Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Gottsteins Challenged “Dry” Washington

“Dry” forces had been gaining strength in the State of Washington for years.  In 1909 under pressure from the Anti-Saloon League, voters passed a “local option” law and followed it in 1914 with a referendum that banned the manufacture and sale of liquor statewide.  While most Washington whiskey men simply shut down, the Gottsteins, Meyer and Kassel, owners of a large Seattle liquor house, refused to give up without a fight. 

The Gottsteins likely were cousins, not brothers.  Meyer was the eldest, born in April 1848, in what was a part of Poland then ruled by Russia, son of Joseph and Augusta (Maroussen) Gottstein.  Kassel was born in 1854, the son of Aaron and Esther Gottstein.  His birthplace is variously given as Germany or Russia.  Meyer at age 17 was the first to emigrate, sailing from Hamberg, Germany in July 1865, accord to a passport application.  He settled initially in Burlington, Iowa, where he became a citizen in 1871, and then moved to Seattle.  Kassel followed in 1879, attaining citizenship in Seattle in 1892.

While Washington was still a territory in 1884, accounted as pioneers, the Gottsteins opened their first liquor house in Seattle.  As Kassel later told a reporter:  “We came across the plains in 1883, before the Northern Pacific was completed, and opened the first wholesale liquor store in Seattle.  We came to Seattle when the town was small and grew up with the people.”  Dealing in liquor, wine and cigars, the company, called “M. & K. Gottstein,” first located at 720 Front Street.  Within ensuing years during which Washington became a state, the partners moved to 205 Commercial Street.

Although Kassel commented to the press that the Gottsteins had gone through some “hard times.” the frequent moves of the firm seem to indicate continuous growth and the need for additional space.  In the 1890s they moved to 610 First Avenue.  Shown above is one of those early Gottstein stores.  My hunch is that among the six men standing in the entrance are Meyer and Kassel.

Meanwhile each man was having a personal life.  In 1889 in Multnomah, Oregon, Meyer at 41 married Rosa Wolf, a woman seventeen years younger than he.  She had been born in California, the child of German immigrants.  In quick succession they would have two children, Gertrude and Joseph. Earlier, in 1873, Kassel had married Rose Morgenstern in Seattle, of a similar age, who had been born in Germany.  They would have five children.

By 1900, apparently needing still more space, M. & K. Gottstein Co., now considered “one of the very considerable wholesale houses in the Northwest,” moved to 108 Yesher Way.  This building, shown above, allowed for considerable advertising, including a large sign depicting a man on horseback, presumably Theodore Roosevelt, advertising “Rough Rider Roosevelt Rye,” a clear effort to profit by the President’s popularity.  The sign was visible for blocks.

The partners reported growing by 25 percent annually and now were accounted the largest liquor dealers in the state. Their sales area included all of Washington and Alaska, and they were beginning to develop customers in Japan.  “They believe thoroughly in expansion,” said a promotional brochure, “and think that with a few years Seattle will be doing a very large trade with all of the principal points in the Orient.”

Continuous expansion caused the partners in 1903 to decide to erect their own building in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square, that once had been the center of the city.  They constructed a five story brick structure known as the Gottstein Building at the corner of Jackson Street and First Avenue South.  It boasted brick walls with a sandstone veneer. They would remain in that building until shut down by prohibition. The Gottstein Building currently is a candidate for the National Registry of Historic Places.

The Gottsteins had more than a dozen employees at headquarters and at least three salesmen on the road.  Among them were several of their sons.  Directories list Harry and Louis Gottstein as clerks and Jacob and Moses Gottstein, a cousin, as managers.  All were involved in selling the company flagship brand “Pacific Club, trademarked in 1905, as well as other labels, including “Gold Bar Whiskey” and “Monogram Maryland Rye.  

The company was “rectifying,” i.e. blending, many of these whiskeys on premises and packaging them in cylinder bottles holding 4/5ths of a quart and in flasks.  The bottles are shown here in a photograph and in illustrations from “Whisky Bottles and Liquor Containers from the State of Washington” by John L. Thomas (1998). Thomas identifies many variations of M. & K. Gottstein bottles, now avidly sought by collectors of Western whiskeys.  From examples found from time to time, it is evident that most if not all originally bore paper labels.  The embossed Native American in a canoe, shown here, likely was replicated in a colorful drawing.

As their business expanded, Meyer, Kassel, and other Gottsteins in their employ  must have been aware of the growing prohibitionary pressures building in Washington State.  Passage of the “local option” law in 1909 meant that wholesale and mail order sales to those areas were all but foreclosed.  They must have watched with acute interest as the state’s women after obtaining the right to vote in 1910 swelled the ranks of “dry” supporters.  Female voters in 1914 contributed to the 189,840 (against 171,208) majority for banning statewide all sales of liquor.  The initiative failed in Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma, rejected by city folks, but it made no difference.

While most liquor dealers and saloons meekly surrendered to the results, M. & K. Gottstein Co. would not.  Instead, the owners on January 12, 1914, filed suit in Superior Court in Olympia, the state capital.  There a judge, obviously no friend to the temperance movement, granted the company a request for a restraining order prohibiting the governor from issuing a proclamation declaring the alcohol ban to be enforceable state law.  The company also obtained restraining orders against other state officials responsible for certifying the vote result.

Kassel had died in 1912, age 57, leaving Meyer to carry on the liquor business with Kassel’s son, Jacob Gottstein, born in 1879.  The two men were the driving force behind the suit. They contended that having been lawfully engaged in the wholesale liquor business for many years, they had a large stock of liquor on hand and significant capital invested in their business.  If the state ban were put into place they claimed their financial losses would be the equivalent of $4.4 million in today’s dollars.  In effect, the Gottsteins had sufficient “standing” to sue.

Their legal argument was based on two technicalities.  First, the Gottstein’s contended that the wording of the initiative did not comply with the requirements of state law and thereby was not legally submitted to and adopted by voters, and second, that the bill in the state legislature authorizing the vote had been improperly entered into the journals of both houses and thus invalidated. In July 2015, a less sympathetic Superior Court judge dismissed the case against enforcing the referendum and Governor Earl Lister , shown here, announced it would be enforced.  Unsatisfied with the verdict, the Gottsteins took the case to the Washington State Supreme Court.  In a multi-page decision the nine jurists voted unanimously to uphold the earlier verdict.  M. & K. Gottstein after 31 years in business shut its doors forever.

Two years later in June 1917 Meyer Gottstein died.  Jacob and other family members who had worked for the wholesale liquor house moved on to other occupations.  At Gottstein family gatherings, however, I speculate that they recalled the determined, yea stubborn, efforts of Meyer and Kassel to succeed, including the latter’s explanation for the partners’ success:  “…We have built up our business by treating our customers honestly and fairly — giving them value received.”

Note:  In addition to the Thomas book already cited, a prime source of information for this vignette was a 1900 pamphlet entitled “Seattle and the Orient,” a souvenir edition edited and compiled by Alfred D. Bowen and published by the Seattle Daily Times.

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