Wednesday, September 7, 2016

“Best Whiskey on Earth”: Who Were the Guggenheims Kidding?

While successfully operating a Cleveland, Ohio, liquor house for some 27 years, brothers Herman and Julius Guggenheim brought to their business a wry humor, calling one of their whiskey brands, B. W. O. E., initials almost certainly standing for “Best Whiskey on Earth.”   This was a subtle send-up of the B.P.O.E, the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, always a popular fraternal organization in Cleveland and other cities and towns throughout the United States.

If there are any doubts about the Guggenheims’ intentions, they should be dispelled by a shot glass the brothers gifted to saloons and restaurants featuring their liquor.  Shown here, the glass bears the initials B.W.O.E but has the etched head of an antlered elk on it, directly linking the initials to the Elks fraternal order. This elk has a smile on his face as if in on some great joke.  The Guggenheims and their customers must have enjoyed the humorous inference.

The brothers also gave favored customers an advertising serving tray carrying the B.W.O.E. brand name.  As shown here, the tray featured the face of a pretty young blonde wearing a Japanese kimono.  It also displays bottles of B.W.O.E. on the sides and identifies Guggenheim Bros., Cleveland, U.S.A.  The relatively large size of the tray is evident in an online image of a little girl holding it for a photograph.  She looks as if she would rather have been skipping rope.  By the way, a tray like this one sold for $292 on eBay in July 2016.

The Guggenheim’s story began in Baden, Germany.  Herman was the elder brother, born in 1851.  Julius came along five years later.  In 1874 when Herman was 23 and Julius 18, the brothers departed Europe on the S.S.Pomerania, heading for the United States, and eventually settled in Tiffin, Ohio.  They apparently quickly became engaged in the liquor trade.   The 1880 census found the brothers living together in Tiffin, their occupation given as  “liquor store.”
By 1882, the Guggenheims had moved to Cleveland where their wholesale liquor establishment first showed up in business directories located at 66 Michigan Street In addition to being “jobbers” of whiskey, they also were rectifiers, that is, mixing and blending their own proprietary brands.  

In addition to B.W.O.E., those labels were “Gorman Rye,” that the brothers openly advertised as a blend, and “Adalyn.”   Demonstrating the progressive merchandising acumen of the Guggenheims, they issued shot glasses for both brands. They did not bother, however, to trademark any of their labels.

During this period each of the brothers also was establishing a family.  Herman, once established in business in 1884 married Ella Lowentritt, a native Clevelander.  They would go on to have two sons, Joseph H., and Arthur L.   Julius had married earlier, in 1876.   His wife was was the former Tillie Kronthal, born in Sandusky, Ohio.  They would have at least one child, Edna.  Cleveland directories indicate that the brothers lived close to each other, Herman at 115 Beech Street, Julius at 102 Beech.

The Guggenheims appear rapidly to have met with considerable success in the liquor trade, requiring larger and larger quarters as their business expanded.  By 1889 they had moved to 60 Michigan Street.  After some six years at that location, they relocated to 183 Prospect until 1904 when the firm again moved, this time to 716-720 Bolivar Street SE.  After 1909, Guggenheim Bros., without explanation,  disappeared from Cleveland business directories.  Their closing was seven years in advance of Ohio voting “dry.”

What the brothers did after shutting down their liquor business is not clear.  They may simply have retired.  In the 1920 census Julius is recorded as having no occupation.  Herman died at home in May, 1919, at the age of 67.   Julius followed in October, 1929, at 73.  Both are buried in Cleveland’s Mayfield Cemetery, shown here.
The Guggenheims may never have written their names in the history books of Cleveland but they deserve to be remembered, if for nothing else, for their play on the Elks initials B.P.O.E. to name their liquor B.W.O.E — “Best Whiskey on Earth.”

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