In 1902, the Pennsburg, Pennsylvania “Town and Country” newspaper, under the headline “Woman Successfully Conducts Liquor Business,” made the following comment: “The history connected with this lady's business career is most interesting. Mrs. Moll, when she took possession of the business, had many obstacles to overcome but, being a woman of wonderful business tact, she bravely fought the many unpleasant features connected with the business and successfully built up a trade far superior to any in this country.” That was Mary Moll, one of a handful of American women who pursued the whiskey trade for an extended period and found success.
Mary Moll’s story begins in the 1880s when Nathaniel B. Moll began a liquor business near Green Lane, a tiny hamlet in the northern regions of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Shown above, despite its rural appearance, Green Lane was a reasonable location for a liquor dealership. It had road and rail access to markets, including the nearby Philadelphia metropolitan area.
Nathaniel was a native Pennsylvanian, born about 1834. My surmise is that early on he worked in agriculture, perhaps pursuing the tradition of the farmer-distiller, so common in that day. His first wife was Sarah, like him a Pennsylvanian by birth. They married when he was about 26 and she was 20. In quick succession, they had three daughters, Alice, Mary Agnes, and Sarah. Perhaps as a result of childbirth, Sarah died in February, 1866, age 25 years, one month and twelve days.
Perhaps looking for a mother for his three young girls, Nathaniel married a second time. This bride was Mary. She too was a native Pennsylvanian, born in 1848, and twelve years younger than her husband. Perhaps they had met through the Friedens Union Church, shown here. The Friedens Church had been organized in 1858 by German-speaking Christians living in Montgomery County. It was a “union” church, serving both Lutheran and German Reformed congregations. Unlike some Protestant denominations, neither group frowned on the consumption of alcohol.
The 1880 federal census found the couple living in Green Lane together. Mary’s occupation was given as “keeping house; Nathaniel’s as “liquor dealer.” He carried on the business successfully for more than another decade, along the way bringing his wife increasingly into the business. Out of his prosperity in the liquor business he built his family a splendid five story house. It is shown here with, I believe, the Molls’ three grown daughters on the balcony at left and Mary, the stepmother, at right.
In September 1891, Nathaniel died and was buried in the Frieden Church Cemetery. His grave marker is shown here. Some wives might have looked to sell her husband’s business to the first bidder. Not so Mary. She set out not only to run the liquor dealership, but also to expand it.
With the Moll girls now grown, Mary was free to travel. Her first instinct was to go on the road as a “drummer,” and give customers and potential customers her personal attention to make sales. The strategy worked and she was credited with ultimately tripling the business. After three years, however, Mary tired of traveling. Looking at the costs-benefits she concluded she could build her trade more effectively by staying home. She advertised widely that she had no agents or traveling men, and never went out herself. By cutting sales expenses and paying no commissions, she contended, she could pass the savings on to her customers. According to the local press: “She now sells her liquors 50 cents a gallon cheaper than when on the road.”
Mrs. Moll did not skimp on things she though were essential to her marketing efforts. Shown below is a clear flask that has her name embossed on it, an added expense for a bottle. She also issued trade cards that depicted a bucolic rural environment, with a stream and a herd of sheep in the background. It likely replicated scenes around Green Lane. These were given out to customers with her advertising on the back.
Mary also believed in selling high grade liquor. According to press accounts, in 1901 she received a shipment of five barrels of whiskey reputed to be twenty years old. After sampling it, she found the quality high and immediately ordered twenty-five more barrels. The product was Pennsylvania rye, made in 1881 that had been sent on a ocean journey to Bremen, Germany in 1894. Not only was the trip — salt air and the rolling motion of the ship — claimed to increase whiskey quality, the move also avoided some federal taxes. Her shipment remained in Germany for six years and then returned by sea to the United States. The local paper reported: “Of the five barrels received by Mrs. Moll when first filled each contained 44 1/2 gallons. When Mrs. Moll received them the barrels contained from 14 to 20 gallons a piece.” The result was reputed to be among the choicest and rarest liquors.
By this time, according to the press, Mary Moll was selling three hundred barrels of whiskey a year. Although not a rectifier, that is a dealer mixing and blending her own brands, she was decanting the barrels into her own embossed glass containers, shown here. That number of barrels would have resulted in 53,400 quarts of whiskey to be sold. Her offerings were almost entirely Pennsylvania distilled rye. A 1900 news story said she had just received in the past two weeks, 211 barrels, “of very pure rye whiskey that was made at three of the best distilleries in the State.” Because she had contracted for this output, the story indicated, she had paid $6,803.32 in federal revenues on those barrels, equivalent to about $170,000 today.
Mrs. Moll’s access to rail lines was a major advantage. Her barrels of whiskey were shipped to her in large lots, reputedly saving her money and allowing her to undersell competitors. She also was able to market her whiskey by rail in crate lots to customers in other parts of Pennsylvania and on the East Coast. The press reported that representatives of the Star Union Railroad Company had visited her at her home and tried to get her to agree to ship her whiskeys exclusively over their line. Her business meant something.
Mary Moll died in Green Lane in 1910 while still running her liquor business. She was 64. That appears to have been the end of the Moll company, there being no one else to take over for her. She was buried in the Friedens Union Church Cemetery, not far from the burial places of Nathaniel Moll and his first wife, Sarah. Her grave marker is shown here.
Fred Minnick has written an interesting book on “Whiskey Women,” detailing the effects that women, past and present, have had on the American liquor trade. Somehow, he overlooked Mary Moll in his otherwise comprehensive treatment of the subject. It was a significant oversight. As one Pennsylvania news outlet commented in 1901: Mrs. Moll is considered to be the most successful liquor dealer in the vicinity,”