Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Splaine in Maine Stayed Mainly with the Plain

 Please forgive the pun on that phonetic exercise, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,”  one that became world famous when it was a song lyric in the musical, “My Fair Lady.”  It just seemed necessary:  Richard A. Splaine was a Massachusetts liquor dealer who conducted a lively mail order trade in “dry” Maine but promised that his “wet” goods would come in a plain wrapper.  

After flirting with prohibition for two decades, in 1862 Maine enacted and later strengthened a ban on the manufacturing and sale of alcoholic beverages.  With the possible exception of Bangor [see my post of April 6, 2016], saloons and bars across the state shut down and thirsty residents in “The Pine Tree State” were left to yearn for the good old days.  Except, of course, if they lived near a railroad line — and many did.
Until 1913 it was possible to receive shipments of booze without any controls from out of state via the mails or railway express companies.  On any given day the Grand Trunk Station in Portland, above, would have held hundreds of gallons of whiskey and wine in transit to the rest of Maine.

Much of it would have come from mail order houses like Splaine’s in Massachusetts, likely carried north by the Boston & Maine Railroad.  In Portland the liquor would be transferred to the Maine Central Railroad Co., operating 1,344.48 miles of track throughout the state.  The red lines on the map left indicate the extent to which the line reached into virtually every town of any size.

Richard Splaine was well aware of Mainers' thirst and of the ways to reach them.   Calling his establishment the “Largest U.S. Mail House in New England,” he was doing big business in the state.  After noting a Maine press account of a prohibitionist’s speech, one observer commented on an irony:  “In the same issue of the newspaper was an advertisement for mail-order liquor, three dollars for four quarts of Parkwood Club unmixed whiskey, plus a free bottle of wine from R.A. Splaine & Company of Haverhill, Massachusetts.  It was all perfectly legal to get liquor through the mail….”

Spaine’s ads, like the one shown right, ran in local newspapers and in national magazines, costing him a hefty $50,000 a year — equivalent to $2.5 million today.  As an added incentive to customers Splaine would prepay the express costs anywhere in New England.  He also offered a money back guarantee if his goods proved unsuitable.   Perhaps most important, he included no advertising on his packaging.  His whiskey came “securely packed” in a plain box.  The next door neighbors need not know one’s drinking habits.

Splaine had been born about 1854 in Haverhill, the son of Irish immigrant parents, and lived there all his life.  After working for other local merchants, he went into the liquor business for himself in 1882.   He also maintained a branch office in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  As shown in an 1891 ad, an early address was on Haverhill’s Court Street.  According to an obituary, Splaine’s start was a modest one but through strenuous efforts he had built up an extensive wholesale and mail order trade.  With growth, he moved to 40 Fleet Street, the building shown right.

His flagship brand was “Parkwood Rye,” a label he trademarked in 1900 and again under strengthen laws in 1906.   Splaine sold it in ceramic jugs and glass bottles, from flask to quart size.   The label indicated that it was  “unmixed,”  that is, not “rectified” or blended.  As other whiskey men did at the time, he advertised, speciously, that this product was guaranteed under the National Pure Food law.  Other Splaine brands were "Bell In Hand", "Belle Brandon", “Kingmont Rye", "Southern Club”, "William Tell”  “Splaine’s Rye” and “Crescent Gin.”

Called “well known and highly respected,” Splaine took his reputation into the local political arena, considered a “factor” there.  He also had large real estate holdings in and around Haverhill.  He also ventured into beer distribution, opening a depot for the Rochester Brewing Company, a New York brewery dating from 1875, and was bottling its beer for the New England market.  In 1913 he joined a group of stockholders who purchased the Eldredge Brewing Company of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Splaine became a director.  This investment may have been occasioned in part by the passage by Congress in 1913 of the Webb-Kenyon Act that made it illegal to transport liquor across state lines into dry states and localities.  Splaine’s lucrative trade in Maine had come to a screeching halt.
In middle age, Splaine’s health faltered.  He developed heart problems and was under medical care for several years but continued to work.  After attending a directors’ meeting of the Eldredge Brewery on December 18, 1914, Splaine was returning home on a train when he had a massive heart attack.  Taken off the train at Georgetown, Mass., he was pronounced dead.  Although I have been unable to find the details or location of his interment, my surmise is that as a lifelong resident of Haverhill, he is buried there.

In a way Splaine death was timely.  It spared him the trauma of seeing the advent of National Prohibition that would have meant the end of his entire liquor business.  It also perhaps was fitting that he died on a train, the method of transport that had allowed him for so many years to send his liquor with great success — and plain wrappings — into dry Maine.

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