Saturday, October 28, 2023

The Rum Story of the Boston Feltons

During an era in which whiskey supplanted rum as American liquor of choice, three generations of the Felton distilling family remained faithful to the molasses-based libation for more than 80 years, operating a distillery accounted the oldest manufacturing plant in South Boston.   Patriarch Luther Felton, son Luther H., and grandson Frederic, found ready customers for their products at home and abroad, becoming New England’s last remaining rum distillers.

Luther Felton, shown here, was bucking a mighty tide in 1839 when he built and operated a distillery at the corner of Fifth, C, and Gold streets  whose principal product was rum.  Felton knew that the popularity of rum as an Americans drink was declining.  During colonial times rum overwhelmingly was the people’s choice.  Since the Revolutionary War, however, it had faded in popularity, replaced by whiskey.  

The causes were several:  Rum was made from molasses, most of which came from the Caribbean, largely controlled by the British with whom Americans had fought two wars.  Whiskey, on the other hand, was a domestic product made from Yankee farm grown corn, rye and wheat.  Whiskey also was considerably cheaper, not taxed as heavily as imported rum and molasses.

This decline made little difference to Luther who could trace his Felton ancestry in America back to 1640.  His was one of the first families in Massachusetts.  In 1919 the young man joined with an existing distiller in a rum-making venture subsequently known as “Bennett & Felton.”  He broke with Bennett six years later to start his own distillery on Boston’s Washington Street.  When that plant proved inadequate, he abandoned it and moved in 1839 to its final location.  Luther called it “Crystal Spring Distillery.”

The distiller became known in South Boston for his civic activities there.  Luther owned several large tracts in the community that he granted for public purposes.  Among them was the land for the Mather School, today recognized as the oldest extant public school in America.  Luther also was responsible for planting giant elm trees on along routes that would become South Boston thoroughfares.

In 1844, Luther took his twenty-three year old son, Luther H. Felton, into the business.  Born in 1921, the youth had been educated in the Boston public schools of the day, accounted among the Nation’s best. He was blessed with same entrepreneurial spirit as his father and the company became “Felton and Son.”  Following his father’s death in 1868, Luther H. took over the distillery management and directed its enlargement, as shown below.  In 1845, sales of rum are said to have benefited by an export demand from Crimean War combatants.  While initially the Feltons sold rum domestically in barrels to saloons, hotels and restaurants, they transitioned to selling it as well to the public at retail in pint and quart bottles.

Under Luther H. the distillery staff was enlarged. A photo of employees below shows them posing on barrels of rum.  Note that all are wearing hats of astonishing variety. The tall man at left carrying a folder may be Luther H.  Note that two blacks are among the workers.  The usual distillery dog, here a beagle,

lies in front of the assembly.


By this time Frederick Luther Felton had entered the scene, working along side  his father.   Frederick was born in 1848 at the South Boston home of his mother’s family.  He received a good education, initially at the esteemed Burrell private school and later at three public schools.  Those were supplemented by a term at the Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.  He joined Luther L. in the family distillery at age 19, becoming a full partner in “Felton& Son in 1873 at age 25.  From the outset Frederick demonstrated the same considerable business acumen as his forebears.

Frederick moved vigorously to expand the business.  As shown above, he designed new labels for Felton’s Old Rum, including one that featured a Native American chieftain.  Recognizing that whiskey was eroding the demand for rum, he also added “Felton’s Rye” and “Felton’s Old Rye” to his distilled products. Frederick also provided his saloon customers with advertising signs.  Among them was a reverse glass saloon sign displaying an artistically done nude damsel lying on a blanket in a rustic setting — bound to be a male crowd pleaser. 

With reference to Frederick one observer noted:  “The business of this time honored firm has increased with years and improved with age like its noted product, and its goods have a reputation not confined to the boarders of this country.  Being found unsurpassed in quality it has found a ready sale at home and abroad.

Continued success allowed Frederick to expand company facilities as shown in a second saloon sign. At least one five-story building had been added to the facility along with other construction.  Although he had moved his residence to nearby Newton, Massachusetts, Frederick remained attached to his native South Boston, known for his continuing generosity to civic causes. In 1881 Felton & Son were awarded a medal by the Massachusetts Charitable Association as evidence of the family’s continuing philanthropy.

