Friday, November 10, 2017

The Weis Men of Milwaukee and Their Artifacts

Sometimes the most memorable part of a liquor house is not the whiskey men who founded and operated it, but the out-of-the-ordinary artifacts they produced and left behind.  So it seems with the Weis brothers, Carl and William, who seem to have originated more than a few articles of above-average interest.

Note for example, their delivery wagon above.  Many liquor companies had such conveyances and some have been shown on previous posts.  Most often they were strictly utilitarian with little or no ornamentation.  By contrast the Weis Bros. van is covered with colorful cotton drapery with a scalloped fringe on top and the name prominently emblazoned on a lacquered fender.  The front held another design.  This wagon would have drawn notice as it clattered through the streets of Milwaukee.

Carl and William Weis were relative latecomers to town.  They were born in Germany, Carl in 1841 and William in 1845, and emigrated from their homeland as young men in 1868.  They arrived in Milwaukee eleven years later, their earlier locations and occupations unrecorded, but almost certainly already accomplished in the whiskey trade.  An 1896 biography of their firm noted that they had started their liquor house almost immediately upon their arrival in town, adding:  “…From the start [they] met the most advanced requirements of the trade, thus developing a widely extended and growing patronage.”  Their sales area was said to include not only Wisconsin but states in the Upper Midwest and as distant as the Dakotas and Montana.

Located at 383 East Water Street, their business occupied a four story and basement building, with access to the cellars of two adjoining buildings. It gave the Weises the space to store not only leading national brands but also to blend (“rectify”) their own proprietary brands, including "Balmoral Club,” "Crawford", "Fox Lake,” Mountain Cave,” ”Old Bedford,” "Old Norman,” “Policy.” and "Tom Cooper.”  Their biographer in the volume Milwaukee-A Half Century of Progress (1896) enthused:  “It is a matter of record that the best whiskies…are difficult to secure in ordinary trade.  The average dealer is not an expert, and it requires the vast experience of a representative firm like Messrs. Weis Brothers to secure in stock the oldest and finest of this, the leading tonic beverage of the age.”

Crawford Handmade Sour Mash Bourbon appears to have been the brothers’ flagship brand.  In keeping with their producing above average artifacts is a back- of-the-bar bottle advertising that brand.  Note that it bears a label under glass, a relatively pricey giveaway to saloons and hotel bars featuring Weis liquor.  A decanter type bottle of the same purpose bears the company name in Gothic letters.

Weis Bros. was also unusual in Milwaukee as one of only a handful of whiskey wholesalers to feature a brand of bitters, in this case Knickerbocker Stomach Bitters.  Although highly alcoholic, bitters were marketed as medicinals, a designation that also lowered the amount of federal taxes  The Weis’ sign for the nostrum is both colorful and interesting, featuring a chubby German contemplating a glass while a cross-eyed dog sits at his feet.

The attempt at novelty extended to the bottles in which the brothers sold Kickerbocker Bitters.  As shown here, it was amber and held a “slab seal” that contained label information.   While slab seals were common in an earlier day before embossing was possible on the body of a glass bottle, by the time Weis Bros. was in business, they were considered an additional expense and little used.  Thelr seals were well realized and additional testimony to the good taste of the proprietors.  

Although Weis Bros. may have been the only liquor wholesaler to employ slab seals, it faced stiff challenges from its competitors.  Milwaukee was replete with liquor dealers providing advertising shot glasses to favored customers.  Shown here are two examples of the brothers’ offerings.  Both are etched, with good if not out of the ordinary designs. 

After about twenty years heading the business, Carl Weis appears to have left its active operations in 1898.  Business directories the following year listed only William and a manager.  Carl, who appears never to have married, was living with William and his family, one that included a wife, Anna, and a daughter, Louisa.  Carl’s interest apparently had become literary; he had invested in and become president of C. N. Caspar, a well-known Milwaukee bookstore that also published a variety of guidebooks and maps of city streets.

By 1912, William also had retired from the liquor business, the brothers selling out to a group of local investors who kept the well-respected Weis name.  Both brothers spent long lives in retirement.  Carl died in June 1921 at the age of 80, long enough to see National Prohibition shut down for good the company he had co-founded.  William, age 82, died in  March 1928.  The brothers are buried in adjacent graves in Section 47 of Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery.  Their legacy remains in the well-designed and attractive artifacts they left behind.

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