Friday, July 14, 2017

When the Wolf at the Door Brought Whiskey

“The wolf at the door”  is a common American idiom for the privation, including starvation, that can occur when a household lacks financial means.   When this particular Wolf — Wolf Dworkovitz — was at the door, however, it meant that the postman had just brought a fresh supply of mail-order liquor from Kansas City, Missouri.

Dworkovitz had a an excellent location from which to dispatch his whiskey and other alcoholic products.  A number of Western bodies charged with writing a state constitution had been taken over by prohibitionary elements who wrote into them anti-alcohol provisions.  Still other states through their  legislatures and referenda had adopted the “dry” position.   Until 1914, however, it was still legal to ship booze into every state and territory, regardless of its orientation.  As a railroad hub, Kansas City was perfectly placed for the mail order liquor trade.
Dworkovitz indicated in his ads that he was sending whiskey into both “dry” and “wet” states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida,  Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming and Washington.    Four quarts of “Wolf’s Private Stock Whiskey” could be had for $4.00, with a bottle of “Wolf’s Superior” and “Wolf’s Favorite” thrown in for free.
In his “Special Offer No. 2” the proprietor for $5.00 would send four quarts of “Wolf’s Autograph,” one quart of “Wolf’s Favorite,” and two quarts of cordials, apricot and blackberry, and a quart of California port wine.  All this would have express charges pre-paid and Dworkovitz would throw in a free whiskey shot glass and a cork screw.  Who could resist such a deal?

Wolf Dworkovitz was born in Germany about 1872 and came to the United States as a young man.  He first appeared in Kansas City directories as a 17-year-old bartender working for J. Joffee in his saloon and living in a rooming house.  After being naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1892, he opened up a saloon of his own at 335 Southwest Boulevard.   He called it “Wolf’s Place.”  By 1905, likely needing larger quarters, he moved his establishment to 117 West Ninth Street and the following year opened a second saloon at 1213 Grand Avenue.

In the meantime, Wolf had found time to marry.  His bride was Susie Goldman, born in Ohio of Russian Jewish immigrant parents.  He was 28;  she was 24. They were married by Rabbi Harry H. Mayer on February 20, 1900  at his synagogue at Oak and Eleventh Streets.   Their first child, Josephine, was soon born, followed eight years later by a second daughter, Miriam. 

About 1914 Dworkovitz rather abruptly changed direction with his liquor business.  Perhaps it was the responsibility of a growing family and recognition that an opportunity lay in mail order sales of liquor that was significantly more profitable than selling shots for dimes over the bar.  In succession, both his Grand Avenue and West Ninth Street saloons disappeared from Kansas City directories.  In their place at 115 West Ninth Street was “Wolf’s Famous Distilling Company.”  An artist’s drawing seems to indicate that the place operated around the clock.

In actual fact, Dworkovitz was not a distiller, but a “rectifier,” mixing a variety of whiskeys to achieve a particular taste, smoothness and color.   Although he might advertise “Wolf Springs Straight Whiskey” as “unadulterated, no spirits, no coloring,”  it did not guarantee that this brand was from a single batch and that no blending had occurred.   

He also strongly advertised that his whiskey, having been bottled in bond and bearing the green tax stamps meant “that your government has approved this barrel of straight whiskey.”  In truth, the stamps meant only that the taxes had been paid and had no bearing on quality.  Nevertheless, Dworkovitz had no compunction about showing Uncle Sam on a trade sign for “Wolf’s Monogram Whiskey” asserting “That stamp means quality, strength, purity.”

Despite the enthusiasm of his advertising, the reality was that Wolf had come a bit late to the mail order whiskey trade.   Increasingly the railroad express option, using the many trains originating in or running through Kansas City, was constricting.  Because of harassment by local officials in dry towns, counties and states, local express agents were refusing to accept liquor shipments.  More important the U.S. Congress was passing laws narrowing the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution where alcohol was involved.

By 1916, Dworkovitz’s outstate mail order business was at a virtual end.  Even in still wet states like California and Florida, certain towns and counties would be off limits under “local option” laws.  Missouri, however, continued to be reliably open to liquor sales.  Nevertheless, Wolf decided to diversify.   By 1919, he had opened a restaurant at his former Grand Avenue address.  That eatery subsequently was followed by his opening a soft drink bottling plant.

Nonetheless, when queried by the Federal census taker in 1920 as to his occupation, the answer was “liquor house.”  That census found Dworkovitz living in Ward 10 of Kansas City at 2515 Benton Boulevard, the house shown here.  In addition to his wife, Susie, and two daughters, the household included Susie’s mother, Anna Goldman, and Susie’s unmarried brothers, George, a jeweler, and Abe, a doctor.  Three live-in servants, one of them listed as a “telephone operator,” completed the residents.

With the imposition of National Prohibition, Wolf’s Famous Distilling Company was forced to shut down.  After 1920,  Dworkovitz and his family disappeared from Kansas City directories.  Since Wolf was only 48 at the time the assumption must be that he continued to be in business, but I can find no record of his further activity in city directories. 
I am hopeful that descendants will see this vignette and help fill in the blanks.   

We are left with the “giveaways” and colorful — if sometimes exaggerated — sales materials Wolf Dworkovitz left behind. Shown below, the building that once held his mail order liquor house still stands in Kansas City.

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