000 to Jewish charities including the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives in Denver;  the Theological Seminary of America in New York; the Free Hospital for Poor Consumptives in White Haven, Pennsylvania; United Hebrew Charities, and the Hebrew Educational Society.   Yes, Ms. Davis, Isaac’s use of the Star of David was an intentional expression of his religiosity.  The company even trademarked its use.

At the turn of the Century, things changed at Rosskam, Gerstley.  In 1899, Henry Gerstley died, age 61 at his residence.  Cause of death was not given.   As Isaac aged he turned over the reins of management to his son, William.  A 1900 Philadelphia business directory lists the younger Rosskam as president of the firm.   In 1904 Isaac died, age about 70.  The place of his demise is uncertain.  One source gave it as Frankfurt, Germany, where he might have been on a holiday.  Another source said he died in Philadelphia.  It was agreed that he left a large estate.  Although the company continued to prosper for a time under William Rosskam,  eventually it was forced to shut down by the enactment of National Prohibition.

We remember Isaac Rosskam today for his forthright commitment to his Jewish ancestry, a certainty about his heritage that was affirmed by his use of the Star of David in his letterhead and advertising.  We remember him too for the rich legacy of elegant  back of the bar bottles the Rosskam, Gerstley Co. left for future collectors, all of which have attained antique status of 100 years or soon will do so.

Note:  The reason that the number and variety of Rosskam, Gerstley back of the bar bottles will never be trumped is that such decanters were rendered illegal under the same law that repealed Prohibition in 1934.  Although the bottles were meant to hold the kind of liquor advertised on the front, all too often unscrupulous saloon owners or barkeepers would substitute inferior, sometimes dangerous, products in them.  Today all liquor poured at a bar must come directly from an initally sealed, labeled bottle and it is against the law to refill any bottle.  As a result, the last back of the bar bottle manufactured dates only to 1919.


  1. Has anyone seen any full bottles or has any full bottles of this for sale?

    1. I have an empty along with other collectibles from Quaker City Confectionary; my family is Rosskam. My father was one of the Good n Plenty men.

  2. Dear Justin: Items from this firm come up on eBay with some frequency. Put a search on that will get you an email when one comes up.

  3. The Rosskam family went from liquor into candy (Good & Plenty amongst others)

    1. Dear Unknown: Thanks for this. As a kid Good & Plenty was one of my favorites.

  4. Part of the family also started food flavorings

  5. Joal: Did not know that, but when Prohibition kicked in a number of former liquor distributors went into food-related businesses. Others joined the burgeoning automotive business or went into real estate.