Among the contrasts were his beginnings. Childs was born in the tiny Vermont hamlet of Bakersfield in Franklin County in 1859. His mother, Martha, had been born in Germany; his father, known as S.P., was a native Vermont farmer. A postcard view of Bakersfield in the 1800s shows a distinctly bucolic town — a far cry from mid-town Manhattan. The 1870 U.S. Census found him n Vermont, age eleven, with a older brother, Lewis, and an toddler, Albert.
When and why Childs ventured to the Big Apple is unrecorded. Clearly Bakersfield offered little opportunity. My speculation is that he spent a few years learning the whiskey trade in one of the many New York liquor houses. New York 1880 directories listed two liquor companies, Childs and Hull on Tenth Avenue and Childs & Co with two outlets, but no firm evidence that John was associated with either. He surfaced in business directories in 1885, at the age of 26, as the sole proprietor of J. C. Childs Company, a wholesale liquor dealer, located at 669 Third Avenue, moving later to 346 & 348 Eight Avenue.
In addition to selling whiskey, Childs was “rectifying” it, that is, blending and mixing spirits to gain specific taste, smoothness and color. His proprietary brands included “Old Rip,” “T. J. M.,” “Unrivaled,” “Monte Cristo,” and “Monitor Blend,” with “Storm King” as his flagship label. He never bothered to trademark any of his brands.
Both Storm King and Monitor Blend were marketed with images of tumult on the high seas. An 1895 ad for Storm King emphasized King Neptune and two of his acolytes roiling ocean waters. The label on his quarts carried forward the violent image as Neptune amidst storm and lightning was displayed driving four horses snorting fire.
Similar violence was exhibited in Child’s advertising for his Monitor Blend Rye. As shown on a trade card here, the image is of the Civil War fiery combat between the Union’s USS Monitor and the Confederate’s CSS Virginia, the latter often called the Merrimack because it was built from the hull of a Union ship by that name. The “Battle of the Ironclads” at Hampton Roads off Norfolk, Virginia, essentially resulted in a draw but ended the era of wooden-sided naval vessels.
The illustrator has captured the heat of battle very well, but is this the image needed to sell whiskey, especially one claimed to have “medicinal and tonic virtues”? Apparently John Childs thought so.
Child’s marital situation is something of a mystery. When recorded by the 1900 census John was living alone but said he was married and had been married for 15 years, making him 26 at the time of his wedding. Yet there was no sign of a wife or children. In the 1920 census, Childs again was living alone, this time as a self-professed widower.
Like many of his competitors, Childs featured a proprietary “medicine.” He called it “Green Label Beef, Iron and Wine” and chose to advertise it with children or child-appealing images. Note for example the trade card here featuring a little girl in a red cap, a polkadot dress, and black stockings carrying a basket of flowers. The image is meant to convey wholesomeness and purity. The blurb on the reverse side claimd “astonishing results” that included bringing “color to the pallid cheek, vigor to the weakened body, and increased power to the enfeebled digestion.”
Another trade card from Childs that invoked a child’s world illustrated youngsters given the faces of pansies and the title, “Pansies Playtime.” The reverse of this card touted its ingredients: “This combination of nutritive properties of BEEF with the greatest tonic known to science, SOLUBLE IRON, dissolved in the purest and most invigorating SPANISH SHERRY WINE that can be produced from the grape, is considered by leading medical men as the grandest tonic for the human system ever devised.”
At the time that Childs was marketing this miracle potion, beef, iron and wine tonics were commonplace. I have counted more than fifty of them listed in a trade publication. Their popularity with whiskey men was resulted from such nostrums being free from taxes on imposed on liquor by governments. Such remedies were touted as medicines, not liquor. Yet the ingredients of beef, iron and wine tonic told another story. The beef involved was a extract, composed mostly of fat and coloring. The iron was a small tincture, containing 15% alcohol. Two-thirds of the potion was sherry, itself a “fortified” wine, about 17% alcohol. To that was added another 12.5% grain alcohol. Adding all that up bring this tonic to about 60 proof, approaching the alcoholic content of rum or vodka.
Extravagant claims by Childs and others failed to sway Federal Food and Drug officials. In August 1912 they classified beef, iron and wine tonics as “booze” medicines — or more scientifically as “compound liquors.” Thereafter, it was illegal for druggists to sell these potions unless they had paid a special tax as a retail liquor dealer. That decision and other food and drug laws eventually brought a halt to sales of beef, iron and wine tonics.
Records differ on when Childs closed up his liquor business. One directory reference indicates that he was still operating in 1915. At the time of the 1920 census, however, Childs, age 61, was recorded printing a newspaper and living on West 31st Street in Manhattan. Much of Child’s personal life remains hidden in the mists of history. I have been unable to ascertain the date of his death or place of interment. Nor have I been able to reconcile with any certainty the contrasts in Childs’ marketing styles — tumult for his whiskey, playtime for his tonic.