Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Was S. A. Sloman “Skunked” by His Whiskey Advertising?

Seen here in a caricature, the portly gentleman contemplating the pelt of a skunk is Samuel Alexander (S.A.) Sloman.   Apparently believing there was quick money to be made in the liquor business,  Sloman in the late 1900s devised a business plan that largely depended on luring customers by advertising his “Diamond Wedding Whiskey” heavily in Midwestern newspapers.  After several years of vigorous and expensive merchandising, he encountered an expert who told him that his ads were all wrong — and may have propelled Sloman out of selling hooch and into selling hides.

Sloman’s liquor company first is recorded in Detroit business directories in 1892.  Initially his enterprise was located at 100 Griswold with subsequent moves to 1312-1323 in the Majestic Building and 40-41 Buhl Block.  After 1895 Sloman opened a second establishment in Cincinnati, Ohio, at 518 Pearl Street.  At that location he likely was creating his flagship brand, Diamond Wedding Whiskey, a label he trademarked in 1896.  He was buying whiskey supplies from Kentucky and Pennsylvania distillers, and blending and compounding them to achieve a desired taste and smoothness.  Nonetheless, his bottles boasted that the contents were “guaranteed light years old.”   

About the same time that he opened his doors in Cincinnati, Sloman hit the public with a barrage of ads, some of them seen below.  Their most striking aspect is the diversity of designs and the messages they send.  The first one below featuring a bottle, has an “art nouveau” look.  The theme is the purity and medicinal value of Diamond Wedding Whiskey, claiming that it “invigorates feeble constitutions, renews life and arrests disease.”  By contrast, the second ad shows a young bard, apparently in Venice, playing a song for his love on the balcony beyond.  The scene is quaintly medieval.

Look to the first ad below.  Now we have entered fantasy land with little elfin people, ones with thick bodies and skinny legs, many with infirmities,  hastening toward a bottle of Diamond Wedding Whiskey that is being opened by another elf.  The slogan again is “invigorates enfeebled constitutions” without being specific just how it worked.  In the second ad,  the central image now is of a doctor waiting on a clearly debilitated woman while a servant girl pours her a shot of whiskey.  The message here was that Sloman’s Diamond Wedding is invaluable for nursing mothers.  If all three of the squabbling children are being nursed, no wonder the lady has an enfeebled constitution.

The final ad is somehow the most puzzling of all.  Gone is the young bard, the elves, the doctor, the kids and the nursing mother.  Now we are greeted with a parade of men on bicycles, riding one-handed while holding in the other a medley of signs that have a variety of messages.  The most prominent banner attributes to Diamond Wedding Whiskey “power and suppleness to the muscles, warmth and richness for the blood.”  Sloman was paying out large amounts of money to design and print these ads and more dollars to the newspapers carrying them.  He soon discovered that despite this costly merchandising he reaping only meager sales returns.

Enter Charles Austin Bates, seen left.  Beginning as a printshop owner Bates was motivated by the lure of high salaries to become a copywriter in New York City for “Printer’s Ink,” the lead publication of the advertising industry.  Soon he began his own publication called “Criticism” in which he advertised as following: “Send me two dollars, along with a batch of your trade paper, magazine, or newspaper ads, and I will send you a critical opinion of them with suggestions for their improvement, if improvement is possible.”  Clearly frustrated by the poor results of his advertising blitz, in 1898 Sloman sent Bates copies of his newspaper ads, including I imagine some of those shown above.  What Bates sent him back, according to Sloman, was “a beautiful roasting.”  Nonetheless the whiskey man was grateful:  “However, after recovering from the first shock cause by all the unpleasant things you said about our advertising effort, and the realization that so many hard earned dollars had been diverted in practically useless channels, we started in to follow some of the suggestions thrown out for our benefit.”  .

For another $2.00 Sloman sent Bates a copy of an advertising booklet which he had issued in 50,000 copies.  They had been sent to dealers, imprinted with their names, for distribution to customers in hopes of enticing them to buy Diamond Wedding Whiskey.   I cannot find a record of Bates’ response.  But his “copy credo” was well known:  “Show price.  Use simple English.  Never overestimate the consumer’s IQ.”  Finally and most important:  “Be truthful.”  Just what advice Bates gave Sloman is not clear but the critic cannot have been pleased with the hyperbole about the dubious medicinal values of Diamond Wedding Rye.

Sloman seemingly had high hopes for his brochures, and probably for the sales value of a tool for bartenders in the form of a woman’s shapely leg, one that contained a cork screw and a bottle opener.  Just like the newspapers ads, those merchandising efforts appear to have fallen significantly short of success.  Just two years later, in 1900, Sloman shut the doors on his liquor establishments in both Detroit and Cincinnati, gave up his trademark on Diamond Wedding Whiskey, and completely exited the whiskey trade.

The death of his father, Mark Sloman, that same year may have provided additional motivation. The elder Sloman had been born and educated in Germany, arriving in the United States in 1851.  The father began as a Jewish peddler in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and subsequently was employed in tanning industry in Detroit.  By 1888 he had saved sufficient resources to strike out on his own as a furrier. Very successful in business, he married Amelia Schlesinger in 1853.  The 1900 census found the couple living with their family of five children, among them Samuel, born in 1858.  Mark Sloman’s net worth was recorded in that census at an astonishing $90,000 — equivalent to $2.25 million today.

When Samuel decided to abandon furs in favor of whiskey, one can imagine that the elder Sloman was not happy with the decision.  But with his death, the prodigal son returned to take over the company his father had built.  Still just 42 years of age, Samuel proved equally sagacious in that trade.  The verse that accompanied the 1917 caricature above reads:

“Samuel A. Sloman is a great fur man;
He hails from old Detroit;
The way he grades all kinds of skins
Is said to be adroit. 
No matter where a fur was caught,
In northern Maine or southern Wis.,
He knows just what it is an why —
Long practice made him wise to this.”

In addition to Samuel’s takeover of M. Sloman & Company, Dealers in Furs and Wools, he also engaged in other business activities.  He became a director of the Standard Sanitary Company of Detroit and a member of the firm of William Wertheimer & Company of Dayton, Ohio, and Wheeling, West Virginia.  He was a member of the Detroit Board of Commerce and the Phoenix Club.  The 1910 U.S. Census found him, at age 53 still a bachelor, living with his 84-year-old mother and a servant.

Within the next four years, he was to marry for the first time.  She was Grace Zenner Blumenthal, born in New York City and a woman some 17 years younger.  They lived together in a spacious neo-Georgian home, shown above, that Sloman built in 1914.  The couple lived there together with his wife’s mother.  They are known to have had one son.  Samuel died in June 1934 at age 76  and was interred at Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit.  The home still stands, part of the Lewis College of Business.

As a final comment on the question that is posed by the title of this vignette, I am convinced that by the time of his father’s death, Sloman had determined that despite all the money he had poured into advertising, Diamond Wedding Whiskey clearly was not making it in the marketplace.   The $2.00 interaction with Charles Austin Bates had given him a cold bath of reality.  With the opportunity to enter the fur trade, one in which his family was well versed, I believe Sloman knew he had been “skunked” and probably never regretted his decision to leave the liquor business. 
Note:  In researching this vignette, I had been unable to find a reliable record of Samuel Sloman’s death and place of interment and asked if an alert reader could help me fill in this gap.  A great-grand niece of Samuel Sloman, Carol Borthwick, has come to my rescue and provided this information. I am most grateful to her for this help in bringing a conclusion to the life of this unusual entrepreneur, a man who publicly could admit costly mistakes.  

No comments:

Post a Comment