Friday, September 16, 2011

George W. Meredith -- From Orphan Boy to Medicine Man

Some of whiskiana’s most interesting containers and advertising might not ever have existed if it had not been for the initiative of a orphaned and virtually unschooled pottery worker who rose to fame and fortune in Ohio by selling liquor and calling it medicine. His name was George W. Meredith.

The story begins in Utica, New York, where Meredith was born in April 1850, the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Meredith. Not long after the family moved to Trenton, New Jersey in 1852, Thomas died. Elizabeth soon followed him to the grave, leaving George a orphan from boyhood. The youth soon abandoned school to learn a trade as a potter and in 1877 moved to East Liverpool, Ohio.

During the late 19th and early 20th Century this town on the Ohio River was America’s largest producer of ceramic table and vanity wares. Known widely as “Crockery City,” in 1887 East Liverpool boasted 270 kilns and annually produced ceramic products valued at $25 million -- in a time when 25 cents would buy dinner. The largest pottery in town was KT&K -- Knowles, Taylor & Knowles, founded in 1854.

After a year working for a small pottery operation, Meredith in 1878 joined KT&K, working in one of the lowlier jobs -- as a jiggerman. This was the relatively unskilled the laborer who turned the potter’s wheel to shape the clay. But the occupation did not suit Meredith and may even have injured his health. After a little more than two years he left the factory, ostensibly on his doctor’s recommendation.

Almost immediately this 30-year-old determined that a far better occupation was making and selling whiskey. The late 19th century was a time when saloons were opening in every city and town. They did not lack for customers. Lots of folks were going into the whiskey business, many as rectifiers -- operations that refined and blended liquors made by others. Meredith was a rectifier. He rented a storeroom in downtown East Liverpool and with one employee began buying grain neutral spirits in large quantities and blending his own brands, adding color and flavoring.

It soon became clear that despite his lack of book learning, Meredith had a real genius for marketing his whiskey. Early on, for example, he called his principal brand “Meredith’s Diamond Club Rye.” Diamond Club was the name of East Liverpool’s most prestigious grouping of businessmen. It took lots of nerve for Meredith to associate his liquor with the club and his use of the name raised considerable ruckus around town. Before long, however, Diamond Club whiskey was a big seller, not only in East Liverpool, but in Ohio, and eventually across America. Eventually the businessmen’s club surrendered and changed its name to “Buckeye Club.”

Key to the popularity of his whiskey were Meredith’s advertising campaigns. His signs were painted on barn sides and rock outcroppings for miles around East Liverpool. He maintained a boat that was moored on the Ohio River and carried a mural advertising his products. One hot August day he even distributed hand fans to Temperance marchers that had an plug for his whiskey printed on the back.

Meredith’s knack for publicity was matched by the themes of his advertising. His newspaper ads and container labels insisted that the whiskey was “pure,” once again exhibiting his merchandising savvy. The hottest consumer issue of the decade was the safety of merchandised food and drink products. The Pure Food and Drug Act would be enacted a several years later and “purity” had the same draw as “all natural” does today. Diamond Club’s purity, Meredith announced, made it “the safest whiskey on earth” for medical purposes. He claimed that one “nip” was worth 10 doses of medicine and boasted that his liquor had been “officially recognized” by the medical profession. How and where, he did not elaborate.

By stressing his whiskey’s therapeutic rather than its lubricating qualities Meredith also was attempting to circumvent the burgeoning Temperance Movement. The business of selling “the safest whiskey on earth for medicinal use” expanded rapidly. Within a decade Meredith was one of North America’s largest whiskey distributors, serving a clientele, as he put it, “from Maine to California and Canada to the Gulf.”

This canny, self-promoting businessman also saw the customer appeal that bottling his whiskey in a whiteware china jug might have. He talked his former employers at KT&K into shaping a distinctive container, one with a graceful tapering body, a serpent handle, a fancy over-glaze label and plenty of gold trimming. On April 4, 1891, the East Liverpool DAILY CRISIS ran an ad stating: “The G.W. Meredith Co. is offering its Diamond Club Pure Rye Whiskey in china jugs that will come in three sizes.” The KT&K whiskey jug was launched -- every one of the bearing the message: “Expressly for Medicinal Purposes.”

Before long the white jug with the serpent handle had become an important product of the pottery. Other whiskey distillers and distributors saw that the containers were attractive and commissioned KT&K to apply their labels. Nonetheless, George Meredith remained KT&K’s best customer. In addition to the three sizes of Diamond Club available -- quart, pint and half-pint -- he ordered a non-pouring one & one-half inch advertising replica that could be used as a watch fob. He also approved a totally different design for an “1880” Meredith Rye.

As Meredith grew in wealth and prestige, he branched out in East Liverpool, organizing and becoming principal stockholder in the Crockery City Brewing & Ice Company. He also helped found the Colonial Company, a pottery with six kilns. But the town he had adopted as his own ultimately disappointed him. In 1907 the Temperance marchers had their way when East Liverpool by local option voted itself dry.

Meredith retaliated by eliminating the town name from his bottles and jugs. One such is shown here. In 1908 he moved his operations to Pittsburgh. After National Prohibition wiped out his liquor business there in 1920, he migrated to Atlantic City, N.J., where he is said to have made another fortune in real estate. He also bottled a soft drink called “Whistle,” an orange-flavored beverage that had been invented in St. Louis just as Prohibition began. He died in Atlantic City in 1924 at the age of 74.

George Meredith’s legacy, however, remains with us in the ceramic jugs and other advertising items he generated and left behind, some of which are shown here. His was a true “rags to riches” story that deserves retelling at least as long as the containers and artifacts he commissioned are collected. And that should be a long time.

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