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.

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