Tuesday, June 28, 2016

“Hi-Hi” Seligmann, Milwaukee’s Celebrity Whiskey Man

   In 1934, The Milwaukee Sentinel did a retrospective on pre-Prohibition drinking at the Republican House, then the city’s fanciest hotel, shown above, reporting this:  “Seated every afternoon at the bar, where merchants, bankers, actors, cigar manufacturers, brewers and men about town discussed politics, baseball and other topics of the day, was Hi-Hi Seligman, immaculate and resplendent in a high silk hat and black suit and a red carnation in his buttonhole.  As sure as 4 o’clock rolled around, ‘Hi-Hi’ walked in.  He was a great baseball fan and did a lot of talking between drinks.”

This was Moritz Seligmann (often written with one “n”), a successful whiskey wholesaler whose passion for the local baseball team, the Brewers, and whose tall silk top hat for years made him “the talk of the town” and rendered “Hi-Hi,” a virtual household name in Milwaukee.  Born in the state of Hesse Darmstadt, Germany, in November 1843, Seligmann immigrated to the United States in 1866 or 1867 at the age of about 24, settling in Milwaukee.  A description from a passport application indicates that Moritz had a thin face, pointed chin, auburn hair, hazel eyes, and was a diminutive five feet, four inches, tall.  On his right cheek he bore a large scar, likely a fencing scar, long considered a badge of honor among German youths of his era.

In heavily German Milwaukee Seligmann seemingly had no difficulty finding employment in a liquor house founded by Charles Schuckmann known as Schuckmann & Waldeck, founded about 1857 and located on Chestnut Avenue, now West Juneau.  In 1876, when Moritz was 33, he became a partner and the company name was changed to Schuckmann & Seligmann, a firm increasingly recognized as a leading Milwaukee wholesaler of liquor and wine.
Meanwhile Moritz had been having a personal life.  In 1871 he had married Rachel Hardt, the daughter of Joseph and Laura Hardt.  Born in Wisconsin, she was eight years his junior.  They would have one daughter, Lena, born in 1890.
The Seligmans appear to have lived most of their married life with Rachel’s sister,  Fanny, and her husband,  Alfred Michelstetter, who became involved in the liquor business with Moritz.  Perhaps Seligmann’s flamboyant lifestyle did not lend itself to home ownership.

After Schuckmann died suddenly while on a trip to Austria in 1885, Seligmann carried on as a single owner.  He kept the name unchanged for many years but in 1892 incorporated with capitalization of $100,000 — $2.5 million in today’s dollar.

The company featured a variety of brands, called “potent” by one writer,  They included “Eremite Sour Mash Rye,”  "Prince William Rye,” “Challenge Kentucky Bourbon,” and  “Gold Star Sour Mash.”  These appear to have been proprietary labels, although he bothered to trademark only “Gold Star Sour Mash.”  Shown here are two tip trays, each showing three gents, one of them on each tray wearing Moritz’s emblematic tall silk hat.  Seligmann also gifted saloons and restaurants that carried his brands with advertising signs and shot glasses.
Moritz also featured “Rolling Fork” bourbon and rye, a brand from the Kentucky Wathen distilling family, that he advertised with a fancy reverse glass sign.  He also sold “Maryland Club,” a nationally marketed whiskey from the Cahn-Belt Company of Baltimore. [See my post on this firm,  August 2013.]  This connection may have occasioned Seligmann’s advertising claim that he had an “Eastern office” in that city and carried an illustration, shown here, purporting to be his Baltimore headquarters.  While Seligmann may have had a contract with Cahn-Belt, his company name never appeared in city business directories.

Moritz’s fancy headgear gained considerable attention in 1908 when he was among Milwaukee businessmen, mostly manufacturers and wholesalers, who took a week’s marketing excursion by rail to some thirty towns in Southern Minnesota and South Dakota.  When the whiskey man stepped off the train in those largely rural communities, it was reported, the top hat “…attracted considerable attention because it was the only one of its kind.”  His traveling companions tried to talk him into a traveling cap, but Hi-Hi stuck with the tall silk chapeau. “It was predicted that the hat would meet with some mishap, but it came back safely to Milwaukee with Mr. Seligmann’s head in it.” 

I assume that Moritz also wore a top hat to the Milwaukee Brewers baseball stadium where he was a familiar figure and frequently the subject of attention by local sports writers.  On June 26, 1896, The Sentinel, reporting on a bad loss by the local team recorded that:  “Even Hi-Hi Seligman left the scorers stand and took a seat in a rear section of the grandstand where he grieved alone….”  He also was remembered attending Brewers spring training in snowy Rockford, Illinois.   How Seligmann came to be nicknamed “Hi-Hi” is not clear.  From hints in press accounts, it likely stemmed from his familiar loud cheering for the home team.

Through the years, the Seligmann’s liquor business knew several locations.  About 1881, it moved to 291-293 Water Street, the avenue where many of the city’s liquor establishments were located, and stayed for 29 years.  In 1911, according to business directories, the company moved to 253 Fourth Street. Then in 1912 Moritz changed its name to M. Seligmann & Co. and moved to Room #725 in the Germania Building at 125 West Well St., shown left.  This indicates to me that the owner, now almost 70 years old, was scaling back on his activities, acting strictly as a liquor “jobber” or middle man, without storing stock on premises.  This reduced operation subsequently was moved to 107 Wells Street about 1916 and shut down in 1918 when Seligmann was 75.  That same year a Wisconsin commercial organization to which Hi-Hi had been a longtime member honored him with a presentation: A baseball bat decorated in red, white and blue ribbons.

Seligmann lived long enough to witness the imposition of National Prohibition, dying in 1922.  He was buried in Milwaukee’s Spring Hill Cemetery;  his gravestone is shown here.  Only a year later, his widow, Rachel, would join him there.  Hi-Hi Seligman continued to be remembered years after in Milwaukee for his tall silk hat, his passion for baseball, and, as the 1934 newspaper article that opened this post suggested, being emblematic of pre-Prohibition good times.

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