Monday, July 23, 2012

John Lutgen of San Francisco: Unshaken by Quaking

   John Lutgen and his whiskey company had gone from success to success in  San Francisco,  moving each time to larger quarters and in 1906 occupied a spacious building at 29-31 Battery Street. A local writer had opined : "Their trade has been prosperous from the start, and has since extended not only throughout the State, but also throughout the coast, their establishment being one of the representative liquor houses of the Golden Gate City."  At 5:12 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, April 18, 1906,  one of the greatest natural disasters in American history struck San Francisco and all that changed radically.

Before describing its effects on Lutgen, it is important understand where he came from and who he was.  John was born in 1847 near Bremen Germany, the eldest son of Henry and Oddeli Bottger Lutgen. When he was 11 years old his father died and as the oldest, he was left to carry on the family.  As soon as he reached 19 he left Germany, braved an often treacherous ocean crossing and went to work in New York City. After two years in the Big Apple,  probably  clerking in a store, he set out for California, arriving via the Panama Canal.  He quickly got a job with San Francisco grocery where he labored for six years, learning the retail trade.

By 1871 Lutgen had saved enough money to think about settling down and taking a wife.   He was married that year in San Francisco to Miss Sofia Borman, like himself a native of Germany.  They would have four children,  two girls and two boys.  Tragically both sons, named Henry and John, died during childhood.

In 1877,  Lutgen teamed up with another German immigrant from Hanover, two years his senior, named Henry Wichman.   Described by contemporaries as “of medium size, fair and rather heavy set and reserved and quiet,”   Wichman appears to have been an excellent foil for the more flamboyant and outgoing Lutgen.  They called their firm the Wichman, Lutgen & Company, the name it bore until its demise.

With only modest amounts to invest, their first location was a store front at 809 Montgomery Street, described as an “out the way” district of San Francisco.  They remained at that address for two years then relocated to 321 Clay Street.  Those quarters soon became too small and in 1879 the partners moved across the street to 318-320 Clay, between Front and Bradley, as  noted here on a 1891 trade card.  The card identifies the firm as importers of wines and liquors and manufacturers of Dr. Forester’s Alpine Stomach Bitters.

The Wichman, Lutgen Company featured Gilt Edge Whiskey as its flagship label and merchandised it as Kentucky bourbon,  My surmise is that the partners were rectifiers, that is, blenders of whiskey and that Gilt Edge was a blend.  In 1899 they trademarked the name, one that earlier had been used by an Illinois outfit.  They bottled Gilt Edge in clear glass flasks and in amber bottles, both painted and embossed.   Lutgen showed a flair for merchandising,  featuring fetching women on advertising signs for his whiskey and at least once, shown here, giving advertising space to a local shoe store.  Fancy monogramed shot glasses were another giveaway item to customers.

In 1904, the firm incorporated with a value of $250,00, several million dollars by today’s reckoning.  Each partner received 3,998 shares, valued at $25 each.  About the same time, once again needing more space, the company moved to the Battery Street address.  The number of brands emanating from the firm continued to expand.  Among them were "Autocrat,” "Foerster's Whiskey Co.,” "Forest Lawn,” "Forester's Malt Whiskey,” "Forrest Lawn Whiskey,” "H & H,” "Identical,” "Marin County Club Bourbon,” "Marin County Club Special,” "Old Identical,” "Pomona,”"Romona,” "Silver Edge,”"Silver Plover,” and "Silver Plover Gin.”

Increasingly John Lutgen was being recognized as a major figure in the community.   He lived in the nearby suburb of Alameda where he owned, as one observer said “a beautiful residence on Santa Clara avenue, a neat cottage of modern architecture surrounded by a beautiful lawn set to shrubbery and flowers.”  He was a member of the Board of Library Trustees in Alameda and active in several German benevolent societies and Masonic orders.  Although Lutgen and wife Sophia must have mourned the loss of their sons,  their daughters grew to maturity and married well.  One son-in-law,  Frederick Staude, was taken into the firm and listed as its Secretary/Treasurer.  Life was being good to the Lutgens.

Then came that fateful morning in 1906.  Within 30 hours of the earthquake’s first jolt, a firestorm consumed much of San Francisco as an inferno swept through the city for three days. In all, more than 3,000 people died. Twenty-eight thousand buildings were destroyed over 500 blocks of San Francisco.  Property damage has been estimated at $235–500 million in 1906 dollars — equivalent to the entire 1906 Federal budget.  Today the amount would be between $4.8 and $10 billion.  Among buildings destroyed was the Battery Street structure housing the Wichman, Lutgen Company.  Going up in flames as well were thousands of barrels and cases of whiskey, the firm’s records and all its equipment.

if Lutgen was tempted to quit, he gave no indication.  Almost immediately he made plans to relocate the company into temporary quarters at 431-439 Clay Street  to carry on the whiskey trade.  Meanwhile he planned, designed, and supervised the construction of a new building at 134 Sacramento Street.   The company moved there in 1911, its final home. Meanwhile its whiskey trade recovered gradually in the wake of the quake and fire. Wichman retired from the firm and Staude moved up the management ladder.  In a January 1913 trade magazine,  Lutgen reported that 1912 had been a very good business year compared to 1911.  Despite the “drying up” of certain territories, through an aggressive policy the firm had sold more goods than the prior year.  He said he looked forward to considerably better business in 1913.

Despite his optimism, Lutgen did not survive the year.  In November 1913, at the age of 66,  in apparent good health,  he was stricken following a luncheon and died a few hours later.  At his graveside stood his widow, his two daughters and their families, grieving over his coffin.  Among mourners was his son-in-law,  Frederick Staude, whom Lutgen had groomed as his successor.  Staude would guide the firm for the next six years until it was shut down by Prohibition.

