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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Fred and Christian Hilbert

A couple of days ago Dale posted an interesting short on Hilbert Bros. He addressed the rarity of the cylinders, both glop and tooled, and it got me to wondering about the reason. As mentioned, there's around a half dozen of the red whittled German connection glop tops, and a lesser number of the western blown tool tops in collections. But why? Thomas listed a time line for Hilbert Bros. proper of 10 years, and Hilbert Mercantile of another 3...

The "rest of the story" took some time to dig up, but the reason for the rarity of these bottles becomes crystal clear.

Fred H., and Christian H., Hilbert did indeed set up shop in 1890. The first reference that I found was in the Crocker Langley directory for 1890. But, they were located not on Folsom St. (as Thomas stated) but instead at the NW corner of Seventh and Bryant. I could find no evidence supporting Thomas's claim that they ever were located on Folsom St. They remained at Seventh and Bryant for two years, and located to 101 Powell in 1892. By then they were listed in bold type and it appeared things were going well. They obtained telephone service in February 1893 and were assigned #3171 by the Pacific Telephone and telegraph Company in February of that year. Trouble appeared on the horizon as early as the following month. On April 6, 1893, Hilbert Bros. advertised the 101 Powell St. address for sale.
Not only was it for sale, the ad stated "must be sold".
The firm had a "near miss" with disaster on the evening of Oct. 29, 1893, when the fire department responded to an alarm at an address listed as 101 - 103 Powell St. Firefighters extinguished a fire in the area used for wine storage. Cause of the fire; unknown. Hmm, I guess that's one way to deal with cash flow issues. Looks like the torch could have used a little practice though.

The 1893 Directory is missing from the archives but by 1894, they were listing their address as 101 - 103 Powell St. Instead of bold type, they were back to being shoehorned in with the rest of the small time operators and all but disappear in small font size. 1895 saw them reassigned with a new telephone number (South 171) but still at the 101-103 address on Powell. Early 1896 appears status quo but by the fall of 1896 all reference to the 101 Powell St. address vanishes and they are listed exclusively at the 103 site. The S.F. Call of October 1, 1896 lists their "old established liquor store and bar" for sale.
On January 18, 1897, the noose appears to have tightened further and their enterprise (grocery and bar) was offered simply for lease, lock stock and barrel, for the princely sum of $750~ for three years.
The following tidbits are irrelevant to the early bottles and their rarity, but nevertheless provide a little more insight into the workings of the business. Thomas states that the name of the firm was changed to the Hilbert Mercantile Co. in 1903. An ad dated Dec. 7, 1903 supports this and advertises them as Pacific Coast Agents for ABC beer.

The 1905 directory does indeed list Hilbert Mercantile, located at 136 - 142 2nd. St. Things get a little cloudy about this time though. A newspaper article dated October 28, 1905 lists Hilbert Bros. as the creditor in a suit filed against F. Cavagnero (Columbian Bourbon). Not sure what the name discrepancy was all about. Another contradiction appears in the form of an ad from this year showing their Bourbon Whiskey being sold at fire sale prices. Note the name; (Hilbert Bros.). It would appear that the beginning of the end was at hand and they were grasping at straws to hang on.

Oddly enough, the pre-Earthquake 1906 directory fails to list either Hilbert Bros. or Hilbert Mercantile. Although Thomas states that they were destroyed in the disaster, evidence point to the firms demise shortly before.

That being said, it is evident that they were exclusively at the 101 address embossed on the bottle for only two years; 1892 - 1894. Times were apparently tough during that window of opportunity. Best guess is that they jumped in with both feet and had private molds made as soon as they moved into the 101 Powell St. location. Once the initial supply was used up, their product was probably bottled with paper labels only to reduce expenses.

Had the firm prospered, one would expect to see volumes of advertising, and a bottle embossed with both the 101 and the 103 address. Instead, we see one amber full face cylinder design (both tooled S.F. Glass and German connection glop top), another clear (both tooled S.F. Glass and German connection glop top), with 101 embossed and another S.F. Glass full face tool top sans any address in the way of early bottles. There also exists an extremely rare coffin with the 101 address on it.

Newspaper archives are completely and totally void of any advertising and it appears that they were either content with, or forced to, make ends meet on a very small scale. The firm of Hilbert Bros. seems to have endured ongoing financial hardships for it's entire life span. The early years were tough, but they managed to eke out an existence, barely, and we have that to thank for the exceptional rarity of their early glass.

PS: For the record, contrary to Thomas's claim, the tool top from my collection pictured above, is as crude and rude as most of the 80's glop tops sitting on my shelves...


Lordbud said...

Just about the final time I attended the Niles, Calif. yearly antique show I found this in a box wrapped in newspaper at the back of an antique store I looked through after the disappointing show. A Hilbert Bros coffin flask for just about nothing. $3. I sent you a pic email.

Kentucky Gem said...

Many thanks for the photo!

Anonymous said...

It is my opinion that the 4pc-mold tool-top is just about as rare as its German bro. Probably missed being a glob-top by only 5 or 6 yrs. If it had one, we'd be looking at a top 25 whiskey !

Kentucky Gem said...

Good point about the top 25. The glop vs. tooled mindset that existed for so long rears it's ugly head again.

It's my contention though, that both the German and the S.F. "101 Powell St." full face variants were ordered at the same time; ca. 1892 - 1894. Again, with the S.F. glassworks experiencing a demand / supply issue at that time, they could well have "outsourced" production of half the order through Abramson Heunich.

Mike Dolcini said...

There are earlier fifths with tooled tops and later one that are applied. It is a distinct possibility that some SF blown examples of the Hilbert Bros. bottle had applied tops and are awaiting discovery in some lonesome Mission District privy. Of course, that location is just a SWAG, but the location could be anywhere along the Coast.

As an example, I dug two POKs out of one Eureka pit, one applicable, one not. The toolie was far more appealing than it's globber brother. We REALLY don't know what is "out there".

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