Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Tragers Had a Taste for the Titillating

In the highly competitive world of the Cincinnati wholesale liquor trade, It was necessary for proprietors to stand out from the crowd.  The strategy chosen by Isadore Trager and his two sons, Isaac Newton Trager and James Garfield Trager, was to emphasize the risqué in their advertising.  Hence the revealing portrait of the “Cream of Kentucky Girl” whose winsome features on a metal tray were given away to good customers and meant to be affixed to saloon walls.

Cream of Kentucky Whiskey was the flagship Trager brand.  While they recommended it for “family, medicinal, and sideboard purposes,” their advertising suggested its utility for less open activities.  Shown here is a trade card that when closed, has two chambermaids listening at what is happening inside “Parlor C.”  When opened it reveals quite a party going on inside. 


With the caption “Have a drink of Cream of Kentucky on me,” the scene is of three men and three women, all but one drinking whiskey.  The exception is a man on the right who either is about to strangle a woman holding a glass or, more likely, embrace her.  At center is a man pouring a whiskey and offering more to a women who, scandal of scandals, is smoking a cigarette.  At left is a woman in a provocative pose and a man — my goodness, where is his left hand resting?

Another boudoir scene marks the cover of a Trager pamphlet entitled “Famous Paintings.”  The introduction provides a clue to the contents: “Who does not…admire a pretty women and relish a drink of good whiskey. To those who do, this book is respectfully dedicated and the publishers trust they will find many moments of pleasure from its perusal.”  

A catalogue of the liquor house products, the publication also includes a number of black and white photographs of nudes from paintings known as “salon art,” fashionable in Europe in the 19th Century.  At left is “Diana” by Louis J. M. Perrey, a Frenchman born in 1856.  At right is “Flora,” the work of Max Nonnenbruch, a German, born in 1857.

As ad men say, “sex sells” and the Tragers seemed to have profited thereby.  Their firm originated about 1887 and operated profitably until shut down by Ohio prohibition in 1918.  The founding father, Isadore Trager, born in 1846 in Elberfeld, Germany, was brought to the U.S. by his family when he was six years old.  The family settled in Louisville, Kentucky, where Isadore was educated in the local schools and at an early age went to work, likely in one of the many distilleries or liquor houses in that city.  By 1870, however, he had moved to Cincinnati.

In February 1877 Trager married Katherine “Kate” Hirschfield, born in Tennessee of German immigrant parents.  He was 31, she was 23.  They would have five children, three girls and two boys.  Perhaps as a result of his growing family responsibilities, in 1887 Trager with a partner struck out on his own, opening a liquor wholesale business at 103 Sycamore in Cincinnati.  Needing more space as business grew, the company moved to 327 Walnut and finally in 1906 to a six-story headquarters at 317-321 East Eighth Street, shown here.

In addition to “Cream of Kentucky,” the Trager featured a number of other brands, including:  “Black Warrior,” “Creme De La Creme,” “Deerfield,”  “Edgemont,” "Forest Hollow,” "Old Colony Club,” "Tulip Rose,” ”Union Rye,”  and "Youghiogheny Malt.”  Some of these labels it trademarked:  Cream of Kentucky in 1901 and in 1906, after Congress strengthen the laws, Deerfield, Edgemont, Forest Hollow, and Old Colony Club.

The company merchandised its whiskey in labeled clear and amber bottles, ranging in size from half-pints to quarts.  As can be seen here, below the labels the containers were embossed in the glass with the Trager name and Cincinnati.  Some echoed the claim that I. Trager & Co. was a distiller and the firm often implied owning Distillery No. 10 in the 7th District of Kentucky.  

This was the Peacock Distillery of Bourbon County, founded in 1857.  While Trager may have had a financial interest in this facility, there was no evidence he was the sole proprietor.  He also apparently was getting supplies from the Old Darling distillery in Prestonville, Kentucky owned by Elias Block & Sons.  In truth, the company was “rectifying” (blending) whiskey obtained from these and other sources.

Being competitive in the Cincinnati market required more than sexual innuendo.  Wholesale liquor houses had to gift its customers with advertising items such as back-of-the-bar bottles and most particularly shot glasses.  Just a few examples of the Trager output are shown here.

As Isadore’s two sons reached maturity the father brought them into his wholesale liquor business:  J. Garfield as company bookkeeper and I. Newton likely as a traveling salesman.  In the 1910 census, Isadore and Kate were living in their mansion home, shown below, with son J. Garfield, a daughter, Elina, a German housemaid and an Irish cook.  Clearly the strategies employed to stand out among the liquor competition had paid off.

The 1910 census would be Isadore’s last.  He died in July of that year and was buried in the Walnut Hills United Jewish Cemetery.  I. Newton Trager took over as president of the liquor house that continued to bear their father’s name.  J. Garfield Trager was the treasurer.  Together they managed the firm their father had built until forced to shut the doors after Ohio voted statewide prohibition in 1916.  Despite that unfortunate ending, the Tragers have left us artifacts from which future generations, as their advertising promised, can “find many moments of pleasure….”

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