Monday, May 29, 2023

Gustave Riesmeyer — Recruited to Fight Prohibition


As eleven-year-old Gustav Riesmeyer took the long ocean voyage across the Atlantic from his native Germany, his thoughts frequently must have been about the kind of life he would have in the U.S.  Shown here in maturity, the immigrant boy could never have imagined that events eventually would plunge him into the center of a pitched battle between the American liquor industry and National Prohibition.

Born in the mid-sized city of Bielefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia in December, 1854, Riesmeyer with family members settled in St. Louis, Missouri, a Midwest city with a large German population.  There the youth learned to speak English,  was educated, and in 1876 became an American citizen.  Four years later in a Lutheran church he married Annie Haase.  Shown here, Annie was the daughter of  August Haase, a wealthy and prominent St. Louis businessman.  Over the next 11 years the couple would have six children. 

Of Riesmeyer’s early career the record is scanty.  The 1878 St. Louis city directory records him working for a liquor house owned by Henry G. Biermann, located at 1422 Franklin Avenue.  By 1884 he had struck out on his own, opening a liquor store down the street from Biermann at 1322-1324 Franklin.  It would be the company address for the next 34 years.

Franklin Street

Riesmeyer’s venture into the liquor trade appears to have met with success from the beginning.  The standing of his father-in-law among St. Louis businessmen may have been a factor.  A blender (“rectifier”) of whiskeys, not a distiller, Riesmeyer issued a variety of proprietary brands, including “Old Maryland 1881 Pure Rye,” “Ashburn,” "Blue Ridge Maryland Rye,” "Cedar Bluff,” “Chelsea,” "Meadow Springs,” "Old Canteen,” "Old Kenmore,” "Sailor Springs,” and "Spring Brook.”  Of these he bothered to register federally only “Old Canteen” and not until 1908 after Congress stiffened trademark laws.

Like his St. Louis competition in the wholesale liquor trade, Riesmeyer was generous in gifting customers with advertising items.  Shown above are two shot glasses that would have been provided to saloons, hotels and restaurants carrying his liquor.  He also gave out “back-of-the-bar” bottles.  The one shown here advertised “Old Maryland Rye” in gold lettering.

Riesmeyer packaged his whiskey ia highly distinctive container, a quart jug made by the Knowles, Taylor & Knowles (KT&K) pottery in East Liverpool, Ohio. To liquor outfits nationwide the ceramics firm offered these “hotel porcelain” bodies, all distinguished by the snake handle.  Riesmeyer’s KT&K jugs have the distinction of coming in the widest variety of colors, including brown, purple, and three shades of blue, represented by examples shown here.

Riesmeyer was criticized by Baltimore liquor interests for appropriating  “Maryland” for his whiskey and using the Maryland seal for a whiskey he had concocted some 800 miles west of the state.  Nor was there any guarantee this brand contained even a drop of true Maryland rye.  Calling his enterprise the G. Riesmeyer Distilling Company, the proprietor nonetheless made Old Maryland his flagship brand.

As shown below amid his wife and children, Gustave appears to be a man who enjoyed the domestic bliss of home and hearth.  As a symbol of his care, he housed his family in a spacious pillared home at 3112 Hawthorne Boulevard in St. Louis.  The house is shown here as it looks today.  At the same time, Riesmeyer was making a reputation for himself as a canny businessman and a local liquor industry leader. 


A.J. Sunstein

Looking out from his headquarters in Pittsburgh about 1905, A. J. Sunstein, president of the National Wholesale Liquor Dealers Association, saw considerable advantage in drawing Riesmeyer onto the executive committee of his organization, thus putting him in the forefront of  industry efforts to offset the growing power and effectiveness of the Prohibition Movement.  

Living in the midlands of America,  Riesmeyer represented a state that had shown considerable success in blunting “dry” initiatives.  Prohibitionists considered Missouri the most “lax” state in the union regarding intoxicating spirits.  There was good reason.  The state produced more alcohol than any other, much of it in the form of liquor, wine and beer. 

Second, Riesmeyer was German through and through at a time when some Germans in the brewing industry were trying to distance themselves from the liquor trade.  Their strategy was to brand whiskey as the offending beverage, sacrifice it to the prohibitionist crowd, and thereby hoped to preserve the right to make and sell beer.  Riesmeyer’s ethnicity in St. Louis was an asset.

Third, Riesmeyer was a Lutheran during an era where Jews and Catholics, dominated the liquor trade.  Although Lutherans generally had no moral strictures against the use of alcohol, other Protestant denominations like Methodists and Presbyterians were pressuring Lutheran synods to follow their prohibitionist example.   A Lutheran “whiskey man” was a definite asset to Sunstein’s Association.