John Lutgen’s obituary, noting that his demise had been “a grievous surprise to everyone,” hailed his heroic post -catastrophe efforts both to construct a new headquarters and greatly to extend and expand the reputation of his firm.  It was reputed to have become one of the leading mercantile houses of the Pacific Coast.  The writer added:  “In the passing away of Mr. Lutgen San Francisco loses one of her old-time merchants, a man who was respected by all for his integrity and loved for his just character.”



  1. Here's a bit more on John Lutgen:

    From "The Bay of San Francisco," Vol. 2, Pages 175-176, Lewis Publishing Co, 1892

    “JOHN LUTGEN, of the firm of Wichman & Lutgen, importers of and dealers in wine and liquors, and manufacturers and proprietors of Dr. Forester’s Alpine Stomach Bitters, 318, 320 and 322 Clay street, San Francisco, was born in Amt, Hagen, Germany, August 8, 1837, the eldest of the nine children of Henry and Oddel Bottger Lutgen, natives also of Germany.”
    “Our subject followed farming until 1866, when he emigrated to America. For two years he was employed in New York, and in 1868 he came to San Francisco, via Panama, and engaged in the grocery business for some six years. Then he formed a partnership in the liquor business, as above stated. Their trade has been prosperous from the start, and has since extended not only throughout the State, but also throughout the coast, their establishment being one of the representative liquor houses of the Golden Gate City.”

    And this, from the From the 1872 San Francisco directory, p.411
    * Lutgen John, (Lutgen & Co. and Lutgen & Meyer), dwl SE cor Harrison and Park Avenue
    * Lutgen & Co., (John Lutgen and John Verdenhalven), groceries and liquors, SE cor Harrison and Park Avenue
    * Lutgen &. Meyer, (John Lutgen & Henry Meyer), groceries and liquors, SW cor Laguna and Hayes

    He also happened to have been the builder of a set of apartment building on Divisadero St, originally designed as a "Rooming House", and built in 1904 at a cost of $2,670.

  2. Here's the page link to the Google eBook version of "The Bay of San Francisco":

    1. Thanks, Chris, for the additional information. Lutgen is an interesting character.

    2. And, just to add a bit more, there was ANOTHER John Lutgen, also in San Francisco, also employed in the libations department, yet seemingly unrelated. I had contacted a relative, and here's the clip (maybe you can help them find him):
      I found this inquiring descendant at, and sent her a bunch of this stuff, She replied back: “not the same Lutgen.”
      "My great grandfather, John Diedrich Lutgens has created quite a challenge to find records regarding his immigration, naturalization and his parents and other ancestors. His death certificate states that he was born in 1859, while most census records state that he was born in 1853 or 1854 with his immigration year as 1874, or 1870, or 1864. Quite a difference!
      According to his death certificate, he was somewhere in America for 7 years before he settled in California for the rest of his life.
      "Hope was renewed when my cousin Judy Crump Murdock had an ancestry DNA test done and a 5th cousin contacted her and did some research that found a Johann Diederich Luetjen that he thought might be him - however Johann was born about 80 years earlier - drat!
      "Anyway, "our" John Lutgens had worked at San Francisco breweries as a driver and indeed drove the old beer wagons with Clydesdales as the "engine". One family story states that his picture was in the deYoung Museum in San Francisco, but because he was German - the picture was removed during World War 2.So great grandfather - show yourself - let us know somehow where you were from and who your parents were - please!"

      --Chris Dichtel

    3. Chris: Thanks for the material on the other "John Lutgen." Have no idea about him or the identical name. My hunch, however, is that if any Lutgen had his picture in the deYoung Museum (which I visited many years ago), then it was "your" John. Jack

  3. See Click the legacy link. Regards, Jerry Wagner

  4. Send me any info on related items. I cannot afford the 20K poster, but I'm interested in bottles, etc. Wichman Lutgen, Gilt Edge, etc.

    1. Jerry: Thanks for your email. Unfortunately I do not have anything to sell. Actually own nothing of Lutgen's artifacts. For the most part I do not sell whiskey related items these days. My activities are largely devoted to writing about the whiskey men who made them.

    2. Don't know how old this is but I just so happened to find one of the bottles that has the company embossed on it everything is intact actually I'm shocked that I didn't break it but I was digging in my backyard and I found it underground with some other random stuff just kind of curious as to know what it's worth if you would like I could send you a picture don't know how to do it on here but please let me know

    3. Anon: A good find. Pre-Prohibition. As for value, that I am not current. Suggest you contact someone in your local bottle club to help you out. Members always are happy to help people out with value questions.

  5. Jack, I should have explained more in my earlier posts to show why I'm so interested. I own the Julia Morgan house (Hearst Castle architect) that Fred Staude, Lutgen's son-in-law, had built in 1910. He became President of the company when Lutgen retired in 1912. Unfortunately Staude jumped in 1920 when prohibition destroyed his livelihood. His widow, Louisa Lutgen, lived here until her death in 1960. Maiden grand daughter, Lucille, until 1964. See the Legacy link at for a history. I found many empty bottles in the basement crawlspace - 1893 Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux, 1865 Julius Laissen Cognac, etc..And one bottle has never been opened; an 1885 Brizard Crème de Menthe. It's about a quarter down from weeping thru the cork and foil. If you'd like photos, let me know. Your research and website is a great resource. I seek any Wichman, Lutgen items your readers may turn up.

  6. Thanks for the further information, Jerry. Your find of bottles was interesting. You might try tasting the Brizard, carefully. It might well be good after all these years. As for obtaining Wichman, Lutgen items, you might try putting search names (e.g. Wichman, Lutgen and Gilt Edge) into an Ebay search. Jack