The Muehleisen, William Sr. and William Jr., father and son, were proprietors of one of Washington, D.C., best known and most prosperous liquor businesses until Congress in a fit of political correctness voted the District “dry” and the son gravitated to running one of the more unusual banking institutions in the history of the Nation’s Capital.
William Muehleisen Sr. was born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1840 or 1841, sources differ. The name means “mill iron.” At the age of 15, in 1855 he emigrated to the United States, settling in the District of Columbia. According to a biographer, he “engaged in the liquor business in early life,”
likely working for one of the local wholesale houses.
About 1867, in the wake of the Civil War, Muehleisen Sr. struck out on his own, establishing himself as an importer and dealer in foreign and domestic wines and liquors at 918 Fifth Street, NW. During the conflict the Nation’s Capitol had swelled with population as the war effort brought tens of thousands of newcomers to the area. Muehleisen’s business flourished under peacetime conditions. He also linked with Christian Xander to open a wine-oriented store on Massachusetts Avenue between Seventh and Eighth Streets N.W., a partnership that was dissolved after three years. [See my post on Xander, January 2014.]
During this period William Sr. was pursuing a personal life. About 1867 he married Louisa, who like himself was a immigrant. She had come to the United States from Germany with family members in 1860 as a 12-year-old girl and was under 20 when they married, seven years younger than her husband. Over the next 15 years they would have five children, two boys and three girls. The eldest they named William Jr., born in 1868 in the District.
Through ensuing years Muehleisen Sr. continued to prosper in the liquor trade, eventually outgrowing his first store and in 1897 building a new one next door at 916 Fifth Street N.W.. This was a three-story brick structure measuring 22 by 90 feet with a cellar extending its entire length, reported to feature the latest in lighting and ventilation equipment. The first floor held Muehleisen’s salesrooms and offices, the upper floors stored his stock of “bourbon and rye whiskies, foreign and domestic wines, and mineral waters, including the most popular brands of each.” By this time, his son, William Jr., had been brought into the business.
In addition to selling nationally known liquors, the Muehleisens were “rectifying” their own brands of rye and sour mash whiskey, that is, blending raw whiskeys to achieve particular taste and color. In contrast to others in the trade who hid their rectifying, the Muehleisens trumpeted the fact in their ads. Their flagship proprietary brand was “Oakmont,” a label trademarked in 1901. As shown here, they packaged some whiskey in “coffin” shaped amber bottles with the family monogram embossed on the front.
Just two years after moving into the new company quarters, William Sr. died and was buried in Washington’s Prospect Hill Cemetery. “Historical Sketches of the Capital City of Our Country” (1887) said of Muehleisen Sr: “His long experience and practical sense has placed him prominently among the successful business men of Washington.”
Willliam Jr. now was at the controls of Wm. Muehleisen Company. The 1900 Census found him, now 31 years old and still single, living with his widowed mother and a sister, Caroline. Also with them, age 20, was J. Alwin Muehleisen, a brother who was working for William Jr. as the liquor store bookkeeper.
It is worth taking a closer look at the the Oakmont bottles shown above. To a certain extend they can be dated by the message contained on the labels. One I consider likely to be the earliest indicates that the whiskey therein had been bottled under the personal supervision of the Muehleisens. They warn if the seal is broken, its “purity” may be in jeopardy. With the passage of the Food and Drug Act of 1906 the message was altered to add that the whiskey was guaranteed under the Act.
Many rectifiers were making that assertion, a claim being challenged by Kentucky bourbon distillers and, more importantly, by the federal officials who were responsible for enforcing the Act. The third bottle marks another change. Gone is the reference to the Food and Drug Act and in its place “Contents One Pint” another requirement being enforced on liquor bottlers. My guess is that selling whiskey in Washington, D.C. and co-existing in town with food and drug authorities, Muehleisen Jr. was reacting to official pressures.
On the personal side, William Jr. continued to live with his mother until she died in 1913. Louisa’s death notice indicated that she had been active in the D.C. community as a board director of the German Orphans Asylum and president of the Ladies Aid Society of the First Reformed Church, obviously a denomination not opposed to alcohol. William Jr. continued to be a bachelor until at the age of 53 in 1922 he married Adelaide, a woman born in Kentucky of native Kentuckians, who was eleven years his junior.
Muehleisen Jr. bought Adelaide a mansion in a row of mansions on North Sixteenth Street in Washington. By this time he had left the liquor trade, a wealthy man, forced out by the District-wide 1917 ban on alcohol. His transition from liquor to liquidity seems to have been an effortless one. He founded a bank. A 1921 D.C. business directory listed him as president of the Mount Vernon Savings Bank, located in the International Machinists Building at 9th St. and Mount Vernon Place, N.W. Shown below, the building later was demolished.
As related in an historical account of D.C. banks, Muehleisen’s financial institution was an unusual one, aimed at a special group of customers, in this case the working class. It is regarded as the first bank in the U.S. in which a labor union owned a large bloc of the stock, apparently purchased from Muehleisen Jr. Known as a “labor bank,” its original purpose was to secure a larger return on worker money than other banks were providing. Mount Vernon Saving Bank paid three percent on savings and four percent on certificates of deposit. Eventually the rationale of the institution was expanded to protecting the gains of organized labor and helping friendly employers during a strike. The bank also worked closely with credit unions, holding their deposits and extending them loans.
Even after relinquishing the presidency of Mount Vernon Savings, Muehleisen Jr. stayed on as a director, listed as late as 1828 as among their number. The coming of the Great Depression, however, had a negative effect on this unusual financial institution as many small borrowers were forced to default on loans. The bank went out of business in the early 1930s. William Muehleisen Jr. died in his mansion home on Sixteen Street in September 1942. He was buried with is father and other family members in Prospect Hill Cemetery. The Muehleisen monument is shown here.
While combining liquor sales and banking was not completely unknown in the pre-Prohibition era, Washington, D.C., was particularly fertile grounds for both occupations, with whiskey and money flowing freely. That environment allowed the two Muehleisens to make the most of their liquid assets for three quarters of a century.
Note: All the photographs of bottles included in this article are through the courtesy of Dr. Richard Lilienthal, a premier collector of Washington area bottles.