Monday, May 16, 2016

Saluting Bulkley and Fiske for Their Liquor Ceramics

The whiskey flask of a saluting soldier is emblematic of the production of unique liquor containers that the New York City grocery firm of Bulkley, Fiske & Co. issued over the short span of four years.  The partners gave the Nation some of its most valued spirits jugs — shown throughout this post.  The saluting soldier at right, for example, listed at auction for $4,500.  But who were the originators?

William Franklin Bulkley was born in Brooklyn in 1805 to Gershom and Mary Day Bulkeley (notice the additional “e”).  The name has both English and Irish roots, with this spelling more likely English.  The family had early New England roots. An ancestor also named Gershom Bulkeley was a well-known preacher and patriot.  William’s father appears to have been a man of some wealth.   

After an education in local schools, William married about 1833 a woman well educated for those times.  She was Abigail Conklin, born in 1811 to Daniel and Isabella Lusk Conklin in Renssalaerville, a town in Albany County, New York.  She was recorded in 1825 as attending the Litchfield Female Academy, considered one of the most important institutions of female education in the United States.  From the union of William and Abigail Bulkley a daughter Elizabeth was born in 1834, but records differ on whether there were any other children.

Bulkley was an entrepreneur whose principal occupation was running grocery stores, one location being 78 Front Street in Brooklyn.  Additionally, he was an director of the Nassau Insurance Co. of Brooklyn, capitalized at $150,000 ($3 million equiv. today).  In 1853 Bulkley also was listed as a director of the Brooklyn Gas Light Company.  He and Abigail owned a significant amount of land in Brooklyn along the Hudson River.  
This land may have resulted from his 1852 purchase of the Catherine Ferry, its headquarters shown here.  This was a ferry route connecting Catherine Street in Manhattan and Main Street in Brooklyn across the East River.  Being unable to compete with a one-cent fare adopted by a competitor,  Bulkley sold the ferry line after a few months.  Moreover, the Brooklyn Bridge was being constructed overhead, suggesting an impending overall decline in river traffic.

Subsequently, Bulkley was committed to the grocery trade, albeit one heavily into liquor sales. In 1858 he teamed with Frederick B. Fiske, of whom I have been able to learn very little, in a firm at No. 51 Vesey Street in Manhattan.  From the outset the partners began to issue ceramic liquor containers that have become coveted by collectors.
The pair of cruet-like jugs shown here are in a “Rockingham” glaze, both a tan and a darker brown.  That attractive marbled look was highly popular in the United States during the early 1800s, copied from British glazes with a similar look.  A shield on the front of each container says:  “Schiedam Gin Imported by Bulkley, Fiske & Co.”  The name of the firm and the address also was impressed into their shoulders.  There was no mistaking by whom these vessels were issued.
Even more impressive is a whiskey jug with a similar handle and top and also in a Rockingham glaze.   Entitled by the company “Game Bag,” each side has a bas relief picture.  One side is the game bag with four dead quarry hanging from it, from left, pheasant, duck, rabbit and dove.  The other side is another hunting scene featuring two dogs and a standing shotgun.  A British “hunting jug” influence is evident.  There is a variant on this jug that marks it with an embossed “B.F. & Co.” on one side and an incised “Bulkley. Fiske & Co., New York” on the other.

From 1820 to 1856 figural “spirits” flasks were a popular ceramic item in England. Made in the shape of important personages often they were molded in the images of royalty or other famous figures.  Often the latter were involved in political movements and such ceramics sometimes are called “reform flasks.”  The flasks held whiskey and often came from Scottish potteries.

Shown here, front and back  is a jug made in the likeness of military man.  From the shoulder epaulets and tunic we may infer he is an officer, perhaps a high-ranking officer.  His belt reads “Morning Salute,” a reference that would have been widely understood.  Many men would take a snort of whiskey every morning before going off to work, believing that it was beneficial both to health and mental wellbeing, and it commonly was termed a “morning salute.”

From the archives of the New York Historical Society comes another example of a Bulkley-Fiske figural flask.  This one is called “Man with a Fiddle.”  This bottle is the standing form of a man sticking his tongue out, in perhaps a smile.  His battered hat is the spout.  He is wearing an overcoat and holding a violin and a bow against his chest.  Might he be an itinerant fiddler?  The name Bulkley, Fiske & Co., is impressed in the base.

While the last of the grocery firm’s ceramic offerings is less articulated than the others shown here, it is still interesting.  It is a barrel or keg — some have called it “a rundlet.”  It features a sizable “bung hole” aperture from which beer, wine or whiskey could be accessed.  Note the well-developed four sets of three bands each that hold the barrel staves.  This ceramic bottle obviously held a quantity of spirits, but it is not clear what kind. 
Bulkley died at the early age of 54 and was buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.    Abigail would join him there in 1876, as recorded on a monument shown here.  Fiske carried on. The firm stayed in business only until 1862, however, a total four-year run.   Nonetheless during that short period, this New York City grocery left a legacy of liquor containers unmatched in their rarity and collector interest.
Note: Thanks go to John DeGraft, the noted expert on sarsaparilla bottles, who also collects whiskey ceramics from his home in Arizona. Not only did John alert me to these whiskey men and their iconic containers, he provided me with the photo of the “Morning Salute” flask shown front and back above. 

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