Riesmeyer’s entry into the inner circle of the liquor lobby coincided with a renewed effort at pushing back against the forces of prohibition.  The Association issued an “Anti-Prohibition Manual” and distributed it widely to newspapers across America.  Shown here in reprint, the manual depicted “wet” and “dry” territory and provided current U.S. and state statistics on conditions and revenues on manufacturing and selling liquor.  Sunstein and his executive committee members also regularly were testifying before Congress, other public bodies, and the courts.

One by one as they matured, Riesmeyer was bringing his sons, Gustav Jr., Edward and Carl, into his liquor enterprise. About 1902 he was diagnosed as diabetic and his health steadily declined.  In November 1913 he developed a heart condition that would prove fatal in February of the following year.  Dead at age 59, Riesmeyer was buried in St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Cemetery. Anna would join him there 28 years later. Their gravestones are shown here.

His sons continued to operate G. Riesmeyer Distilling Company after his death.  Gustav Jr. was president, Edward, vice president, and Carl, secretary.  Meanwhile the prohibitionist pressures were growing increasingly intense.  After 1918, the company Gustave Riesmeyer and his family had nurtured for 34 years disappeared from St. Louis directories, never to be revived.   A national ban on alcohol was on its way.

Notes:  The information and photographs in this post were assembled from a wide range of Internet sources.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Pre-Prohibition Whiskey Risque’

Sex sells.  In pre-Prohibition America, whiskey advertising often employed illustrations of females in various stages of undress, including downright nudity.  Recall that this was a time when many saloons and related drinking establishments barred women from the premises.   Their absence probably insured that no complaints would be filed with management over a wall sign, trade card, or tip tray  that depicted full or partial nudity. 

Some of America’s best known brands, including ones that have survived to this day, often used risque’ images to advertise the virtues of their liquor. A vintage trade card from Old Crow depicted two women, one smoking and both in skimpy outfits. It took little imagination to understand in what profession they were engaged. At this time Old Crow had just come under the control an ownership that combined Kentucky elite distillers and New York money men. The rise of this brand can be traced to aggressive advertising.

The Puritans were known for being, well, puritanical. Puritan Rye’s fold-out dancer, however, is giving us a good view of her bloomers. I have seen several of these cards and inevitably they develop a hole at a particularly unfortunate place. This brand was the product of David Sachs and Co. of Louisville (1872-1919), whiskey blenders, bottlers and dealers.

Kentucky was not the only source using sexual images to boost whiskey sales. Cincinnati, an Ohio river town even Carry Nation couldn’t shut down, fostered its own naughty advertising. In those days displaying a female in a state of partial undress was particularly acceptable if shown in an exotic setting. Hence a picture of a bare-bosomed slave girl serving a statuesque woman in a transparent robe. Clearly this is the Middle East--or is it? The slave has a bottle of Old Windsor Whiskey in her hand, the product of Cincinnati’s Frank G. Tullidge and Co. (1868-1911).

The harem motif also was employed by the Mayer Brothers of Cincinnati (1882-1918) for a trade card merchandising its nationally sold Hudson Rye brand. Closed the card bears the words “Snuff” and “Take a Pinch.” It opens to disclose, not tobacco, but a Middle Eastern odalisque lounging on a divan. Thereby is raised a question:  Are we still allowed a pinch?

A third Cincinnati liquor house adopting an exotic setting were the Bieler boys, three scions of a distilling family.  They had an eye for advertising their Brookfield Rye with feminine pulchritude, commissioning a painting by Italian-born Angelo Asti (1847-1903), a frequent exhibitor at the Paris salon, known for his erotic nudes.  The Bielers distributed saloon signs and other artifacts that featured a statuesque woman in a diaphanous gown who is contemplating a bottle of Brookfield whiskey.  It was Asti’s design and bearing his signature.

Another familiar method of presenting racy whiskey imaging was employing natural scenes, often  involving waterscapes or wooded vistas.  The Rosenfield Brothers of Chicago (1893-1902), owners of two Louisville distilleries, featured three unclothed lasses, with several more undressing, and found no need for an exotic setting.  These ladies appear to be cavorting in a good old American stream without any sign of Victorian modesty.  Perhaps they had enjoyed swigs of  Rosenfield’s “Sunny Brook” or “Willow Creek” whiskeys before disrobing.

