Saturday, August 22, 2015

Jacob Bloch and Louisiana Mail Order Liquor

As the 19th Century turned to the 20th, prohibition forces had resulted in many towns and counties voting themselves “dry” under local option laws.  In addition,  by 1908 most of thstates of the Deep South had voted to ban sales of alcoholic beverages.  Under the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution, however, mail order sales of liquor were still legal.  In Monroe, Louisiana, a canny businessman named Jacob Bloch saw an opportunity.  In a town well served by railroads traveling north, south, east and west, and by water transport through the Ouachita River shown below, Bloch was said to have launched the first mail order liquor dealership in Monroe.  His would be the first of many in town.
  
The Wine & Spirits Journal in 1916 reported a talk given by Kentucky Distiller R. E. Wathen to a convention of mail order whiskey men, a group that included dealers from Monroe, and likely among them, Bloch. The speech provided, as the publication said, “food for thought” when Wathan opined:  “At the present time — a chaotic period for the distiller, for the jobber and for the retailer — the mail order man has his great opportunity.  We are witnesses a great upheaval in the liquor industry.  A great change may permanently be made in the distribution end of the business.  As State after State votes the local retailer out, it would seem the door of opportunity is opening wider every day for the mail order man.”

Wathen warned, however, that mailed whiskey should be recognized brands:  “Your line of work is to carry to millions in local option territory through a perfectly legal channel a product that that they have a perfect legal right to have.  There is no reason to doubt that they want the same good quality of product that they purchased when they came face to face with the seller,” he said.

As early as 1893, Jacob Bloch recognized the opportunities involved in selling liquor by mail.  That was the year that the J.S. Bloch Building was erected in Monroe at 101 North Grand Street, corner of Desiard, to house his growing out-of-state sales.   Now on the National Register of Historic Places, shown left, this structure is physical proof that Bloch already had accumulated sufficient finances to construct an iconic headquarters and stock it with liquor.  His store and adjacent saloon featured cast iron Corinthian support columns and an elaborate cast iron shop front featuring a lace work of iron scrolls.  The second story facade showed pressed tin ornamentation with triangular pediments over the windows and triglyphs at either end of the parapet.  The interior had cast iron columns running the length of the first floor and an elaborate back staircase.  As shown below, there was a bar for over-the-counter sales and barrels of whiskey on the floor.
Heeding R.E.Wathen’s admonition to sell quality whiskey by mail order, Bloch advertised recognized brands like “High Sport” from the High Distillery of Cincinnati,  “Anderson County” marketed widely by the Kentucky “Whiskey Trust,” and “Shenandoah Rye,”  distributed by Simon Hasterlik Co. of Chicago. [See my post on Hasterlik, Feb. 2013.]  On the second floor,  Bloch was bottling his own whiskey, possibly after “rectifying” it, that is, blending it and adding ingredients to achieve taste and color.  He was selling it in ceramic jugs bearing his label.  Bloch’s mail order catalogues offered to sell liquor in both glass and ceramic, in sizes from a gallon to a pint.
The Monroe Star News said of Bloch’s enterprise:   “He operated an extensive retail and wholesale liquor business and is said to have been the one to originate the plan of mail order selling of his product. Others saw a new field for activity and in a short time, Monroe became known for its extensive mail order business in spiritous liquors.”  During this period Bloch also was an agent for Budweiser beer and sold cigars.

Although details of Bloch’s early life are sketchy, we know that he was born in Mississippi of German Jewish immigrants in July 1859. Later he told a census taker that although he could read and write, he had little or no formal education.  That did not deter him from migrating to Monroe as a youth.  There he met Lena Kuhn, born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1866, the daughter of Mrs. and Mrs. Samuel Kuhn.  Her parents had moved to Monroe when she was a small child.  That was where, about 1888, Jacob and Lena were wed.  He was 29 and she was 23.  They had one child who died in infancy.

Bloch’s success as a businessman was having effects in other areas of Monroe life.  He served several terms on the Monroe City Council under two mayors,  Alexander Jackson Herring and his successor, Dr. Andrew J. Forsythe.  Jacob also was a director of the Ouachita National Bank, a financial institution founded in 1907, housed in the columned building shown here.  The bank was notable for having issued more than $1.5 billion in national currency over its life span.  In addition, according to the local press, Bloch “was interested in many other local institutions.”   With his wife, he was active in the affairs of B’Nai Israel synagogue, including caring for the Jewish Cemetery.

Despite the encouraging words by Distiller R. E. Wathen to mail order whiskey men, Bloch may have sensed that prohibition forces were winning the battle.  In one ad he indicated that in addition to selling liquor, etc., he was dealing in hides, wool and fur.  One writer has suggested that Bloch shut down his whiskey trade as early as 1908.  My guess is that he stayed in business longer than that, terminating when Federal legislation curbed the mail order trade. Louisiana went “dry” only with National Prohibition in 1920.

The U.S. Census of that year found Jacob and Lena residing on Catalpa Street in Monroe.  Living with them were two of Lena’s brother and a sister-in-law.  Ask his occupation, Jacob was recorded telling the census taker that he was a “machinist.”  At the time of the 1930 census, Bloch and family had moved to 215 Hudson Lane in Monroe.  He was 70 years old and gave his occupation as “retired.”   In August of the following year he died and was interred in Monroe’s Jewish Cemetery. His gravestone is shown here.  A decade later his widow Lena followed him there.

After the closing of Bloch’s liquor business, the building that bore his name experienced a number of uses, including a cotton exchange, general store, cafeteria, book store — and some say “offices” on the second floor were used for a time as a brothel.  Today the building houses an upscale Monroe restaurant known as “Cotton” where the management has tried to maintain the space approximately as it looked in the early 1900’s.

In the midst of the Prohibition hurricane, one promising business avenue remained open for many whiskey men — mail order liquor sales.  Jacob Bloch early saw the opportunity, took advantage of it, and prospered in the relatively brief time the avenue remained open.  He thereby laid the foundation for others to emulate and initiated a thriving trade in Monroe and Louisiana.




























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