Dying in 1917 at the age of 69, Frederick did not see the coming of National Prohibition.  Beginning about 1893, however, he apparently had anticipated the “dry” era and diversified.  When liquor sales were banned in 1920, Felton family members could fall back on selling rum for ice cream, candies, mincemeat, and rum cured tobacco. 

By the time Repeal came in 1934, Frederic L. Felton of a fifth family generation was in charge. Felton & Son were the only distillers of New England rum left in America. Their 'Pilgrim' and 'Crystal Spring' rums were the only remaining national brands. The distillery continued to produce rum until 1983, and the buildings were sold.  For a time the new owners rented them for light manufacturing, warehousing and office space.  About 1991 the site was converted into artists’ workshops with studio space to create, display and sell art.

Note:   This post relies heavily on two sources.  First:  The Illustrated History of South Boston: Comprising a Historical Record and Pictorial Description of the District, Past and Present, by Charles B. Gillespie, Inquirer Publishing, 1900.  It provided information about the early Feltons and featured their photos. The second source was Rum Yesterday and Today, by Hugh Barty-King & Anton Massel, 1983.  Their book brought the rum story forward into more recent times.



Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Wong Sewai: Chinese Liquor from a Buddhist Priest

One facet of the U.S. liquor industry that past posts have illuminated are the distillers and liquor dealers who have set up shop on these shores principally to make and sell alcoholic products to their countrymen.  That includes Germans, French and Italians.  To them must be added a distiller and Buddhist priest named Wong Sewai.  Before National Prohibition, Sewai, left, brought his Chinese liquor directly to America.

The story begins 146 years ago in 1876 when Wong Sing-hui, from Guangdong Province in China invented secret formulas for several strongly alcoholic drinks that proved very popular.  Shown here in a memorial portrait, the founder called his distillery Wing Lee Wai.  His brands over time gained a reputation for quality and became popular favorites among Chinese.  In 1905, the company moved its head offices to Hong Kong, then a British colony.

In the meantime, in America the Chinese population was growing rapidly.  In the 1880 census the numbers jumped 80% from the decade before to more than 105,000, almost all of them men.  Two developments drew them to these shores:  The need for labor to build the railroads that were opening up the West and the lure of searching for gold, as shown below. Both occupations fostered large thirsts in workers and while racist cartoonist Thomas Nast may have believed that the Chinese had embraced American whiskey, many were sending back to China for their liquor.

With death of Sing-hui, Wong Sewai, his eighth son, took the reins of the Wing Lee Wai organization.  The beneficiary of an education at the prestigious Queens College before joining the family business, Sewai in 1914 registered the “Two Cranes” trademark of his liquor with the Hong Kong government, established branches in five other Chinese cities and overseas including Penang, Singapore, and a city with a burgeoning Chinese population, San Francisco.  The liquor became known among Chinese for its slogan:  “A half chicken and a bottle of Wing Lee Wai.”  (The Chinese word for chicken and Wai rhyme.)

Speaking English with some fluency, Sewai took particular interest in establishing his brand on American soil and registered it with the Patent & Trademark Office. When he opened the San Francisco branch of Wing Lee Wai in the early 1900s, Sewai brought his entire extended family to the Golden Gate City.  A photo of the occasion shows the assembled visitors in front of the new store.  Sewai is second from left.

Not content with merely a presence in Frisco, the company advertised profusely in Chinese language newspapers.  The result has been the numerous ceramic bottles marked Wing Lee Wai to be found on auction sites like eBay.  Closed by National Prohibition in 1920, Chinese liquor rebounded with Repeal and traditional containers can be found into the 1940s.  

In addition to his business interests  Sewai was known as a devout Buddhist leader and priest who was active on behalf of Hong Kong’s popular Wong Tai Sin Temple, shown below.  Sewai founded the Tata Buddhist Association in 1928, built a two million square foot Buddhist temple for Tata in 1936, and in 1950 donated the house next to his residence in Kowloon City for a Buddhist primary school named in memory of his late father.


Wong Sewai, after a life as an entrepreneur and religious figure, died in 1956 in Hong Kong.  Shut down not long after initiation by National Prohibition, Wing Lee Wai’s San Francisco offices reopened for a time in the 1930s.   Wing Lee Wai, a household name in China, continues to supply the world with liquor and wine to this very day.

