Saturday, April 19, 2014



It's everywhere. On the news stand, in the mail box, blowing alongside the freeway. Fish are wrapped in it at the meat market, it's loaded in our computer printer (yea, I know, computers were supposed to do away with paper), it's in the bath room, on cans of food in the kitchen, and yes, even on bottles.

Paper was invented in ancient China in about 105 C.E during the Han Dynasty. It slowly spread to the west via the Silk Road. Papermaking and manufacturing in Europe started in the Iberian Peninsula, in the 10th century, eventually spreading to Italy and South France, and reaching Germany by 1400.

The Chinese, who pioneered "paper" created it by hand, using mulberry and other bast fibers (the "inner bark" or the skin of the tree) along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste. The earliest piece of paper found to date, at Fangmatan in Gansu province, is inscribed with a map and has been dated from 179-41 BC.

Europeans mechanized the process of paper production using water powered mills, (similar to the gold stamp mills used in the American west four and a half centuries later). The sound of mechanical stamps crushing tree bark, rags, fishnets and hemp waste soon began to resound in many European cities that were located adjacent to waterways. One paper mill, located in Nuremberg Germany in 1493, set the bar for later mills. The mill is located at the lower right corner. Due to their noise and smell, paper mills were required by medieval law to be erected outside of the city perimeter. (Anyone who's ever lived near, or driven by a modern pulp or paper mill can relate to the reasoning.)

Before the industrialization and modernization of paper production the most common fiber source was recycled fibers from used textiles, called rags. The rags were from hemp, linen and cotton. It was not until the introduction of wood pulp in 1843 that paper production was no longer almost entirely dependent on recycled materials from rag pickers. The used bottle and rag man was not an uncommon sight in the west even during the latter half of the 19th century.

Paper has one inherent flaw, it has a high mortality rate. Without getting too scientific, the modern paper production process (kraft process) was invented in the 1870's and by the 1890's most commercial producers of paper had switched over from the sulfite process that was invented in 1843. It utilizes an acid based chemical process that breaks down wood fibers. The only problem with this process is that left unchecked, this process continues and the paper ultimately self destructs unless treated by a conservator. Sunlight and moisture accelerate the process.

The modernization of paper production greatly reduced the cost of production and the use of paper for labeling products grew by leaps and bounds. Hand in hand with the modernization of paper production came the evolution of color printing. What had previously been shades of blacks and grays printed on crème colored paper gradually evolved into brilliant multi color offset litho labels on bright white stock.

So what do paper production and printing have to do with pre-prohibition western whiskies? A lot! 

Back in the late 1960's, just as whiskey collecting was emerging from it's infancy, labeled bottles were still somewhat available. Not plentiful, but we certainly saw a great deal more "back in the day", than we do now. Sadly though, most collectors were either scraping or soaking off the paper labels so that the bottles would display better in a sunlit window or a lighted display case. So much for history...

Back in my early collecting days, again in the 60's, I lived a few blocks from some of the pioneers of the hobby. John Howe (who wrote the first western whiskey book), and his friends Dale Hoyt and Dave McLeod, all had impressive collections. Many of the bottles that John pictured in Antique Whiskey Bottles came from these collectors. And scattered through the pages of the book are an occasional cylinder that was still sporting it's original paper label. I spent countless hours drooling over John, Dale and Dave's bottles, and for some reason, I was drawn to the labels. I was just a kid, in my teens and had no idea what it was that caught my fancy, but as soon as I was able to start buying, instead of digging whiskies, I gravitated toward the labeled stuff whenever I could find them.

A couple of my first acquisitions were fairly early pieces. John W. Wolf (dba "John Wolf & Co."), located at 410 Clay St., San Francisco, apparently decided to try to sneak one by C. P. Moorman and A. P. Hotaling in 1887. Rather than go to the expense of having a private mold cut for an endeavor that may or may not fly, he opted to have Bosqui Engraving Company, (located at the S.E. corner of Clay & Leidesdorff, S.F.) make up paper labels. The workmanship is exquisite; the labels picture two barrel ends supporting another hogshead barrel turned sideways. One label advertises Club House Old Bourbon, the other Imperial A1 Cabinet.

