Saturday, July 2, 2016

Bigbie Brothers of Virginia and Owning “Old Velvet"

In 1907 Frederick Inness Allen, the U.S. Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks was handed a case on appeal to decide which among three liquor firms had the legitimate right to use the name “Old Velvet” on its whiskey.   Was it the J & B Butler Company of Columbus, Ohio?  Or was it Blumenthal & Bickart, an Atlanta, Georgia, outfit with a reputation for fighting for trademark rights in the courts?  Or could it be the Bigbie Brothers from Lynchburg, Virginia?

The Bigbies were born in Newbern, Virginia, the sons of Augustine Bigbie and Mary Trovillo — William in 1858 and John Draper in 1863.  They are shown here, William above, John at left.  According to a family biographer:   “The two brothers were close friends who spent much of their time together throughout their lives.  They worked together, frequently lived together, were involved in several personal and business investments together, and occasionally traveled together.

Their closeness came in part from the untimely deaths of their parents and siblings.  Their father, proprietor/owner of the Bigbie Hotel in Newbern, died in 1867, when John was just four years old.  With an older brother, Terry, William helped their mother in running the hostelry during the next few years.  By 1868 — the date became of considerable importance in the trademark case — William was running a small liquor store out of the hotel.  About the same time Joseph Lawson & Son established a whiskey trade in Lynchburg and reputedly featured a house brand the company called “Old Velvet.”

Then Terry Bigbie died, as did a sister, Rosa.  Mother Mary succumbed in 1880 when William was 22 and John 17.  Faced with these many family deaths in such short time, the brothers left Newbern together and found jobs working at the wholesale liquor house of Robert Hough & Sons in Baltimore, Maryland. Hough disappeared from city directories about 1886 and apparently went out of business.  The Bigbie brothers then headed back to Virginia, settling in Lynchburg.

Their biographer explained the move:  “There was likely a manifold draw for William and his brother John to the city of Lynchburg.  One part was certainly the presence of kin living there…These family connections would prove to be important future business and social assets for William.  Another draw to Lynchburg was undoubtedly the dynamic of the city itself.”  After the Civil War the town had become a hub of the tobacco trade and a key railroad center.

About 1887 with a local partner the Bigbies opened a retail wine and liquor store at 100 Ninth Street, shown right,  where Jos. Lawson & Son had been operating.  The brothers claimed later to have bought from Lawson the rights to blend and bottle “Old Velvet” as their own proprietary brand.  Bigbie Bros. & Company met with almost instant success and by 1889 moved to larger quarters on Lynchburg’s Main Street, the major commercial avenue shown below.  It allowed expansion into the wholesale liquor trade.
Meanwhile William had found a bride. She was Katherine (Kate) Withers of Lynchburg, a woman eighteen years old and 12 years his junior.  Married in 1888, they would have three children, Mary, William, and Katherine called Kitty.  John Bigbie, whose photo indicates was a handsome youth, never married.
The brothers were not only selling whiskey they were “rectifying” it, that is, blending raw whiskeys to attain certain taste, smoothness and color.  In addition to their Old Velvet brand, they featured “Natural Bridge,” “Piedmont Club,” “Old Bigbie,” and “Bigbie’s Pure Rye.”  Until much later, none of these brands were trademarked.   For their retail customers Bigbie Bros. packaged their goods in glass bottles.  An embossed Bigbie half pint is shown right, a pint, below.
As the years wore on, John’s health apparently faltered.  In 1896, perhaps believing that an ocean voyage would restore him, the brothers left the business in the hands of others and exhibiting again the closeness of their relationship, traveled to Europe.  If recovery was the aim, the trip failed.  Within a year John was dead of tuberculosis.

Although bereft at the death of his beloved brother, Williampressed on.  Now in addition to selling his homemade brands, he was featuring an impressive line of nationally known Maryland and Pennsylvania whiskeys, including Mount Vernon, Hannisville, Monticello, Guckenheimer, Gibson and Sherwood.  He continued to make Old Velvet a featured brand, issuing an etched shot glass advertising it.

Suddenly the issue of who owned the rights to the Old Velvet name erupted. It may have been fomented by the J. & B. Butler firm in 1891 that sought and initially was awarded a trademark for the brand.  The likely challenger was Bluthenthal & Bickart, an outfit that previously had pursued trademark cases vigorously.  With a modest marketing area in Virginia, William Bigbie may have seemed the “odd man out” in claiming ownership of Old Velvet. 

To the likely astonishment of his rivals, the Lynchburg whiskey man was granted sole rights to the label by reason of having used it first.  The examiner bought Bigbie’s story that he had inherited the brand name from the Lawson firm who reputedly had used it first in 1868.  Barrels of whiskey marked Old Velvet were reported having been shipped in 1872.  Buthenthal & Bickart ran a poor second demonstrating continuous use of Old Velvet only since 1888. The earliest that J & B Butler through a predecessor firm could establish use of the name was 1890. 

