Monday, March 28, 2016

The Sullivans Did Big Business in Little Rhody

One directory of pre-Prohibition liquor dealers lists forty-five in the U.S. that involved a Sullivan.  Yet despite it being my name and we all presumably share a common ancestry, I have been unable for years to locate a single Sullivan “whiskey man” on whom to do a profile for this blog.  That ended with the discovery of not just one but at least eight Sullivans, brothers and sons, who in various combinations for decades ran highly successful liquor, wine, beer, soda, mineral water and related enterprises in Providence, Rhode Island.

Keeping track of the Rhode Island Sullivans is not an easy task.  Although they frequently billed themselves as The Five Sullivan Bros., there were at least eight Sullivans coming in and out of the family’s multiple businesses.  Its members also seem to have avoided the U.S. census over the years.  Moreover, because the Sullivan name is so common in Providence it is virtually impossible to pinpoint individuals and learn something of their personal lives.  Finally,  their business history has enough permutations in it to pose factual challenges.

Even the date that the family enterprises began is uncertain.  One account puts it as early as 1878.  Certainly by 1881 Daniel J. Sullivan and John F. Sullivan, brothers, were bottlers and dealers in liquor, wines and mineral waters.  Their business was located at 376 Wickenden Street in Providence.  Wickenden Street would be one constant in their history, as the Sullivans appear to have moved from site to site on that avenue, one that originated out of an original settlement  plot on the east side of the city.  

Although they apparently continued to operate at 376 Wickenden under the name, “The Sullivan Bros. Steam Bottling Works,”  by 1890 they were listing an address at 393 Wickenden as their headquarters.  Shown here, it was a complex with the main structure a three story building with loading docks off the first and second floors and a hoist used to lower barrels into wagons.
By 1889,  Daniel J. and John F. had been joined by brothers James P., Dennis R., and John F. Jr.  Although only four actually were brothers and one was a son, they became the Sullivan Bros. Company.  At this point the firm was specializing in bottling  sarasaparilla, birch beer, lemon soda, ginger ale, and a line of mineral waters.  They used glass containers for retail sale, involving both blob top and crown top bottles and, upon occasion, the Hutchinson style closures.  Examples are shown here.
Although James P. left the firm in 1891, reportedly to take up the confectioner’s trade, the Sullivans’ beverage enterprises continued to expand.  By the following year they were recorded with outlets at 1 Schofield and 62 Ives Street.  By now the family also was wholesaling and bottling porter, ale, and lager beers, including the well-known Narragansett brews.  

They also had opened The Sullivan Bros. Family Wine and Liquor Store at 577 Wickenden.  There they sold whiskey to retail customers in half pint, pint and quart glass containers.  As shown here, these bottles were embossed with the firm name and address and, upon occasion, the word “warranted.”

As Sullivan enterprises progressed, family members came and went.  Dennis H. climbed aboard in 1893 but left again in 1897.  John F. died in 1895.  John F. Jr. departed in 1898 and was listed initially as a driver, but by 1899 was working with James P. at Sullivan Bros. Grocery located at 93 Carpenter in Providence.  Circa 1902 the parent company incorporated under the name, “The Five Sullivan Bros.”  Daniel J., Timothy J., and Eugene D.,  Dennis R. and John J. (Sr.) presumably made up the five incorporating brothers.  Daniel J. was the president, Eugene, a vice president, and Timothy the secretary-treasurer. 
The stated purpose of the corporation was to do business dealing in “spirits, wines, liquors, beers, ales, and all kinds of merchandise of every name, nature, and description….”  The Sullivans had cast a wide net, capitalizing the company at $60,000, equivalent to $1.5 million today.  

At some point, Dennis R. Sullivan, likely with family approval, struck out on his own with a liquor store at the corner of Ives and Wickenden.  He called it “The Old Stand,” suggesting that he had taken over the earlier Ives Street address.  A flask, shown here, was issued with his embossing.

