Saturday, March 1, 2014

Hentz & Wilkinson: Feuding in the City of Brotherly Love

For many years William A. Hentz and William C. Wilkinson were successful partners as importers and wholesale dealers in wines and liquors in Philadelphia, long known as the “City of Brotherly Love.”  Then Hentz died and his family engaged Wilkinson in a long term feud that included resorting to the courts and later into becoming a (nasty) competitor.

William Hentz, the founding partner, was born in Pennsylvania in 1838.  Both of his parents were natives of the Quaker State.  While still a young man he embarked on a career in the liquor industry.  Although his company first showed up in Philadelphia business directories in 1871, there is evidence that he may have been in business as early as 1865.  His first address was 258 N. Third Street,  a historic Philadelphia avenue,  shown here in the early 1800s, already a major commercial center. Hentz was married at about the age 23, to a Philadelphia native named Elizabeth but known as “Lizzie.”  They would have one child, a son, whom they named Percy.

After several years Hentz brought into his business as a young associate, William Wilkinson.   Although Wilkinson was some 14 years younger,  he and Hentz shared similar backgrounds.  Both had been born in Philadelphia of old Pennsylvania stock.  Wilkinson also was married.  His wife, Marion, was a native-born Pennsylvanian whose parents had emigrated from England.  In 1877 the William A. Hentz Company moved to 139 N. Third Street, the historic commercial district shown above.  There the firm occupied a four story building advertising “Wines  and Liquors.”  Although Hentz’s name continued to the only one used, a letterhead from 1885 indicated that by then Wilkinson had risen to become a full partner.

The firm featured a limited number of proprietary brands, the principal one being “Stylus Club.” That name, one the partners trademarked in 1891, was an interesting choice.  Philadelphia’s Stylus Club was an organization restricted to editors, reporters, publishers and other contributors to local newspapers and magazine.   Founded in 1877, it was largely a social gathering where, it has been speculated, a fair amount of drinking went on.  Shown here is the cover of the menu from the club’s 1880 annual banquet.  Every one of the eight  courses came with a different wine or brandy.

In addition to its whiskey,  the Hentz company advertised itself as the sole agent for “Sheetz’s Celebrated Bitter Cordial.”  Several views of the embossed glass bottles in which it was sold are shown here.  Highly alcoholic, Sheetz’s Bitter Cordial was marketed as  medicine, said to be good for all kinds of digestive problems.  During the Spanish-American War such remedies were assessed a special tax, as reflected in the stamp shown here.  In time the new Food and Drug laws caught up with these so-called medicines.  In a 1907 ruling, druggists and others selling Sheetz’s and two dozen other nostrums were required by the Federal Government to have a special liquor license.  One official declared them “just a ruse by which booze is sold under the guise of patent medicine.”

The relationship between Hentz and Wilkinson endured for many years, apparently in a highly collaborative and cordial manner.  The company was a prosperous one. Then in 1893 Hentz died.  In accordance with the terms of the partnership,  Wilkinson purchased from the heirs of his deceased partner their entire interest in the stock and fixtures of the firm.  He continued the business on his own account at the N. Third Street address and changed the company name to his own.  As  shown here, he advertised the change noting  “”Successor to Wm. A. Hentz & Co.”

Therein lay the feud.  Hentz’s son, Percy, who had been part of the business when his father was alive but no longer employed there,  objected strongly to Wilkinson using that reference.  With his mother he went to court seeking an injunction to forbid Wilkinson from using the “successor” phrase or the Hentz name in any connection. The grounds the Hentzes cited were that although Wilkinson had bought the liquor dealership lock, stock and barrel,  no good will had passed to him by such a sale and that he was not entitled to use the name of the old firm for his own profit.  Although the terms of the partnership were silent on the question, the Hentz family complained that Wilkinson had not compensated them for good will.  Brought in to adjudicate the case, a legal “master” declared that the issue was a new one and had never before been decided in Pennsylvania, Nevertheless, citing cases from other States, he summarily dismissed the Hentzes’ bill of injunction and charged Percy and his mother court costs.  Wilkinson continued to advertise as he had done before.

He also kept the Stylus Club brand name and issued several giveaway items to favored customers,  likely saloons and other establishment buying his products.  His gifts included a stem-winding pocket watch probably meant for bartenders who had to call “closing time” in their establishments.  Another Wilkinson advertising item was a paperweight showing a quart bottle of Stylus Club Whiskey and repeated the phrase that had caused all the fuss: “Successor to Wm. A. Hentz.”

Percy Hentz must have ground his teeth every time he saw that reference.  The dismissal of his bill of injunction may have angered him even more and definitely set him on a course to take revenge.  In 1894  he set up a liquor dealership right next door to Wilkinson at 143 N. Third Street.  His advertising read:  “The only HENTZ on 3rd Street.”   Taking employees from his father’s former firm with him his company boasted sales not only within the state but also New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and New York.   Among his products was “Hentz’s Curative Bitters,” shown here both in clear sample size and aqua bottles.  Hentz’s bitters appeared to be a challenge to Wilkinson and his Sheetz brand.

Although Percy later moved his business to 5 Arch Street,  the fierce, side-by-side competition between him and Wilkinson endured for almost a decade.  After 1913,  the Percy Hentz Company disappeared from Philadelphia business directories.  Wilkinson endured until 1918, closing down as the prospect of National Prohibition loomed.  Thus ended the feud in the City of Brotherly Love that had given rise -- quoting America Lawyer Notes, a prominent national legal journal:  “...To a case of considerable interest to the business community.”

Note:  Thanks to Ferdinand Meyer and his “Peach Ridge” website for the excellent pictures of the Sheetz and Hentz bitters bottles shown here.

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