Notes:  This post owes much to an article entitled “Eternal Fortune and Fame – The 140 Year old Saga of Chinese Winemaker Wing Lee Wai” re-posted on the Internet on January 10, 2023. It originated on Sept. 18, 2017, under the auspices of York Lo Articles.  The article contains biographical material on Wong Sewai, as well as providing three of the photos used here.  Note that in China while many spiritous beverages are classified as “wines,” they are not made from grapes, are highly alcoholic, and may be considered equivalent to whiskey. 

Friday, October 20, 2023

The Century-Plus Story of “Old Economy Whiskey”

Imagine if you will a brand of whiskey that was initiated by a religious communal group of German immigrants in 1827, distilled and on sale from their village for some 68 years. The distillery eventually was sold to a Pittsburgh liquor dealer who merchandised the whiskey widely until National Prohibition in 1920.  Called “Old Economy,” this brand continued to have life after Repeal.

In 1905, a German farmer and winegrower in Iptigen, Germany, named Johann Georg Rupp,  discarding his native Lutheranism, founded a religious organization that attempted to replicate the communalism of the early Christians while awaiting the immanent Second Coming of Jesus and the end of the world.  With about 750 followers, Rupp, shown here, brought his Harmony Society to Butler County, Pennsylvania, where they held all property in common and practiced celibacy.  There the Harmonists established a cloth factory, sawmill, tannery, vineyards, and a small distillery.  

Finding the location not entirely conducive to Rupps’s vision, his adherents sold out in 1814 and moved to Posey County, Indiana, where they founded the town of New Harmony and there built similar industries.  In 1824, with their leader still seeking a perfect site, many of the Harmonists moved with him to Beaver County in Western Pennsylvania.  There they founded the town of Economy, shown below, where Rupp died in 1847.  

Under the leadership of Rupp’s son, Ferdinand, the Society flourished. It eventually became one of the richest communities in western Pennsylvania.  The inhabitants purchased large swaths of area real estate, funded the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, and established the Economy Savings Institution, Economy Brick Works, Economy Oil Company, Economy Planing Mill, and Economy Lumber Company.  All this was accomplished in the shadow of the Harmonist Church, right, as adherents awaited the end times.

Along with those enterprises and making wine and cider, the Harmonists in 1827 constructed a distillery in their new settlement.  Thus the logo that opens this post. They called the product “Old Economy Whiskey.”  Although current guides to the historic town contend that the community never found sales of its alcoholic beverages profitable, its whiskey gained a reputation for quality in the region.  The Society also made a cure-all medicine called “Boneset Bitters” with whiskey as a primary ingredient but apparently found little market for it.  A bottle is shown right.

Old Economy Whiskey was distilled from a fermented mix that might have contained corn, rye, wheat or barley.  The distillery building has been identified as the one below left, located along Big Swickley Creek south of the town center.  At right is a re-creation of the wooden barrels in which the whiskey was aged.  The spent mash from the distillery was fed cows and pigs kept in nearby (down wind) barns.  The original Harmonist distillers, Johann Viehmayer and Philip Beker, both had died by 1871 but their recipe was maintained.  Workers from outside the Society were hired to continue whiskey production.

With time and a declining number of Harmonists to manage the community’s business empire, a result of the celibacy requirement, John S. Duss, who had inherited leadership of the community, eliminated several industries of Economy.  Among them was the distillery. Duss sold it in the 1890s to a group of Pittsburgh “whiskey men.” Thus began a new era for Old Economy Whiskey. 

Unfortunately none of the information about the distillery sale, including Duss’s 425-page memoir, directly identifies the new owners of the facility and  the Old Economy label.  My research efforts, however, have uncovered a promotional letter sent out by the new owners, shown above.  It identifies the president of the corporation as J. J. Speck of Pittsburgh.  According to city directories, Jacob  Speck began as a barkeeper. In 1866 with a partner, he founded a wholesale liquor house at 145 Water Street.  Subsequently moving out on his own, Speck had been very successful.  One history recounts that his series of buildings on Pittsburgh’s Second Avenue took up half a block.  Now Speck headed a group that owned the former Harmonist distillery.