You won’t find Possum Hollow, Pennsylvania, in your Rand-McNally Atlas or listed in Wikipedia, but it once was the name of a tiny cluster of buildings located in Allegheny County southwest of the town of Wampum near the Beaver County line.   It was there that Thomas Moore (1818-1898) built his first distillery and produced a whiskey known as “Old Possum Hollow.”  The brand eventually found region wide sales and memorialized the place after which it was named.   Moore served up a nude in a rustic glade for the tray he gifted to saloons.

Another in this cavalcade of  outdoor fleshiness is a trade card from the Budweiser Saloon of Springfield Illinois, John Zimmerman Jr., proprietor. The lady appears fully dressed but her fish hook has snagged her dress, revealing --my goodness -- she wears no underclothes. Perhaps even more intriguing is the caption: “Open All Night.” The implications are endless.

The final image, and perhaps the most sensuous, appeared in a tip tray issued by the I. (for Isadore) Trager liquor house in Cincinnati, whose flagship brand was “Cream of Kentucky Whiskey.  The picture is of a red haired , bare-breasted woman with a come-hither look in her eyes.  She clearly is not a girl one takes home to mother.  Trager founded his business in 1886 and met with financial success until Ohio voted “dry” in 1916.

Note:  Many of the distillers and wholesalers mention in this post have appeared in considerably more extensive narratives on this website.  They include Daniel Sachs, Oct. 25, 2011; Frank Tullidge, Nov 18, 2011;  Thomas Moore, May 27, 2012;  Mayer Bros., June 18, 2012;  Bieler Bros., May 27, 2013;  Rosenfield Bros., Sept. 4, 2013, and Isaac Trager, July 10, 2019.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Did In-Laws Bernheim & Uri Duel with Teapots?


The annals of pre-Prohibition whiskey is filled with examples of brother-in-laws who collaborated to make their distilleries and other liquor-related enterprises highly successful over extended periods of time.  Not so for Isaac Bernheim, creator of the famous I.W. Harper Brand, and his brother-in-law, Nathan M. Uri.  Their brothers-in-law partnership ended abruptly, seemingly followed by “dueling” with metal teapots.  

Bernheim, born in Germany,  emigrated to the United States in 1867 with $4.00 in his pocket.  For a while he worked as a peddler,  traveling through Pennsylvania on horseback selling household items to housewives.   Then his horse died.  So Isaac packed up and moved to Paducah, Kentucky, where he went to work in the liquor trade.  More important,  he met the Uri family headed by Morris Uri, long established in the Kentucky whiskey trade.   Isaac married Amanda Uri and in 1872 joined up with her brother, Nathan, in a liquor  firm called Bernheim Bros. and Uri.  The other Bernheim brother was Bernard who subsequently arrived from Germany. 

Because of Paducah’s proximity to large waterways,  the business grew rapidly.  About 1888,  the company bought the Pleasure Ridge Park Distillery and renamed it the Bernheim Distillery Company.  About the same time,  the Bernheims and Uri moved their business to Louisville, in order to be closer to their distillery.   Soon they began the production of an elite whiskey brand called I.W. Harper, a name trademarked in 1879.

Within three years of the move,  Nathan Uri abruptly left the partnership and in 1893 set up his own firm, calling it N.M. Uri & Company.  Uri bought his own whiskey production facility, the International Distillery at Hunters Station, Kentucky, not far from Bardstown.  His principal label was “Parker Rye” a brand he advertised nationally.   Both distilleries flourished. 

The reason for the sudden split has never been adequately explained.  Did Uri chafe at being the road salesman for the Bernheim?  Or was it clear to him that Isaac’s brother was being given preference and he was odd man out? Perhaps serious differences over business practices existed.  In any case the split apparently was not amicable.   In 1912 Isaac Bernheim wrote a book entitled History of the Jews in Paducah and the Lower Ohio Valley.  He mentions Morris Uri favorably, as well as his wife, Amanda, and even her sister.  By contrast nary a word appears in Bernheim’s book about his brother-in-law and former partner, Nathan.  The silence suggests bad blood.

It may be a stretch but I believe the strained relationship of the brothers-in-law sparked a rivalry in advertising barware.  In pre-Prohibition America a familiar sight on a saloon or hotel bar was a metal vessel, usually silver plated, that advertised a brand of whiskey and added “cold tea.”   Tea was offered to patrons gratis by proprietors as a mixer for the liquor being poured.  The addition could make the drink go farther, pack less of an alcohol punch, and, I assume, taste better in an era of dubious quality whiskey.  Since only one teapot was needed per bar, the ability to secure that spot was fierce among Kentucky distillers.   It also offered an opportunity for Bernheim and Uri to play out their rivalry.

