Sunday, May 12, 2024

Adolph Hirschman & a $35,000 Saloon Sign

As a youthful immigrant from Germany, Adolph Hirschman took years and many miles to find his footing on the American business scene.  From New York he ventured to Savannah, Georgia, working for a grocery firm as a traveling salesman.  In 1882, saying farewell to the Sunny South, he headed 1,370 miles north to St. Paul, Minnesota, to open a saloon and liquor store.  Prospering there, Hirschman commissioned a saloon sign with himself as the central figure a picture that not long ago sold at auction for $35,000.

Shown below, the sign was created by a lithographic technique developed in Germany in which images were put on stone plates and subsequently transferred to metal sheets.   The technology swiftly was brought to  America and the Tuscarora Advertising Company.   By 1895 advertisers from all over the United States were sending in orders for metal signs to the Coshocton, Ohio, factory. Among them was one from Hirschman in St. Paul, who knew what he wanted.

Hirschman’s order for a sign likely included a preliminary design.  Entitled “East Meets West,” the 36 by 27 inch picture contained an ad for Hirschman’s flagship brand,  “Henry Hunter Fine Old Rye,” illustrated with a whiskey barrel.  Perhaps more important, two-thirds of the image depicted a cowboy addressing an elegantly outfitted man. Look closely at the latter. Then look at the photo of Hirschman, right.  The proprietor had placed himself on his saloon sign.  As if to leave no doubt, the suitcase at the feet of the figure is marked “A. H. & Co.”

When the sign, virtually pristine in a well-made oak frame, went up for auction several years ago, speculation arose that is was one of a kind.  While possible, I lean to the idea that Hirschman, while not making many copies, funded a few to give his very best customers.  He also made use of the image as his trademark, and featured it on his letterhead.

The man behind this iconic sign was born in March 1852 in Brandenberg, Germany, the son of Phillip and Mary (Caspari) Hirschman.  He was educated in its elementary and secondary schools.  While still in his adolescence, his mother died. When Adolph was 17, his father emigrated with the family to the United States, residing in Troy, New York, and working as a cigar manufacturer.  The youth’s early employment has gone unrecorded, but most likely he was engaged in the mercantile trades.

In 1876 Adolph married Rose Cohen, a New York City resident four years younger than he.  Their only child, Benjamin M., was born the following year.  This growing family may have encouraged Hirschman to look outside New York for employment. In the early 1880s, he moved wife and child to Savannah, Georgia, joining the wholesale grocery firm of Solomon Brothers as a traveling salesman.  

The company dated from 1873, owned by Henry Solomon and his brother, N.E. Solomon, immigrants from England.  Not long after Hirschman’s arrival, the brothers split.  In July 1882 Henry Solomon created a new company with his son, Alexander, as a partner.  Left “high and dry,” N. E. Solomon reached out to Hirschman with a proposition to co-own a wholesale and retail liquor house and saloon.  One catch:  The property was in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1370 miles north of Sunny Savannah in the frigid “North Star State.”  

Nonetheless, Hirschman jumped at the chance to run his own business.  Bundling up Rose and Benjamin, he quickly relocated to St. Paul, where he would live the rest of his life.  Although the details of their financial arrangements remain undisclosed, N.E. Solomon quickly exited the partnership, likely bought out by Hirschman. He now was in sole charge of a liquor house and saloon.  According to one account:  “He proved successful from the first and from small beginnings he has continually enlarged the scope of his operations until he now owns a very extensive business.” 


Among Hirschman’s gifts was an artistic eye, manifest in the well designed labels he gave his whiskeys, illustrated here on his “Red Wing Whiskey” label featuring an accurately drawn red wing blackbird.  Hirschman’s flagship brand was “Minnesota Club Whiskey,” available in quart and flask-sized bottles, as shown below.  He does not appear to have trademarked any of his house brands.

Hirschman advertised Minnesota Club widely, citing it as “A particular brand for
 particular people, to be had at all clubs and first-class buffets.  A trial will convince.”  He also provided the saloons, hotels and restaurants carrying his liquor with several different varieties of back of the bar bottles advertising Minneapolis Club.


His largesse to his wholesale customers extended to providing shot glasses and serving trays advertising his brands   At right is a tray that advertises Minnesota Club.  The hunting motif was a common one for Midwest whiskeys.  The tray likely was a products of the Tuscarora Company, noted for manufacturing those items as well as saloon signs.  

Having chosen Minnesota as his home, as he prospered Hirschman became  a major investor in its Mesabi Range Iron mines.  One of four major iron deposits in northern Minnesota, the Mesabi stretches 100 miles.  There the soft ore lay close to the surface to be scooped up from open pit mines.  The whiskey man’s  investments were concentrated at the Mesabi's Canisteo mines in Itasca County.  They proved to be productive from their discovery in 1907 through the 1980s.

The Mesabi iron mines

Hirschman also was active in St. Paul’s civic and social life as a member of the local Masons, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Sons of Hermann (a mutual aid society for German immigrants), Elks, St. Paul Auto Club, Association of Commerce, and the St. Paul Commercial Club.  He also served as vice president of Mount Zion Temple, a prominent local synagogue.

As his son Benjamin came of age, his father took him into the liquor house, first as a traveling salesman and in 1904 as a full partner.  The duo operated their liquor establishment successfully until closed in 1920 by National Prohibition.  Hirschman lived just long enough to see the “dry” law rescinded, dying in 1935.  He was buried in the Mt. Zion Temple Cemetery under the monument shown right.  His widow, Rose, joined him there three years later.

Summing up Hirschman’s career as a “whiskey man,” a biographer wrote: “He has ever manifested…indomitable perseverence, high intelligence and business sagacity.”  Hirschman also has left future generations an image of himself as he apparently would like to be remembered:   in formal dress, debonair, standing in front of his bar — seemingly fulfilling the elegant dreams of an immigrant boy.

Notes:  This post principally was drawn from two biographies of Adolf Hirschman. The first is from “History of St. Paul and Vicinity:  A Chronicle of Progress,” by Henry Anson Castle, 1912.  The second was “Men of Minnesota,”  author unidentified, published by R. L. Polk & Co., St. Paul, 1915.


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