What convinced the authorities was the statement from a witness actually called by Bluthenthal & Bickart. He testified that Bigbie Bros. & Company had bought out Joseph Larson’s liquor business on May 1, 1887, and that “all the whiskies, brands, labels, and stencils of Joseph  Larson were transferred to Bigbie Brothers & Co. on that date, as well as the formula for making Old Velvet whiskey.”  Commissioner Allen was impressed and the trademark was awarded to Bigbie.   William celebrated his victory by advertising Old Velvet widely and displaying the trademark on the Old Velvet label.

Meanwhile in 1904, William’s wife Katherine died of heart disease at the age of 34, nine years after her last child.  She was buried in Lynchburg’s Presbyterian Cemetery, another untimely death in a family that seemed full of them.  Yet another problem for Bigbie was the tide of anti-alcohol forces in Lynchburg.  Prohibitionists had attempted to outlaw sales of alcohol there in 1886, 1890, and 1898 but were beaten back each time.  In 1909, however, Lynchburg passed a “dry” referendum.  Bigbie was forced to shut down his liquor trade only to re-open two years later when the town repealed the law.  He continued to sell liquor until 1916 when Virginia banned alcohol sales statewide. 

Then Bigbie made two surprise moves:  He went back to Baltimore and thirteen years after Kate’s death, he remarried.  His biographer commented:  “At this point in his life, Lynchburg had little left to hold William:  Prohibition had ended his business, his young wife had died, and he had lost the brother who had been his lifelong companion.”   In Baltimore Bigbie worked for Charles H. Ross Company, a liquor wholesaler.  He cut that venture short when in April 1917 he married Maria Woodson Taylor, known even on her tombstone as “Woodsie.”  She was a friend of William’s daughter, Mary, and 30 years his junior.  Fifty-nine when he remarried, Bigbie sired two more children with his young wife.

After his marriage William moved back to Lynchburg with Woodsie and using the wealth he had accrued from the whiskey trade invested in several local ventures, including buying a shoe store and serving as a director of Lynchburg’s First National Bank.  On a prime Lynchburg site he also built four townhouses for his family and other relatives.  Plagued by health issues in his latter years, Bigbie died in December 1927 at his home, age 69.  The cause given on his death certificate was tuberculosis, the same disease that had taken away his brother, John, some thirty years earlier.  William was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery next to his first wife.  Shown here are their adjacent monuments.

There remains the issue of who really had first use of Old Velvet as a whiskey brand.  Was William Bigbie stretching the truth to claim a pre-1887 origin for Old Velvet and Bigbie Bros.’ purchase of the brand and formula from Jos. Lawson & Son?  Records indicate that the Lawson firm was recorded in Lynchburg business directories operating at the Ninth Street address after Bigbie Bros & Co. had moved to Main Street.  Still and all, William was able to provide the Patent and Trademark Office and Commissioner Allen with sufficient justification for his claim — and in the end that is all that mattered.

Note:  Much of the information for this vignette was from the volume, The Descendants of George Bigbie, Volume One, compiled and edited by Scott Woodson Bigbie, 1994.  The direct quotes are also from that work, one of the better genealogical texts I have seen for providing not just the bare facts of individuals’ lives, but an understanding of the context in which they lived. Those quotes and some of the images provided here are though the courtesy of Mr. Bigbie. More information on Bluthenthal & Bickart may be found in my post of Oct. 4, 2012.


  1. Jack, Glad you enjoyed my book on the Bigbies--thanks for your kind words. Please do note, though, that the photographs and other images (like the text) are copyrighted, and cannot be used without my permission. I'd be glad to grant you permission to use this in your blog, but would appreciate your including the customary line "photographs and images used with permission of Scott Bigbie."
    As a postscript to your story about "Old Velvet," Bigbie Bros. & Co. also clashed with Stqar Distillery of Cincinnati over the name "Piedmont." Both had applied for trade-mark to this name about the same time and were turned down. Star and Bigbie Bros. quickly setled this with mutual agreement that Star owned "Piedmont" and Bigbie Bros. owned "Piedmont Club." I have the original legal agreement in my files.
    Cheers, Scott

  2. Dear Mr. Bigbie: Thank your for your comment. I had made the change to provide you appropriate credit. My quotes and those several images used, however, were within the "fair use" provision of the copyright laws. Appreciate the additional information about the "Piedmont" controversy. All the best.

  3. Scott, I'm very interested in the history of Lynchburg VA Whiskey. Do you know much about R.Fazzi that was on 5th street ? We're opening a Whiskey bar on 5th street and would like to provide an accurate historical reflection of the rich history Lynchburg has in regards to whiskey. Here is my email

  4. Dear Josh: Thanks for your memo and good luck with your whiskey bar in Lynchburg. Although I have written a lot on VA whiskey men do not think that other than the Bigbies, I have anything on Lynchburg outfits. Nothing on Fazzi. Maybe Scott Bigbie will read this and get back to you. All the best.

    1. Mr. Sullivan, Thanks for your response. I beleive Lazarus and sons and 3-4 other outfits were in Lynchburg around that same time from what I've found published by the Lynchburg Museum. I've enjoyed your articles and if you come across anything Lynchburg related please feel free to email me!! Thanks

  5. Josh: I will keep looking for Lynchburg whiskey men. If I find anything, I will be touch. Jack