Bernheim produced two teapot versions.  One, shown above, was the product of the Taunton Silver Company. During the 19th century, Taunton became known as "Silver City", home to many silversmithing operations, including Reed & Barton, F.B. Rogers, and Taunton Silver.  The second teapot, below, is marked as quadruple silver plate from the Western Silver Metal Company in New York City.  This silver housewares business was founded by brothers-in-law Louis Schnitzer and Nathan Gelfman, experienced metalworkers from Kiev, Ukraine.

Uri issued at least two rival teapots.  Shown above, one advertises “R. H. Parker Whiskey.”  My notes, unfortunately, are silent on its maker.  The second teapot, shown below in two views,  was the product of the Homan Silver Plate Company.  Founded in 1847, this outfit was located in Cincinnati and produced silver-plated objects for distilleries, breweries, hotels, restaurants and even riverboat companies.

From his distillery south of Bardstown, Uri ratcheted up the competition with Bernheim by commissioning other silver plated advertising items for back-of-the-bar use. Below left is a silver decanter marked “Parker Rye”. A Homan-made product, this elegant piece is marked “special metal,” another name for silver soldered “quadruple” plate.  At right is a Uri whiskey dispenser with a spigot.  It presumably could hold a gallon or so of Parker Rye and be ready for the saloonkeeper to turn the handle. 

In Louisville, Bernheim could not have been ignorant of Uri’s aggressive use of those decorative silver-plated bar accessories.  He issued his own decanter, shown here.  Quart sized and incised “Old Harper,” this silver-plated vessel likely shared a shelf behind the bartender in many a saloon. Because it was impossible to tell just what kind of whiskey back of the bar items were dispensing, they were banned by law after the 1934 repeal of Prohibition.

The final word goes to Uri who “went metallic” to contain his whiskey in a quartwhiskey jug.  The jug mimics the shape of many ceramic containers of the time.  Marked “quadruple plated” and carrying a shamrock logo, the jug reads “Parker” on one side and “Rye” on the other.  The brother-in-laws’ feud, if that’s what it was, had resulted in decorating saloons all over America and an advertising bonanza for future collectors.

Note:   More complete biographies of both these men may be found on this website, Isaac Bernheim, Dec. 10, 2014 and Nathan Uri, August 2, 2012.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

A Poet and his Publican: Eugene Field at Bloeser’s Saloon

Virtually any anthology of American poetry will have a poem or two from Eugene Field (1850-1895), an author and editor of newspapers ranging from Denver to Chicago.  Known for his practical jokes and dislike of prohibition, when in his home town of St. Louis, Field regularly found his way to a saloon run by a German immigrant named John Henry Bloeser.  Bloeser’s “watering hole” was well known in St. Louis as a hang-out for politicians and literary types.

The son of a nationally known attorney, Field spent his early boyhood in St. Louis where his home, shown here, now is a museum dedicated to his memory.  After his mother’s death when he was six, he was raised by an aunt in Amherst, Massachusetts.  Following a feckless college career, Field rejected law in favor of journalism.  Field’s first major post was as the city editor of the St.Joseph, Missouri, Gazette where he made a name for himself as a writer and found a bride in sixteen-year-old Julia Comstock.  They would have eight children.  By 1876 he was back in St. Louis writing editorials for the St. Louis Journal.

It was there that he met John Henry Bloeser, a German immigrant who had arrived in the United States in the mid-1860s, living first in Chicago and after his marriage in 1872, moving to St. Louis.  There he opened a saloon at Pine and Eighth Streets, shown here.  His drinking establishment soon became a hangout for the newspaper and literati crowd.  Field was among Bloeser’s regulars.  

Bloeser also was selling liquor at both wholesale and retail calling his company the Bloeser Distilling Company.  He was not making whiskey but buying it from distillers and blending it in his facilities to achieve a desired color, taste and smoothness.  He used the brand names “Empire Rye” and “Harlem Club” for his blends.  Although Bloeser failed to trademark either label, he advertised his whiskey widely though shot glasses and corkscrews.

The publican must have missed the steady patronage of Eugene Field when he left St. Louis in 1880. After spending a short time as managing editor of the Kansas City Times Field landed a similar position with the Denver Tribune.  In that city he became a customer and confidant of a saloonkeeper named Wolfe Londoner, shown here, a man destined to become a future mayor of Denver. [See post on Londoner, Nov. 26, 2017].  Londoner’s establishment was an unofficial Press Club for the city’s journalists.

