Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Max Klein, the “Estimable” Pittsburgh Whiskey Man


Who couldn’t tell who this blooming old stager is?
Easily known the phis of the major is!
With his Frenchified beard and his dignified look,
On the North side the major is known like a book.

With this doggerel verse, the author of “Pittburgers:  Sketched in Prose and Verse,” introduced Max Klein, the proprietor of a Pennsylvania wholesale liquor and import company.  Shown right, Klein was described thus by a contemporary: “…As estimable a man as ever tapped a barrel of Old Monongahela.” 

Max was born in the southern part of Rhenish Bavaria in 1843 and educated in German schools up to the age of 16.  In 1959, he came to the United States, entering through New York City.  From there he traveled to Cincinnati, a city where many German immigrants had settled.  Within a short time, likely seeking better opportunities, he decamped for Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he stayed until the Civil War broke out.

Apparently reluctant to cast his lot with the South,  Klein embarked to the northward on the Mississippi River steamer, “Emma,”  the last vessel to pass a Union blockade.  He disembarked in Keokuk, located in the extreme southeast corner of Iowa, the point where the Des Moines River meets the Mississippi.  In August 1861 he enlisted as a private in Company F of the First Iowa Voluntary Cavalry.   Klein must have had some personal resources or a sponsor because, unusual for a Union cavalry unit, members of the First Iowa provided their own horses and equipment.

Klein’s regiment was deployed on the Western front, spending time in Louisiana and Texas and seeing considerable action.  Klein’s abilities as a leader were recognized and he advanced through the ranks, discharged as a first lieutenant at Austin, Texas, having completed just short of five years in service.  (The title of “Major” likely was bestowed through Max’s post-war  leadership role in the Grand Army of the Republic.)  After the war Klein returned to Iowa and there married Henrietta Stern, born in Pennsylvania of parents originally from New York.

Even with his new familial responsibilities, the Major found it hard to settle down.  About 1869 he left Keokuk to spend a year in Cumberland, Maryland, where he may have been learning the whiskey trade.  By 1870 he had relocated to the Pittsburgh area, apparently working first as a clerk and then as a partner in a liquor dealership and import firm that became known as Klein, Stern & Company, located at 135 First Avenue.  Soon he opened his own establishment at 14 and 16 Wood Street in Pittsburgh.  The “Pittsburgers” poem purports to tell the story:

After the war this renowned Alleghenian
Looked for a trade he might turn an old penny in.
Idelness gave him a fit of the blues,
So he gave up his time to the selling of booze.

With the success of the Wood Street enterprise, Max moved in 1880 to more elegant quarters at 82 Federal Street in adjacent Allegheny.  Located opposite the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railway, this was a four story building with his name emblazoned both at the roof and above the street level sales office.  Klein’s attempts at retailing whiskey apparently were thwarted by local officials.  The poem declaims:

Business poured in till, with cruel asperity,
License dispensers attacked his prosperity,
Knocked out his license at retail to sell,
And threatening to stop his wholesaling as well.

Whatever the threat, Klein survived and was reported to be shipping liquor and wine extensively around the U.S.  An 1889 publication called the “Pittsburgh and Allegheny Illustrated Review,” reported, “Mr. Klein is distinguished among the wholesale liquor dealers of the two cities by reason of the volume of his business, the great extent and variety of his stock, and the marked superiority of his facilities for the prompt and satisfactory filling of orders…In this commodious, well-lighted and completely equipped establishment [he] carries a large stock….” 

Meanwhile Klein, now living in Allegheny, was having a personal life,  The 1880 census found Max, 33, and Henrietta, 28, at home with three children, Leon, seven; Arthur, five; and Milton, nine months.  Max’s occupation was given as    “wholesale liquor dealer.”  There would be two more children, girls Edna May and Bertha “Birdie.”  Throughout this period Klein was prominent in G.A.R. activities. On Grand Army Day, October 5, 1886, he was chosen Commander of the Day, and headed the military procession in Pittsburgh.
In time, Klein opened a second outlet in Pittsburgh itself at 410 Market Street.  He sold whiskey at wholesale to saloons in stoneware jugs with his XX trademark on them.   For his sales to retailers, he packaged his liquor in quart and flask sizes.  Shown here is a Bear Creek amber flask with a label illustration of a bear in the woods holding a bottle.  Klein also bottled his whiskey in clear glass, including a flask that carried his name embossed on shoulder panels, a somewhat unusual feature.  Like many wholesaler/rectifiers, Klein featured multiple brands, including “Bear Creek,” “Duquesne,” “Peter Pan,” “Rockport Rye,” and “Silver Age.”  He appears to have trademarked only two, Silver Age in 1889 and Duquesne in 1891.  

Klein’s flagship brand appears to have been Silver Age, a rye whiskey of which Klein claimed to be the sole proprietor.  He emphasized the health-giving properties of this whiskey, warning in an 1891 newspaper ad that:  “It is in the spring that old and young alike are most susceptible to the hundreds of diseases that fill the atmosphere we breathe and lurk in the water we drink.”  His recommended response to these dangers was Silver Age Rye:  “This celebrated whiskey is a pure, reliable alcoholic stimulant, endorsed by prominent physicians as being superior to any other stimulant in the market, possessing the properties for medicinal use.”

Klein’s advertising for Silver Age included handing out sets of poker chips and shot glasses.  To special customers like saloons and restaurants, he also provided shot glasses advertising other brands. Many of them have elaborate etching, particularly a Bear Creek glass with an illustration of two bears and two bottles and a Rockport Rye glass with the Federal Street building reproduced on the back.  These were relatively expensive items to give away and testify to the financial success Klein was having.

In addition to whiskies, Klein was an extensive importer of wine from France, Germany, Italy and other wine producing countries of Europe. He also was reported to have kept a stock of champagnes, sauternes, ports, clarets, madieras, burgundies and sherries.  He handled French and English brandies, Hollands and Tom gins, Scotch and Irish whiskies, Bass ale, Guinness' Dublin porter, and a variety of cordials and liqueurs. The volume of his business required a force of twelve clerks and assistants.

As he aged and his sons reached maturity Klein took them into his business.  In 1904, as a sign of their ascendancy into management, he changed the name of the firm to Max Klein & Sons.  Three years later he died at the age of 65, leaving the reins of his firm to his sons.  A fitting tribute to him was penned earlier about him in the Pittsburgh and Allengheny Illustrated Review:  “In business he has established a gratifying and merited success as a consequence of his superior business abilities, his uniform promptness, and his fair treatment.”


Note:  To complete this vignette on Max Klein, it seems appropriate to include the caricature that accompanied the doggerel verse that opened this post and has been quoted here several times.


























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