Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Butterflies and Whiskey: The Life of Edward L. Graef

In 1906, Edward Louis Graef gifted the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences with two examples of the rare butterfly shown above.  It is called the “Morpho Hecuba,” perhaps because the differences between the butterfly underside, left, and its top.   Over his lifetime Graef, shown right, would donate some 10,000 individual butterflies, representing some 80 species, to the museum.  All the while he was distinguishing himself in the New York business world as a successful liquor dealer.
Graef’s parents had come to the United States in 1847 or 1848 from a town in Germany known as Aachen.  They had uprooted their family of six, the youngest of whom was Edward, then about seven years old, and relocated in that part of Brooklyn know as Yellow Hook and later Bay Ridge.  Graef’s father, Henry A. Graef, established a floral shop.  Henry had a strong interest in botany, making a collection of local plants, and engendered in Edward a love for the natural world.   While attending school in 1854 as a teenager, Graef became interested in insects and began making a collection along with classroom chums.  Like many amateur entomologists of the time, he largely confined his acquisitions to butterflies and moths, known to scientists as “Lepidoptera.

In a article written later in his life, Edward described in some detail how he took a boyhood hobby into an adult passion.  Along the way he met a Professor Schaupp, a lepidopterist whom he described as “pleasant, cordial, and overflowing with good nature and humor.  We soon became greatly interested in each other as well as in insects.”  Their habit was to meet other like minded collectors in saloons:  “As a sine qua non we had a complement of beers.” Graef recalled and admitted being fuzzy sometimes on details of who attended.  Nevertheless, out of those boozy encounters he and Schaupp were responsible for founding the Brooklyn Entomological Society.

Meanwhile, Edward was tasked with earning a living and had taken to the whiskey trade.  Perhaps with financial help from their father, he and an older brother, Anthony, began a liquor business at 40 Court Street, a busy commercial avenue in downtown Brooklyn.  They claimed 1858 as the date of origin. That would have made Edward only about 17 at the start.  The brothers called the firm “H.A. Graef’s Sons, Importers and Dealers in Wines, Liquors and Havana Cigars.”  The ad shown here dates from 1876, two years after their father died.

Like many whiskey men of their time, the brothers Graef emphasized the health-giving properties of their products.  One ad stated:  “We make a specialty of fine Wines and Liquors for medical use, and would refer as to the purity of our goods to the leading Physicians of Brooklyn.”  Another ad asked “Is Your Blood Thin?” and touted their Norton Seedling Virginia Wine as unrivaled as a “blood maker.”
When Anthony, who died in 1914, departed the business sometime after 1906, the name was changed to “H. A. Graef’s Son.”  Likely needing additional space as the liquor business grew, Edward moved the company — as shown on a letterhead —  to 58 Court St., not far from the Kings County Courthouse.  The new quarters were a four-story building that provided considerable space for storing wine and liquor.  The structure may well have afforded Graef an opportunity for “rectifying” his own whiskey, that is, mixing and blending raw product bought from Pennsylvania, Maryland or Kentucky distilleries to achieve desired taste and color.

Graef also was showing considerable sensitivity to the bottles in which he merchandised his liquor.  Shown here is a particularly interesting deep green glass container bearing the name of his firm and the initials “N.Y.”  It is in the shape of a canteen, the one shown here in two views bearing a rope handle that may not be original.  Canteens in ceramic, metal, and rarely glass were popular souvenir items from national and state meetings of the G.A.R., the organization of Union veterans that was a political powerhouse at the time.  Another bottle, this one with a single handle, identifying it as a flask, had a similar look and color.  Shown below are other Graef bottle offerings:  one a quart bottle with an unusual swirl pattern in the amber glass and the other a “slug plate” that identified Graef’s as a Brooklyn-based company.
Meanwhile Graef was having a personal life.  Although a 1876 Brooklyn directory recorded the brothers living together as bachelors at 170 Bergen Street, by 1883 Edward had found a bride.  She was Minna, a woman recorded by the census as much as 19 years younger than Edward.  She had been born in New York of German immigrant parents.  Edward and Minnie would have a family of three daughters, Nellie, Grace and Ethel.  The 1900 Census found them living in Brooklyn along with two servant girls.  Graef’s occupation was recorded as “wholesale liquor.”
Neither the pressure of business nor family life could divert Graef from his passion for butterflies.  In 1876 he helped establish the Brooklyn Entomological Society’s scientific publications, The Bulletin.  In 1914 he contributed an article to that journal that recounted his many encounters and friendships with other insect enthusiasts over several decades, ending with this assertion:  “…You will pardon my proud assumption when I state that the entomologists of Brooklyn, through the Brooklyn Entomological Society have done more good work than any other body of men in any city or in the world.”

In return for Graef’s enthusiasm and support, his fellow scientists, both professional and amateur, named newly identified butterflies and moths in his name. They include one entire genus of a moth — Graefia — and at least seven species, including melicleptria graefiana, annemoria graefiaria, and acanthophora graefi.
Graef’s own collection, one that included insects from the United States as well as overseas came to more than 10,000 items.  In 1900, apparently because of the press of his liquor business, he donated the entirety to the Brooklyn Museum.  Among the specimens was the strikingly attractive moth, anthoscharis ausonides, shown below.   With his gift and other donations and purchases, the museum attained recognition has having the largest Lepidoptera collection in the Nation.  In recognition of Graef’s contribution he was appointed Honorary Curator of Lepidoptera of the Brooklyn Museum and elected a patron of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.  

After some 50 years in the liquor trade,  Graef, perhaps spurred by the onset of Prohibition around the country, shut down his business.  The 1920 Federal census found him retired and living in Brooklyn with Minna, a married daughter and her husband, and a granddaughter. Graef would live only two more years, dying in February, 1922. He was 80 years old.  With his widow, three married daughters and their husbands, and seven grandchildren at his graveside, Graef was buried in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery.

Edward Graef’s notable success as a liquor and wine dealer got slim mention in his obituaries, the emphasis being on his having fostered entomology in Brooklyn and helped make its museum world famous for its butterfly and moth collection.  Perhaps the last word about this remarkable man should come from the Bulletin of the Brooklyn Entomological Society, a publication Graef helped to found.  Its remembrance of him said:  “…By all who knew him, whether old or young, he will be remembered as a kind and jovial man, always ready to cheer and to help where assistance was needed.”

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