The labels bear an uncanny resemblance to labels used by Hotaling; an observation that obviously did not go un-noticed since no embossed John Wolf & Co. examples with barrels have been seen, and these are the only two labeled examples that, to my knowledge, have surfaced.


A recent find came from beneath an aged building in John Thomas's old stomping grounds, Weaverville, Ca. This label was printed for John Sroufe & Co, when he was located at 208 - 210 Market St., and advertises Blue Grass Bourbon. Again, amazing graphics detailing a picture of a working still. The printing is in sepia tones, while the graphics are, once again, on crème colored paper. This label contains two things of importance to collectors. Both the address and the brand; neither of which had previously been linked to Sroufe.

(A friend just sent me a photo of his Sroufe / Blue Grass example. It's in much better shape than mine and has the 6 ray S.F. star base. Check out the color of the cylinder! It too came out of Weaverville.)
Sometimes though, the labels serve up more questions than they answer. The S. F. directories do not list Sroufe in business as a sole proprietor prior to his association with McCrumm in 1876. Their partnership lasted until 1893. So what is an obviously original label doing on a crude glop top cylinder, when the earliest possible date that it could have been in use is in 1893? Perhaps a shoe string startup budget using recycled bottles, courtesy of the used rag and bottle dealer?

Another interesting piece advertises Laurel Crown OK Old Bourbon. Again, label only, but not one that we see every day.

It most probably dates to the late 70's. Both the "OK" and the spelling of Whisky, indicate that he was pushing pure Kentucky Bourbon; or at least that's what he wanted folks to think... Based on the crudity and the style, one would have to guess that this label was used for Wm. Hoelschers flagship brand before he stepped to the plate and had the embossed mold cut. The base mark on this piece is an oddball. The bottle is obviously S.F. glass, but the base is embossed with something resembling an angular hour glass.


Without question, my favorite early label proudly resides on a popular embossed glop top cylinder; a Tea Kettle. It was found, lying on it's side, beneath a residence in Virginia City Nevada, many years ago.

Based on the crudity and style of the top, it most probably dates to the mid 70's; the era of the height of the silver boom on the Comstock. The era when times were flush, over 25,000 people called "VC" home and the saloons never closed. If it could only talk~
 As time marched on, the labels began to get more colorful. Gradually, multiple colors began to appear instead of the monochromatic scheme present on earlier pieces. And the artwork evolved as well. No longer were the liquor wholesalers satisfied with just seeing their name and the brand printed on the label. Victorian excess slowly, but surely, began to make it's presence known, even on liquor labels.

The Tausig P. Moreville AAA Bourbon (Louis Taussig) is a good example of the transition that started to occur in the mid to late 90's. This is a labeled example of the slug plate "Wholesale Liquor Dealers" variant that is attributed to ca. 1892 - 1902. Notice the typical dark lettering, on crème colored paper, but with the addition of bright red at the top of the label, which gives "AAA" emphasis.

This labeled and embossed glop top Early and Often Whiskey Cocktail (Goldberg Bowen & Lebenbaum) was found in the attic of the general store at Ft. Bidwell, Ca. many years ago. It dates to the same era as the AAA above. Schmidt Lithography Company of S. F., dates back to 1849. They were noted lithographers of the era and were quite progressive. They were responsible for the labels on this example. Note the inclusion of gold into the labels theme.

By the turn of the century, the graphics had evolved to the point where the artwork on the labels was highly ornate. The Rosenblatt Company dates to 1900. This labeled and embossed tool top features a winged cherub crushing grapes in a wine press with one hand, while grasping a vine laden with ripe grapes with the other. All this, while the label extols the quality and purity of the brandy inside the bottle.


A similar theme is present on the labeled and embossed Gundlach Bundschu / California Bacchus Sherry. This label employed Bacchus, the wine god, instead of a cherub, to drive home the products virtues.