Calling it the Economy Distilling Company, the new owners signaled a strong shift toward vigorously merchandising the Old Economy brand.   As shown above,  in both flask and quart size the bottles bore well-designed labels identifying the product as “double copper distilled” and “pure rye.”  Speck and his co-investors targeted a wholesale trade, gifting back-of-the-bar bottles and attractive reverse glass signs to saloons, hotels and restaurants serving Old Economy.  The glass signs currently are valued at up to $5,000.

A more unusual giveaway were packs of playing cards.  These would have been given to wholesale customers such as saloons, hotels and restaurants as well as good retail customers.  Many of the cards carried slogans for the brand:  “Wins on Quality” and “Economy Leads to Wealth.”  


The new ownership made a concerted effort to promote their whiskey nationwide, sending sales representatives to the Far West with the pitch that the distillery, still located in its original location, was “such as to lead to a perfect fermentation and vigilant supervision is given to the storage of goods in our stream heated warehouses.”   Unfortunately, on the morning of February 9, one of those warehouses, located in Pittsburgh at the corner of 13th Street and Mulberry Alley, caught fire.  As firemen attempted to contain the blaze, an estimated 8,000 barrels of Old Economy Rye exploded, causing a wall to collapse.  Nineteen individuals were killed in the blast, one of the worst disasters in Pittsburgh history.  The loss to Jacob Speck and his partners was set at $750,000, millions in today’s dollar.

Nevertheless, the distillery continued operation through the first two decades of the 20th Century by Speck and his colleagues as the Harmonist community of Economy was being dissolved by its remaining adherents. The buildings were incorporated into the adjoining town of Ambridge, and eventually purchased by the state as a tourist attraction. It is now a National Historical Landmark Site run by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. 

With the coming of National Prohibition in 1920, Old Economy Rye disappeared, only to be temporarily revived with Repeal in 1934.  Now the brand was produced in a distillery in Logansport, Pennsylvania, owned by the Weiner brothers, Irwin and Morris, under the name, Pennsylvania Distilling Company.  Shown here is an ad from that period.  Note that it replicates the original Harmonist 1827 logo.  The Weiners aged the whiskey for only one year and recommended it for blending, suggesting that despite its distinguished pedigree, Economy Rye had become “cheap booze.” 

About 1940 the brothers sold their plant to a combine headed by Adolph Hirsch of Michter Whiskey.  The company name was changed to Logansport Distilling.  I can find no evidence that the Old Economy brand survived the change.  After a run of 113 years, with time out for Prohibition, the whiskey given its birth by the pious souls of Economy, Pennsylvania, as they awaited the Second Coming, had come to an end even as the world whirled on.

Note:  This post derives from a number of internet sources dealing with the rise and demise of Rupp’s Society, as well as the 1943 book by John Duss entitled “The Harmonists, A Personal Story,” reprinted in 1970. The link to J.J. Speck and his collaborators who bought the Enterprise Distillery and merchandised the whiskey nationally for about a quarter century was a lucky find.


Monday, October 16, 2023

Three Generations of Saloon Art


Foreword:  For my mind, saloon art can cover a wide swath of artistic endeavors, from painting designed FOR saloons to paintings OF saloon scenes.  Below are the works of three artists in three different generations that relate to drinking establishments, each with a distinct character and purpose.

Picture an artist, who during his lifetime could command more than $60,000 Artist A.D.M. Cooper, Artist John Sloan, McSorley’s New York Saloon, British Artist Ian Mitchell, saloon art(equivalent to $1.2 million today) for a single piece of artwork, using his talent to cage drinks from saloon owners across the West in return for painting pictures of scantily clad women, art meant for display behind the bar.  That would be Ashley David Middleton (A.D.M.) Cooper (1856-1924), the late 19th Century unsurpassed “Rembrandt” of the saloon nude, shown right.

Despite his aristocratic background and acceptance by California society, Cooper was inclined to “walk on the wild side.”  Edan Hughes, the author of a book on California artists wrote that of the 16,000 painters he had chronicled, “...None was as colorful as Ashley David Middleton Cooper. That man knew how to live. He was a true Bohemian, and he loved to have a good time. He knew how to party. And paint. And then party some more. He had a zest for life unmatched in the artistic annals of California.” 