That did not deter Field from playing a practical joke on his friend.  Here is how Londoner told it — and his retaliation: “Gene Field wrote an article, saying that I would present every colored voter who called at my store with a watermelon.  They came in droves, all clamoring for melons.  Fortunately, I found a wagon of Georgia melons on Market Street and I passed them out.  The next day I put an ad in the News that Gene Field wanted a watchdog, and set a time for owners to bring dogs to his office.  At the appointed time there was yelping and fighting and scrambling of dogs in Gene’s office.  He climbed on a table and screamed for help, while the owners of the dogs fought lustily with each other.”

Field lasted two years in Denver as an editor.  Meanwhile in 1879 he had published his book of first verse entitled “Christmas Treasures,” to be followed by many more poems, such as “Winken, Blinken, and Nod”  and the “Gingham Dog and Calico Cat,” both destined to become childhood favorites.  Other Field lines were meant to appeal to more mature audiences:

Not drunk is he who from the floor

Can rise again and drink some more;

But drunk is he who prostrate lies,

And who can nether drink nor rise.

In addition to a cascade of poetry,  Field was penning short stories and humorous articles that rapidly brought him a national audience.  The Chicago Morning News in 1983 lured him from Denver with a lucrative promise to make him a columnist and poet in residence with no managerial responsibilities.  Field snapped up the offer and moved his large and growing family to the Windy City.  There he wrote prolifically on a variety of subjects, including his aversion to efforts at banning alcohol production and consumption.

This view led to a notable incident in Field’s writing career.  He had developed an aversion to Rutherford B. Hayes because the former President had refused to serve wine in the White House, possibly at the behest of his wife, known as “Lemonade Lucy” who had embraced prohibition.  Although Field admired Lucy, he developed a deep antipathy toward her husband.  As a result, when he heard a rumor that Hayes was deriving a substantial part of his income from co-ownership of a saloon in Omaha, Nebraska, he demanded that the News send him and a staff photographer to Omaha to check out the story.  The editor reluctantly agreed.

R. B. Hayes

Field went, found that the story was true, and returned with the proof and a photograph of himself sitting on a keg of beer in Hayes’ saloon.  After buying the keg and drinking the contents he had a frame fashioned from the staves for the photo and presented the picture to his editor.  The resulting “scoop” about the former President’s apparent hypocrisy made national headlines.  Deeply embarrassed by what he called “the Omaha Slander,” Hayes turned to Edward Bok, a well known New York journalist, for help.  Bok responded by writing an article for his Brooklyn Magazine defending Hayes’ reputation.  In response, Hayes wrote Bok to express his gratitude, commenting about Field’s article: “The abuse of certain people is virtual commendation.”  Only later did Hayes admit to Bok that he indeed was co-owner of the Omaha saloon.

From his Chicago base, Field with some frequency returned to St. Louis, possibly to visit relatives, despite once having described it as an “ineffably uninteresting city,” and regularly referring to the state as “poor old Mizzoorah.”  According to newspaper reports, when in town he regularly visited Bloeser’s saloon where he presumably found companions who were not entirely “uninteresting.”  I fantasize that a Field’s drinking poem may have had this “watering hole” in mind.  An excerpt reads:

And you, oh, friends from west and east

And other foreign parts,

Come share the rapture of our feast,

The love of loyal hearts;

And in the wassail that suspends

All matter burthensome,

We’ll drink a health  to good old friends

And good friends yet to come.

Never in good health himself, in 1895 Field died in Chicago of a sudden heart attack at the untimely age of 45.  His funeral was held at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Kenilworth, Illinois. Although Field originally was buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, his son-in-law, an official of Holy Comforter, had him reinterred there a year later.  Field’s wife Julia joined him there 41 years later having lived to 80.  Their joint monument is shown here.   

After some 45 years in business the coming of National Prohibition in 1920 forced the closing of John Bloeser’s saloon and liquor store. During its existence he had managed to sire and support eleven children by two wives.  The saloonkeeper lived to see the coming of Repeal, succumbing to pneumonia at the St. Louis Altenheim Hospital in April 1934 at the age of 90.  Bloeser was buried in Gatewood Gardens Cemetery, shown below.  Under the headline “Old-Time Saloon Operator Dies,” Bloeser’s obituary in the St. Louis Post -Dispatch reported:  “Mr. Bloeser’s establishments were popular with politicians and literary figures, one of them Eugene Field.”

Note: Shown above, Field’s childhood home in St. Louis is now a museum.  The Eugene Field House contains many of his mementos, including original manuscripts, books, furniture, personal effects, and some of the toys that inspired his poems.  A key source for this post was the book, “Eugene Field, A Study in Heredity and Contradictions” (1901), written by his friend and fellow journalist Slason Thompson.