Rosenblatt also sold cordials in addition to whiskey and brandy. My grandmother was born in Oakland Ca. in the 1880's. She smoked like a chimney and drank whiskey until the day she passed through the pearly gates. Her drink of choice was Rock & Rye. I can recall as a child, getting a sip on occasion. A ladies drink, it was sweet. The inclusion of reds and golds into the label, was probably an attempt to soften up the graphics, make it brighter and flashier, and attract the trade of the fairer sex.



A fanciful depiction of "the berry" draws ones eye to the label, while subconsciously suggesting the purity of the Blackberry Cordial inside this labeled and embossed Louis Taussig product.

Kentucky Lily was a brand of "medicinal whiskey" marketed by Crown Distilleries for family use around 1900. Although not popular, like their Lilydale brand, it was obvious that they felt that an eye catching label would help sell the brand. The black type with the gilt rooster and ornate graphics are really eye catching. Fortunately, the brand flopped. To my knowledge, this example, complete with lead foil, and original closure is unique.


Even the lowly tanker, a late bottle (and the Rodney Dangerfield of western whiskies) when outfitted with the original label, becomes a rarity. And although these generally date to the teens, just like their predecessors, the attention to detail and brilliant colors are still present. Without the label, they're like a row of bowling pins. Boring. But with an intact label they become something that any bottle collector would jump at the chance to acquire.

Labeled with contents ratchets the bar up yet another notch. The E. G. Lyons Blackberry Liqueur was found deep inside a mine shaft near Goldfield Nevada. Never exposed to the heat of the desert, or the rays of the sun, it looks like it was pulled off the back bar of Tex Rickards "Northern Saloon" last week.

Same goes for the F. Chevalier & Co. / Sappho brand Creme DeMenthe and the Oak Run mini from Brunsing Tolle & Postel.


With roughly seven dozen on my shelves, it's hard to pick a favorite. It's actually a tie in my book. The Bohemian Club Whiskey Cocktail, printed for M. Newman around 1907, has it all. Brilliant colors, awesome graphics, and... another rooster.

But if I had to choose one that stands
out when combining color, graphics, and composition, it would be the label on this embossed Wm. Hirschler tooled cylinder dating from the mid 90's. Talk about over the top! My guess is that the lithographer who designed this label, was imbibing of some sort of pre food and drug act substance while "creating"...



Coming full circle; labeled western whiskeys have always held a draw for me. Availability years ago was good by comparison, condition often great, and prices were reasonable. I personally was attracted to the labels because of both their inherent mortality, and because of the history present on the paper that was not on the embossing. I'm glad that I got while the gittin' was good. Apparently, gone are the days when a bottle with a label was about as affordable as one without.

Seems that a lot of people have recently realized what I figured out thirty plus years ago. There's a limited supply. Limited supply coupled with demand equals competition. It's an age old law of economics. Where there's competition, ebay's normally not too far behind. (a modern law of economics). Now I realize that ebay has a way of wringing out the last cents (and sense) of some collectors, but what I've seen lately has been nothing short of mind boggling. Recently a tooled Crown Distileries cylinder (with maybe 70% remaining of a dog eared paper label) hammered for over $250~. And a tooled Kelloggs (granted in excellent shape with a rainbow of color) brought close to $350~.

I guess the color of the ink on the paper is immaterial these days. Be it black, red, yellow, brown or...; it's all gold.


Anonymous said...

Great post Bruce can never get enough western stuff but gotta ask what are all those weird shaped bottles behind the teakettle pictures

Anonymous said...

Wow..... Great collection and great article Bruce !!

Dennis Rogers said...

You outdid yourself on this post Bruce, outstanding! I love the paper labeled whiskeys, always have. The glop tops with labels are all so rare, my favorites here are your 2 John Wolf's and the Laurel Crown.

Kentucky Gem said...

Those "weird shaped bottles behind the Tea kettle" are what has been called "my darker side". Everyone's got their secrets. Mine happens to be a well rounded rainbow of bitters. In this view, they are Drakes Plantations ranging in color from deep green to lollipop yellow, and from topaz to puce amber. But, I'm an equal opportunity bitters collector and don't believe in discriminating against other brands. You should see the display cases on the opposing wall~

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