With his definite affinity for alcohol, Cooper is said to have paid many bar bills as he roamed the West by paintings of unclothed women.  Those pictures came in all sizes and shapes, with one constant:  bare breasts.  Saloon owners welcomed them as a known attraction for their almost entirely male clientele.  Shown above is perhaps Cooper’s most famous nude paintings, known as “The Kansas City Girl.”  It was exhibited throughout the United States, reputedly gathering crowds wherever it went, and was accounted a sensation at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898, held in Omaha, Nebraska. 


Two among dozens of Cooper’s erotic paintings are shown above.  At right is an artwork he entitled “San Francisco Girl.” Why it bears that specific distinction is puzzling.   Her settling is an exotic one with velvet curtains, a leopard skin rug, and scattered flowers. At left, Cooper reached back to Greek mythology for his nude.  She is a nymph, the personification of the creative and fostering activities of nature, most often identified with the life-giving outflow of springs.  True to form, this figure is garlanded with water lilies. 


In 1975, during three months working in New York City,  I ventured over to McSorley’s Old Ale House for lunch, having read Joseph Mitchell’s well-known book on the saloon.   At the time I was aware of the several paintings of the famous watering hole by New York artist, John French Sloan.

Sloan (1871-1951) is best known for his urban genre scenes and ability to capture the essence of neighborhood life in Gotham City.  Sloan, shown here, has been called the premier artist of the “Ashcan School” who painted the inexhaustible energy and life of New York City during the first decades of the twentieth century.  As shown above and in paintings below, McSorley’s not only was his regular drinking establishment but a favorite scene to paint.  Above is Sloan’s “McSorley’s Bar, 1912.”

In a painting called “McSorley’s Cats,”  Sloan captured John McSorley, the founder of the saloon at 15 East Seventh Street, in scene with the owner’s rat-catching pet cats.  Shown right, McSorley had arrived in America in 1851 at the age of 18.  The date on which he started his saloon is in dispute.  McSorley gave it as 1854 but others date it to 1865.  As shown below, Sloan also could capture quiet moments as in “McSorley’s Back Room.”

Sloan and other Ashcan School painters opened the saloon as an appropriate subject for artists to portray as symbolic of the life in the big city.  Their successors would not stop there, turning their attention westward and the cowboy saloon romanticized by the motion pictures.


In choosing a contemporary artist to round out this trio, I selected the work of Ian Mitchell, only to discover that there are three artistic Ian Mitchells, two British and one American, who are painting today with roughly similar colorful styles.  Of them I have chosen the Welsh Ian Mitchell, shown here, as the creator of the three Western saloon paintings shown here.  

Mitchell can pitch his art in a traditional mode, as demonstrated by the painting right that shows a traditional Western sheriff tossing down a beverage while a 19th Century dressed bartender and waitress observe.  But look more closely.  The sheriff is drinking from a can.  The earliest beer cans date from about 1935, soft drinks followed shortly after.   Mitchell is having a “time warp” joke.

The Mitchell painting above is unambiguously in a current Western setting.  The artist has captured in vivid colors five contemporary figures, replete with large hats, fringed jackets and blue jeans.  We have joined a group of friends apparently having a beer (only one bottle visible) of a late afternoon at their favorite drinking establishment.  Gone are the guns, the badge, the barkeep and the waitress.  This is a scene that daily is replicated in bars across the West.

A final picture from Mitchell entitled “The Yellow Rose” captures the exterior of a saloon that is timeless, despite the artist’s efforts to give it an antique look by adding a hay rack and liquor barrels arranged outside.  The very neatness and order of the building’s exterior tell a different story.  While “The Yellow Rose” may owe its origins to the Wild West era, the painting appears to replicate a saloon that might be found in a town trying to attract tourists by restoring or replicating its original buildings.  My guess is that Mitchell intends this ambiguity.

Each of the three artists shown above have approached their saloon art from a different perspective but each within the sensibilities of his own time.  This suggests to me that drinking establishments will be the subject of artistic interest for a long time to come.  

Note:  Longer posts may be found on this website on both A.D.M. Cooper (April 19, 2019) and on John Sloan and McSorley’s (January 13, 2023).