In 1910, the Sullivans found themselves victims of theft.  Earlier, five hundred of their fourteen ounce embossed bottles, each worth five cents, had turned up missing.  The brothers advertised in the local paper describing the loss and apparently were tipped off that the Hand Brewing Company in nearby Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was in possession of them.  Constable Dowd was authorized to search, found 373 purloined Sullivan bottles, and summoned Michael J. Hand, president of the brewery, into court for theft.  Hand objected that the warrant was flawed, the search illegal, and challenged the complaint lodged against him.  The judge thought otherwise and was fined him.  The purloined bottles were returned to the Sullivans. 

After 1910, with Prohibitionary forces at work, the Sullivans’ alcohol-related enterprises apparently faltered.  Employee numbers at the main office declined from twelve that year to eleven in 1912 and were down to seven by 1915.  During that period the Sullivan’s headquarters were at the 565-577 Wickenden complex, with a branch office at 9 Warren Avenue.  With the pressures from the “drys,” by  1918 they were no longer in the liquor trade, but continued to produce soft drinks and mineral waters.  The brothers also were aging.  Eugene D. left the firm in 1920 and moved to East Providence, leaving Daniel J. as president and Timothy J. as secretary.  After 1921 the Sullivans’ company ceased to be listed in local directories.

Dennis died in 1925, followed by Daniel in 1929.  Eugene lived until 1943 and Timothy until 1945.  The brothers are buried in St. Francis Cemetery, Pawtucket. Their cemetery monument earned a review in a trade publication as "one of the best jobs of stone carving ever sent..." by the company that produced the statuary.  The resulting cross stands six feet hight, with flowers in bas relief strewn over the surface. Not really visible in the picture here, the flora represented roses, pansies, morning glories, forget-me-nots and lilies.

For about sixty years the Sullivans of Providence had prospered, beginning with Sullivan Steam Bottling Works, expanding to the the Family Liquor Store, Sullivan Bros. Grocery, Dennis Sullivan’s “The Old Stand,” and the “umbrella” company, The Five Sullivan Bros.  Sullivan enterprises included bottling soft drinks and mineral waters, operating a beer distributorship, importing and exporting wines and spirits, selling liquor at wholesale and retail, running a grocery store, and dealing in merchandise ancillary to all those activities.  Big business, indeed, in little Rhode Island.

Notes:  Thanks for some of the information and two images in this post go to RIBottleguy.  He has a blog called “Rhode Island Soda Histories” in which he has featured the Sullivan brothers.   He epitomizes those in the bottle hobby who are interested in the history of what they are collecting. Moreover, when this post first went up I asked for help from Sullivan descendants with details, including dates of death and place of interment.  Sheila Maynard, a granddaughter of Timothy J. Sullivan, subsequently was in touch with me with additional information that has been included and for that I am very grateful.


  1. I'm very pleased to discover this information. My Grandfather was Timothy J Sullivan. I am the last surviving member of his son Gael Edward Sullivan. I have visited my family grave, and it is, indeed, an imposing monument....

  2. Thanks, Sheila, for being in touch. It is always good to hear from a Sullivan. Can you tell me in what cemetery the monument is located?
    Also, who among the Sullivans is buried there? I was unable to find that information.

  3. Hi Jack, do you have email?

  4. I tried twice yesterday to provide information and it wouldn't "publish" without my joining a Blogger site...Ugh...I'd prefer giving the internment information on a more private venue...Sheila (Mimi75)

  5. mimi75: Sorry to be so hard to reach. Please send me emails at Would be delighted to have more information on the RI Sullivans. Jack

  6. hello, i just purchased a sullivan bros,providence rhode island bottle, it has what looks like fbs in letters that intermingle with each other,in the center, and it says registered,also it has a white stopper sealed with a wire contraption that clamp down to hold the stopper in place, any ideas about this soda water bottle i think, it says 13 fl oz,and on the base,it has more glass on the front side than the rest,thanks so much

  7. literally i just zoomed in and it is the exact fbs and bottle as you have posted on the left side on the top of this article, except for the white stopper and wire thing