Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Christian and the Xanders: Selling Spirits in Washington D.C.

For many years in the era before Congress in an act of utter hypocrisy in 1917 voted the District of Columbia “dry,”  the name Xander was a prominent one among the whiskey men of the Nation’s Capitol.  In the Xander clan, Christian was the stand out, conducting a highly successful liquor business as well as operating his own prize-winning winery.

Christian Xander was born in 1837 at Grossweier, a town in the state of Baden located  in southwestern Germany,  not far from the French border.  He was the son of an earlier Christian Xander and his wife Maria Jorger.  Of his early life, little is known but Xander may  have had an early exposure to wine making. 

About 1853 Christian, 16 years old, is recorded as having emigrated from Germany to the United States and settled in Washington, D.C.  He may have found early employment in one of the District’s proliferating liquor houses. He took time out of his business career to volunteer for service in the Union Army and is said to have been in several major battles.  In late December of 1864 at age 27, he married Caroline Blume (also given as Blum), also a German emigre’, at DC’s Concordia Lutheran Church.  She was eight years his junior.  They would have three children, Henry born in 1866, Mina born in 1868, and a second son who died in infancy.
Upon returning from the war he engaged in a partnership with the D.C.-born William Muehleisen in a wine and liquor store.  That coupling was dissolved about three years later and Xander set out on his own, opening a store on Massachusetts Avenue between Seventh and Eighth Streets NW. Throughout this period Christian was establishing himself as a respected local businessman.  By 1872 his wholesale liquor dealership was a recognized successful enterprise.  Moreover, Xander himself was sufficiently established as a merchant to act as an incorporator for the Boundary & Silver Springs Railway Company, a trolley system for the District of Columbia.  He was reputed, in contemporary accounts, to be a visionary businessman willing to invest to build the latest in transportation systems for his adopted city.

Needing larger space for his expanding business Xander then moved to 909 Seventh Street, N.W., the building shown above, likely with Christian himself standing in the doorway.  The structure had been built to his specifications in a major DC commercial area. It was three floors, 25 by 150 feet each, with a warehouse two stories in height.  Although listed as a wholesaler, Xander did not employ traveling salesmen, but advertised widely, even in the “Negro” press, shown below, and cultivated a customer base in eight surrounding states.

He featured a number of national brands, advertising that his “Quality House” had 240 kinds of distilled spirits.  Among them were several of his own labels, indicating that in addition to selling from his address, he was also “rectifying” — that is, blending and compounding — whiskey in one of the several stories of his business.  Those brands included “Chr. Xander’s Family Brand,” “Old Private Stock,” “Old Reserve,” and “Gold Medal.”  In addition, his company featured a line of proprietary “medicinal” beverages, including stomach bitters, coca wine, and cordials.  His “Melliston Cordial” was advertised as a “Great Curative in Pulmonary Affections.”  Xander’s whiskeys were sold in glass bottles, as shown above, often with fancy labels describing their contents.

An 1894 publication said of Xander’s operation,  “His premises and vaults were built with the view to perfect depuration and maturing of wines and liquors, and his goods, sold direct and by retailers, are the accepted standards in hotels and private families. Mr. Xander's business policy is one of unwavering integrity, and his house stands in the first rank of reliable commercial firms.”

As Christian was prospering, other German-born Xanders had arrived in the United States, related to him, either as siblings or certainly as cousins.  They were Karl Xander, born 13 years after Christian, and Jacob, birth date unknown.  It it is highly likely that they initially worked for Christian in his enterprise.  By 1889 according to directory listings, both had struck out on their own.  Karl was running a liquor store at 439 K Street, N.W. and Jacob a wine and liquor store at 1315 Seventh St, N.W.  The Xander DC liquor empire was much noted by the local populace and by the Washington press.
What distinguished Christian from the other Xanders was his reputation as a wine maker.  In 1882 he had established his own winery and was calling himself “Chr. Xander, Wholesale Wine Merchant, ” as shown on the letterhead above.  The winery was located behind his sales offices at 630 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.  A contemporary photograph shows a three story building with the sign “Xander…Vaults and Warehouse.”  Again, that may well be Christian himself standing in the doorway.
By 1883 Christian had achieved the reputation of producing the first wine ever made in the District of Columbia.  A decade later he was producing approximately 10,000 gallons of reds and clarets.  They were sweet wines and made from grapes grown in Virginia known as the Norton variety.   On September 23, 1900 an article appeared in The Washington Post announcing that Xander had been given a medal for his wines at the 1900 Paris Exposition.  The newspaper failed to mention, however, that it was only a bronze medal, something given to virtually any vintner who displayed at the Exhibition.

