Sunday, September 11, 2016

Adolph Moll of St. Louis Sold Booze Among the Bushel Baskets

Seated in the photo above, I believe, is Adolph Moll, the old gentleman with a cap, surrounded by the elegant St. Louis grocery store he had established years earlier and worked hard to make successful.  Note the displays of potatoes, onions and other produce in the foreground and then the bottles of whiskey and wine that seem to climb every pillar in the store.  Moll knew that although bushels of veggies made money, liquor made him a lot more.

Shown here in middle-age, Adolph Moll likely was born in Frankenstein, Prussia, in 1834, although the 1880 census gave his birthplace as Berlin.  He emigrated with his family from Germany to New York City in May 1952 at the age of 18, living for a time in Brooklyn.  About 1856 he moved to St. Louis, a city with a large German population.  A passport application indicated Adolph was five feet, six inches tall, with blue eyes and a fair complexion. In 1858 at the age of 24 he became a American citizen, sworn in before a St. Louis commissioner.

Moll’s first employment in St. Louis was working for a company that sold safes.  He proved to have a good business head and an entrepreneurial spirit that recommended him to the German community.  As a result he was able to borrow sufficient funds and with a local partner named Heidsick open a small grocery store on Third Street between Market and Chestnut.
His obituary in the St. Louis Post Dispatch described Moll’s rise to grocery prominence:  “He did it all by his own energy.  He would work at everything about the place, from heavy boxes to the keeping of books.”  He also had a flair for advertising, billing his establishment as “A. Moll Grocer Co., Importers and Wholesale Grocers” and emphasizing his trade in “wines, liquors & cigars.”  Those were the money-makers.

But it was not all work and no personal life for Adolph.  In 1861, he married Emma Friederike Hedwig Ballaseus, the daughter of Johann Wilhelm and Julianna Justina (Wagner) Ballaseus.  Known simply as Hedwig, the bride had arrived from Prussia the previous year and was living in St. Louis with her mother.  Married in the Evangelist Church of the Holy Ghost in St. Louis, the couple would go on to have eight children.  Adolph had selected well.  Not only was Hedwig an attentive mother, she proved to be, as one observer put it, “also a strong presence in the business concern.”  She is shown here in maturity.  
Before long the A. Moll Grocery Co. had outgrown its original quarters and by 1863 was located in a much larger building at 612-614 Franklin Avenue, as shown on a impressive trade card.  Subsequently Moll opened a warehouse at 822 North Seventh Street, also shown on the card.  The latter gave him space for mixing his own batches of whiskey, using raw product gathered from a variety of Missouri and Kentucky distilleries.  For his wholesale customers, he provided his products in attractive “bee-hive” ceramics, with Albany slip tops and Bristol glaze bodies.  Shown here right is a gallon jug, left is a half-gallon.  
For his retail trade, Moll featured two brands, “Old Bob Pepper Whiskey,” and “Delmar Club Rye.”  In a typical ad, shown here, he advertised Old Bob Pepper as aged four years and selling for $2.00 a gallon.  He also advertised bottles of “Home-made Blackberry Brandy” for 43 cents and Missouri Concord Wine for a half dollar.  For his Delmar Club label, Moll issued a shot glass that would have been given to saloons and restaurants carrying the brand.  Moll never bothered to trademark his whiskeys.

Along the way, Moll found another profitable beverage well-laced with alcohol called Mexican Pulque Bitters.  Pulque is a fermented drink made from the sap of the agave plant.  The color of milk, pulque has a molasses-like consistency and a sour taste.   Although some folks like the notorious Texas Judge Roy Bean favored it, pulque had been eclipsed by beer as a cheap high.  

Marketing pulque as a bitters — and thus medicine — may have been a way of reviving its popularity.  Claiming to be the sole agent for the United States, Moll advertised that Mexican Pulque Bitters relieved stomach distress and could be “used for diseases of the Liver, Kidneys, Stomach and Bowels.”  He marketed it with trade cards depicting dogs on the hunt — nothing to do with Mexico — and sold the tonic for 60 cents a bottle. 

In addition to understanding how to merchandise alcoholic beverages, Moll gained a reputation in St. Louis for his general business acumen.  The well organized interior of his store in the photo above attests to his merchandising skills.  He once drew customers to his store by displaying a 2,300 pound wheel of cheese and vigorously advertising its presence.  In time Moll became known the “Grocery King” of Franklin Street.  As his children matured, he engaged them in the business, particularly the eldest, Paul, and a younger brother, Adolph Arthur.  They may be the two men to whom he is speaking in the photo above.

Moll is reputed to have assisted many of his relatives by providing jobs at the grocery.  He also is credited with bring kinsfolk to St. Louis, including his widowed father; his brothers, Frederick and Robert;  Hedwig’s brothers, Adolph and Arthur Ballaseus; a brother-in-law William Paust, and a widowed sister-in-law, Antonia Bormann.  The photo below is said to picture his children and other relatives working at his Franklin Avenue store.
Moll was also taking an interest in St. Louis business, serving as a founder and officer of the Franklin Bank, and in national affairs as an active participant in the  Single Tax League.  At the turn of the last century, Henry George and the single tax philosophy he proposed were a hot topic.  George’s 1879 book Progress and Poverty  had captured the imagination of millions of Americans.  Many endorsed his proposed economic system that would have the government tax only land, not the profits made on it, but distribute revenues equitably to the populace.  As emphasized in his obituaries, Moll was a strong advocate for the cause.

On June 22, 1898, after an illness of three weeks, Adolph Moll died at his home on Berlin Avenue.  He was 64 years old.  His funeral was a major event.  As the Post-Dispatch reported:  “Bankers, business men, turners, workingmen — in fact people representing every walk of life — yesterday afternoon thronged the residence of the late Adolph Moll…and formed a part of the largest funeral held in that part of the city in years…Those who mourned were legion.”  

After a memorial service, some of it conducted in German, Moll’s funeral cortege, with leading St. Louis citizens as pallbearers, traveled to Bellefontaine Cemetery.  As family and friends looked on, the “Grocery King” was interred.  His gravestone is shown here.

After the founder’s death, family members took over the management of “kingdom” he had founded.  Paul Moll initially assume the leadership but died five years later.  After Paul’s death Adolph Arthur Moll, who had entered the business as boy clerk and risen to acting general manager, became vice president and general manager.  In 1907 he was named president of A. Moll Groceries.

“Grocery King” Adolph Moll has been credited by contemporaries as a hard working immigrant who had started with virtually nothing and built one of the most solid and advanced grocery businesses in America.  “All who knew him say he earned every cent of his comfortable fortune and built up his business on business lines and not by speculation,” opined the Post-Dispatch.  As indicated here, the most financially rewarding of those business lines were based on alcohol.  With the coming of National Prohibition, however,  the grocery was forced to cease liquor sales.  

The sale of the Mexican Pulque Stomach Bitters likely had been affected earlier when the Federal government in 1912 branded them as “bracers,” beverages claiming to be medicines that were in truth “compound liquors” providing substantial alcohol but insufficient medical benefits.  Merchants selling them were required to have a liquor license and pay a substantial federal tax on sales.

Note:  Although I had been gathering material regarding A. Moll for some weeks, when I settled down to serious research on this St. Louis merchant, I found that Ferdinand Weber IV, the estimable president of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors, already had featured Moll in his “Peachridge Glass” blog, one that often features bitters bottles.  Because my emphasis would be on Moll as a “whiskey man,” I determined to pursue the story but have used some of Ferd’s pictures and information.  My thanks to him for this material.

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