Monday, February 27, 2017

Off the Beaten Path with Buffalo’s Joseph Dingens

In 1882 Joseph Dingens bought a rundown house on Grand Island in the Niagara River, accessible only by ferry and muddy rutted roads — a place only the adventurous sought out.  As proprietor of the Buffalo liquor house and grocery known as Dingens Bros., however, Joseph was accustomed to veering off familiar pathways:  He had invented a bitters that advertised with a thuggish picture of Napoleon, produced bottles fashioned after banjos;  marketed a bourbon allegedly made on a French recipe, advertised with a trade card entirely in German, and issued a 500-page recipe book for such delicacies as “Ox Cheek Cheese”:  “Directions:  Split an ox head in two, take out the eyes, crack the side bones and lay in water one hour….”

Joseph Dingens was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1836, the son of French immigrants. His father, John, ran a grocery store in Buffalo and his sons were taken into the business as they achieved maturity.  After their father’s death, the brothers about 1870 reorganized into an establishment they called “Dingens Bros”,” advertising as “wholesale liquor dealers and cigar manufacturers.”   Joseph, the oldest, was president, partnered initially with his brothers, Frank and John C. and an outsider, Eugene Bertrand Jr.  

The company initially was established at 77 Main Street, a busy commercial avenue in Buffalo. A small crock, shown here, is one of the artifacts available from those early days, likely used for a line of syrups.  A crude impressed label indicates “Dingens Bros., Wines & Liquors, Ginger Cordials, Syrups, 77 Main St., Buffalo.”

As many liquor dealers were doing, Joseph Dingens early on explored making and marketing a bitters product.  Bitters were popular because, although they delivered plenty of alcohol, they were considered medicine and avoided federal liquor taxes.  He touted his bitters as a remedy for dyspepsia, liver complaint, sea sickness, costiveness [constipation], and ague [malaria].  He called them “Dingens Napoleon Bitters” and chose to advertise them with an unusually brutish portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, shown below.  The French dictator looks as if he is about to order someone beheaded.

Perhaps even more unusual were the bottles in which Dingens chose to sell his Napolean bitters.  They are best described as having a banjo shaped body and a tall “lady’s leg” neck.  Bearing an applied lip and metallic pontil mark, these bottles are found in colors ranging from yellow amber, olive amber, yellow green, smoky clear, aqua,  and, particularly interesting, “lilac amethyst.”  The Ring and Ham Bitters Bottles book list them as very rare and they are highly sought by collectors.  On most the original paper labels have long since been washed away but where they remain the same menacing portrait of Napoleon appears.
The first decade of Dingens Bros. saw a number of changes in the organization.  Frank Dingens left the partnership for other pursuits.  By 1880, Eugene Bertrand had departed, leaving management in the hands of Joseph and his brother, John C. Dingens.  Meanwhile the business was steadily growing, necessitating moves, first to larger quarters at 597 Main Street (1975-1979), shown here, and then to 333 Main Street (1881-1895).
Throughout this period Joseph was having a personal life.  He had married in 1859, his bride Julia Grimard.  Like her husband she had been born in New York of French immigrant parents.  They would have a family of five children, four girls and a boy.  Eventually Joseph would house his brood in a large comfortable home at 166 Park Street, shown here.

Dingens Bros. featured only one proprietary whiskey label.  It was called “Persymons’” and came in both rye and bourbon.  Joseph mixed it up on the premises and offered it to the public as “pure and unprejudicial to the nerves.”  The whiskey was advertised as having come from the recipe of a French distiller named “M. Persymons,” the inventor of a still that removed all unpleasant oils, ethers and acids from the liquor.   Claimed an ad:  “Dingens Bros. of Buffalo, N. Y., in 1871, obtained this secret and the first made Whiskies by this process.”   My research to date has failed to validate the existence of the Frenchman.

Similarly off-beat was an ad by Dingens Bros. for their “hot punches” containing a range of ingredients from arrack and rum to cognac and whiskey.  A trade card describing these products features a variety of devils at work and a text that is entirely in German on front and back.  The headline reads “Gebrauchsanweisung,” meaning “instructions.”

By far the most compelling material published by Dingens Bros. was a 532-page cookbook for preparing “American, French, German, English, Irish and Other National Dishes, Both Costly and Economical.”  In addition to the ox cheek cheese mentioned earlier, the 1882 book described, among other things, how to prepare beef palate,  goat’s feet, hog brains, calf’s head hash, fried turnips and boiled macaroni pudding.  It carried ads for Dingens Bros. and other (non-competing) businesses and may have been given away rather than sold.   In a diary, Joseph recorded receiving his final lot of the second edition of 500 cookbooks in July 1885.

Among the pages was a illustration of the “mammoth grocery” that the Dingens were operating along with their liquor sales.  It stood four stories on a corner where two trolley lines passed.  In April 1894 a major fire broke out at Main and North Division Streets, perhaps started in an printing establishment adjacent to Dingens Bros. By the time the flames were extinguished, the gourmet grocery and liquor house lay in ruins.  Damage equivalent to $1.8 million today was estimated but was said to have been covered by insurance.  Dingens Bros. quickly relocated to 375 Washington Street.  After two years it moved to a final location at 601-603 Main Street.

In 1885, Joseph bought his family a second home on Grand Island.  Shown here, he called it “Red Top.”  At that time he began his diary, now with the Buffalo History Museum, and recorded what it took to reach his new property.  He rode a railroad train to Tonawanda, New York, then hired a boat for a dollar to get out to the island, then walked to the site on muddy, slippery roads.  He found the house rundown but fixable.  It became his family ’s summer home — considerably off the beaten path.

 I cannot resist quoting from Dingens’ diary about another off-beat experience:  “I walked to Military Road…drove to New Road and crossed Two Mile Creek to Kaiser’s where we saw a two-headed calf, a few days old.  Mrs. Kaiser was feeding it.”  I  wonder if Joseph thought back to recipe No. 332 of his cookbook on making “Mock Turtle of Calf’s Head”:  Directions: “Take a calf’s head, split it open….

As the 20th Century dawned things were changing at Dingens Bros.  The fire may have been a disruptive force.  For whatever reasons, the last entry for the company in Buffalo business directories was 1901.  The brothers went their separate ways.  Joseph  partnered with Henry A. Hempel to create a firm known as Hempel & Dingens.  They manufactured specialized furniture for printers.  John C. was listed in directories simply as “broker.”  

In 1907, Joseph died at the age of 71 and was interred in Holy Cross Cemetery, a Catholic burying ground in Erie County.  His wife, Eugenia, joined him there 19 years later.  Even in death Joseph eschewed the familiar.  Note here the Dingen cemetery monument.  No tall marble statue or massive granite plinth; rather a craggy boulder stands over family graves with “Dingens” in carved relief.

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