Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Frisco’s Rothenbergs Ran with “The Old Judge”

When Shakespeare has Juliet intone to Romeo, “What’s in a name?,”  he was blissfully unaware of the confusions, collisions, and conflicts that would characterize the pre-Prohibition liquor trade over the name of a whiskey.  Among brands, the history of the “The Old Judge,” is among the most convoluted.   That background failed to bothered the Rothenbergs of San Francisco:   When the family acquired rights to “The Old Judge,” they ran with the name and never looked back.  

The Old Judge brand is said to have originated on whiskey in 1857, a product of M.T. Mitchell distillery of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.  Another source claims that the name had been used since 1866 by Emil Stern's Son & Co. of New York City. On the West Coast a short-lived San Francisco liquor house named Kane, O’Leary & Company in 1881 were granted a federal trademark for “The Old Judge.”  Perhaps as part of a bankruptcy,  that company apparently transferred ownership of the brand to another Frisco liquor house, Newmark, Gruenberg & Co., that trademarked the label again a year later under its own name.  Subsequently those partners split and Max Gruenberg became sole proprietor.

Throughout this period a facility was operating near Frankfort, at Benson Creek, Kentucky, known in federal parlance as Distillery No. 11, 7th District, and popularly as “The Old Judge Distillery.”  It was acquired in 1899 by S.C. Herbst, a Milwaukee liquor wholesaler who then issued an Old Judge bourbon.  Just a short time later the Rothenbergs come on the scene.

The confusion carries forward with this family.  An article in “Bottles and Extras” in 2005 claimed that Sara Rothenberg with a son, Samual (sic), opened a liquor store in Oakland, California, in 1887 and a year later bought out Gruenberg at 525 Front Street in San Francisco.  My research indicates a considerably different story.  Sara was the wife of Louis Rothenberg who founded the Oakland operation under his wife’s name as “S.B. Rothenberg & Co.”  She was active in the firm as a director and trademarks were applied for in her name, but husband Louis was running the liquor house.  Nor did the Rothenbergs buy out Max Gruenberg who continued to operate at the Front St. address until at least 1896.  What the family apparently bought from Max was the The Old Judge brand name.

Once owning the rights to the name, the Rothenbergs made it their flagship and in 1902 trademarked it in their own name.   While featuring other labels, including “Quaker Club” and “Rosemond,” the company’s full attention was given to advertising and marketing Old Judge.   Key to the Rothenbergs’ merchandising were giveaway items to customers like saloons, restaurants and hotels featuring their whiskey, particularly gifting colorful serving and tip trays.  Tray bottoms were clear about the source.

Back-of-the-bar bottles were also a favorite giveaway item.  They came to the customer filled and after being empty, expectation was they would be refilled with Old Judge.  Far too often, however, bartenders would refill them with substandard, cheap whiskey and charge premium prices.  That practice caused them to be banned from bar shelves in 1934 as part of Repeal legislation.

The company also advertised through shot glasses.  Less costly to produce than the lithographed trays and back-of-the-bar bottles, these items also might be handed out to retail customers to remind them to buy Old Judge.  The lithographed cardboard sign below indicates that the Rothenbergs were capable of catching popular scenes of the times to aid Old Judge sales. It is a 17 and 1/8th by 12 and 1/2 inch saloon sign.  On hefty 7/8th of an inch thick cardboard, a color lithograph celebrates May 1, 1898 when Admiral Dewey caught the antiquated Spanish fleet at anchor in Manila Bay and destroyed it in the ensuing battle.

Clearly the most unusual item given away by the Rothenbergs was a heavy black iron daschund foot scraper.  Many streets in San Francisco remained unpaved in the late 1800s, exposing what locals call “Bay mud,” consisting of thick deposits of soft, water-saturated clay.  When it rained, this soil stuck insistently to shoes and might be tracked by customers into local drinking establishments.  An Old Judge foot scraper might have been a welcome addition to any Frisco saloon.

As they prospered, the Rothenberg household grew.  The 1900 Census found them living at 2421 Washington Street in San Francisco.  Louis was 44 years old, born in Germany.   Sara was 12 years younger, born in England of German parentage.  The couple had been married for 14 years.  Their children were two:  Sanford, age thirteen and Madeline, nine.  Also in the household was an Irish maid and Henry Rothenberg, Louis’ younger brother, who was working as a traveling salesman for the liquor house.  When the company incorporated the same year at $150,000 (roughly equivalent to $3.3. million today), Louis, Sara and Henry were principals.

Son Sanford  grew to maturity and was brought into the liquor house initially as a clerk.  The young man, however, had other ideas and hankered for a life on the stage.  He made his vaudeville debut in 1910 to audience acclaim and by 1916, using “Sandy Roth” as his stage name, had joined the movie industry where he was playing bit parts in films as well as serving in production roles.  “Sandy” has earned a brief biography on Wikipedia.

Symbolic of the wealth that sales of Old Judge were bringing the family was the purchase by Louis of an obsolete Navy tender, called “Prairie,” built during the Spanish-American War.  He paid $22,666.66 (equivalent today to almost a half million dollars) for the ship, a vessel large enough to hold dozens of Rothenberg relatives and friends on joy rides around San Francisco Bay.  

As prohibitionary laws mounted in localities and states where Old Judge had been a best seller, the Rothenbergs began to experience financial difficulties.  When a creditor pressed to collect a loan, Louis, ignoring California law, dissolved the corporation without seeking a vote of all stockholders.  Instead he transferred the entire assets of the business to his own account and continued to operate.  A California appeals court took a dim view of this gambit and found for the creditor.

With the coming of National Prohibition, the Rothenbergs were forced to shut the doors on their liquor business.  The 1920 census lists Louis, now sixty years old, as “retired,” living with Sara and Sanford.  There the trail ends as I have been unable to track the family further.  It is my hope that some sharp-eyed relative will stumble on this vignette and help fill in the blanks.  The many Old Judge artifacts the Rodenbergs have given to posterity deserve nothing less than to know how the story ends.

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