Christian heavily featured this award in his advertising, as well as subsequent medal wins.  His company also could be generous to those vintners for which Xander was the sole DC agent, including “Grand Imperial Champagne,” a beverage said to have won awards at the Chicago and Paris World’s Fairs and a gold medal at the Pan-American Exposition.

The Washington Post frequently waxed enthusiastic over Christian’s wine.  The following appeared on September 22, 1895:   Initiating fifteen years ago the city industry of wine making, aiming at quality at all cost, Chr. Xander has since developed a remarkable trade in what hundreds of families consider the most hygienic Virginia clarets and port. Of mellow taste, free from saltpetre, rich in iron, tartrates, tannin, and fruit acids, these wines respect brains and nerves, allow enormous dilution, are thus true temperance wines, and surprise those who know only vulgar Virginia trade wines.

With success came more local recognition for Christian.  He was a significant enough citizen to serve on one of the committees charged with organizing the inaugural ceremonies and parade for President Theodore Roosevelt in March of 1905.  

As Christian aged he took his son into the business.  Henry Xander was also a music teacher with a studio downtown, but spent his evenings working with his father in the family liquor and wine trade.  Henry, assisted by company vice president, F. Pohndorff, Sr., increasingly took over the management of the firm.  In 1908 Christian died at age 71.  He was interred in Prospect Hill Cemetery, an historic German-American burying ground, originally just for Lutheran dead, located on North Capital Street in the District.   His gravestone is shown here.
Meanwhile, the other Xanders continued to achieve success in the DC liquor trade.  Karl was reported doing a brisk business from his wholesale liquor store on K Street, said to be “one of the finest fitted and elaborately appointed places in the city.”   His house brands were “Southern Bouquet” and “Millvale” whiskeys.  According to a local history, this Xander was well known as “one of the most prominent German-Americans in the city and stands at the very pinnacle in commercial rectitude and in the esteem of the public.”  Jacob Xander, reputedly prospering in similar fashion on Seventh Street, also received accolades:  “He is wide awake, active and reputable businessman, and well known in mercantile circles.”

However high Karl’s pinnacle was, or wide awake Jacob may have been, nothing could stand before the force of prohibition sentiments in the U.S. Congress.  In 1917 the Xander liquor empire in the District of Columbia came tumbling down as legislation passed that turned DC ostensibly  “dry” until 1934.  A last word on Christian can be taken from an accolade penned in 1894 when this whiskey (and wine) man was still at the top of his game:  “Such is Mr. Xander’s reputation in this country through the trade, that his name on the parcels is a sufficient guarantee of their high quality and absolute purity and maturity.”  Years after Christian’s death his widow, Caroline, continued to donate Xander wine to one of the local charity hospitals.

Note:  Much of the material and several of the illustrations shown here are from the October 2009 issue of Prince William Reliquary, an article based on cited original sources. 

















2 comments:

  1. Love this post! Some serious detective work here. Linked to it from my blog, Capital Cocktails, where I make a reference to one of Mr. Xander's ads. At http://capitalcocktails.com/2017/12/14/new-years-eve-cocktail-events-roundup/ . Cheers!

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  2. Dear Capitol Cocktails: Glad you liked the Xander piece. I am in the DC area and try to pick up on local whiskey men when possible. Check through my blog and you should see several. Will check out your blog shortly. If I can be of help re your interests, let me know at jack.sullivan9@verizon.net.

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