Doesticks Does the Lager Saloon

Meet Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B.

Mortimer Thomson was an American humorist, journalist, and author who died in 1875 at only 43.  One account states he was wounded in the Civil War where he covered the fighting in the first half of the war.

He wrote a number of full-length books and, acting undercover in Georgia, wrote an anti-slavery expose which is still remembered.

Thomson is catalogued by historians of humour. Comedy famously varies with the times, and even at his death his style was largely passé and the author forgotten. Yet, anthologies of humour sometimes include him, and he has been the subject of a number of academic studies.

He was born in the western part of New York State, in Riga, Monroe County. He has associations with University of Michigan and its student newspaper but left before graduating.

He became nationally famous in 1855 with the publication of Doesticks: What He Saysa collection of his humorous letters. In late 1858, the Sydney press printed this piece of Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B., Thomson’s nom de plume and his alter ego. It may be from the book, or one of the letters separately published in New York newspapers when Thomson was working there as a journalist.

He was a regular at Pfaff’s, a famous early lager beer house that was also a literary hangout. The letter, despite its elements of fantasy and fable, offers good vignettes of the New York German saloon, down to the foods served, the waitresses, decor such as it was, and the beer. The letter states his beer was sour, like a watered, sour strong beer (ale); he was not the first to be unimpressed with New York’s new drinking sensation.

Lager was still quite new in the city then, yet all the stock elements one associates with the German beer hall, down to the house band, were in evidence.

One can see elements in Thomson that later appeared in W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Robin Williams, and today in Stephen Colbert and Sarah Silverman (also the guy who did Borat). There is a zany quality in particular, and the stream of consciousness style.

The letter is satire, including that lager was far from innocent despite the public perception to the contrary, and enough would make anyone drunk. Another observation was the incredible amount of smoking that went on in the German saloons. In this period, pipes were the main agent, to be shadowed soon by cigars, and finally cigarettes.

The old Dutch pipes some people used – long, thin, white – are collected – hundreds of them – in Keens Steak House in New York, a 19th century survivor. Musty ale would come on strong soon in Keens and similar restaurants, but these were Anglophile holdouts in a city where lager soon became an indomitable force.

Here is the opening paragraph but read the full piece to capture the riotous tone and full spirit.

Lager Bier is a kindly liquid, and a moral agent; it is pleasant to the taste, and withal, is not intoxicating, so people say. Lager has taken out his papers and become naturalised, and is now as thoroughly American as before he was peculiarly German. Lager is a capital fellow to know, and I have just formed his acquaintance. I never drink inebriating compounds for several reasons; one of which is, I can’t afford the money it costs to get drunk, or the time it takes to get sober. I have, therefore, renounced my former friends. Brandy Cocktail and Whisky Punch, who are slippery fellows. B. C. left me in a station-house, with my head the size of a peach basket, and W. P. on one occasion led me into the company of some gentlemanly looking individuals, who picked my pocket of all my money, and then blacked my eyes because I didn’t get a bigger salary. But the other night I went with Damphool to drink some Lager Bier because I am convinced it does not contain half as much alcohol as distillery milk, and there is no more danger of a man getting drunk upon lager than on sweet cream.!
 (Distillery milk was milk from cattle fed on the spent grains of distilleries and breweries. Its quality was questioned on this account and colleagues of Thomson would have written exposes).
 Note re image: the image above was sourced at www.flashbak.com, and is identified therein as a Getty image. All intellectual property in or to the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user. Image believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.