The Sophistication of American Business Before WW I

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The Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, see here, contains a curio from a long-disappeared brewery. It is interesting not for most of the actual content but the commercial strategy it disclosed, one which puzzled me until an early business history in St. Louis made it all clear.

The booklet has an innocent title, almost anodyne, Art For The Home. It is from The American Brewing Company which was known for beers bearing the “A.B.C.” label. A.B.C. Bohemian was the flagship before Prohibition but A.B.C also produced other brands, including a Bock.

To read Art For The Home, open the 20 or so slides which form the book in the link given, start at 9/29, middle of bottom row.

Unlike contemporary narrative or photographic records of other breweries – Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz are some – there is no description of company history, no Horatio Alger account of early struggle or unceasing market and technological innovation.

The book is really a simple “promo”: it offers reproductions of allegedly famous paintings if readers will only send in a stated number of A.B.C. bottle labels. There is also a short history of pictorial art included, nicely-written. The book illustrates well early business promotional theory. The idea was similar to a contest, a gambit popular with many food and drink companies through the 1900s. In this case though, there was no element of chance, no opportunity to field skill: the consumer was simply provided an inducement to buy the product in the form of a bonus or premium, one which came at the right price: none.

Beeretseq can range reasonably widely in Western culture, but art studies have eluded him by and large: whether the portraits in Art For The Home are notable examples of Western visual art I can’t say. I didn’t recognize any names, but that’s neither here nor there. My interest is more the commercial purpose in putting out the book. It could not have been inexpensive to print and distribute presumably thousands of copies. Why didn’t A.B.C. simply do a standard business history or photographic record, like its competitors?

Mercantile, Industrial and Professional St. Louis (1903) by E. D. Kargau, a business and professional portrait of St. Louis, suggests the reason: A.B.C had only been in business 12 years! It had no history of a generation or more to hang its hat on, nothing comparable to Anheuser-Busch, Fred. Miller Brewing Co., and other breweries storied even then.

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One might think A.B.C. was a small player in 1903. Not the case. Kargau correctly explains that most businesses which gain success do so over a lengthy period, but there are “exceptions” and A.B.C. was one. As he showed, St. Louis actually counted fewer breweries in 1903 than 1860, when no less than 40 dotted the city. The reason was telling: the scale and technological sophistication required of brewing by turn of the century meant the future was for large, well-capitalized concerns. Small players could not survive, they hadn’t the time to grow slowly over decades.

A.B.C.’s impressive growth in a very short time showed it was the product of large initial investment and skilled management. This is not to say a principal of A.B.C. had no brewing background. But a company could not grow so fast from a standing start without some sophisticated financial and industrial planning, a hallmark of American business since the Gilded Age.

The main promoters of the brewery indeed were bankers, sons of a brewer…

As Kargau makes evident too, A.B.C. wasn’t the only brewery of this type in St. Louis. Brewing could now be willed into existence by the right combination of financial and executive resources, it didn’t have to develop from artisan roots, organically.

And so we see the real reason for A.B.C.’s  promo, a route longer-established competitors perhaps felt was beneath their dignity to explore: A.B.C. didn’t have their business history. It had no story comparable to an Anheuser-Busch or Pabst to lavish over 30 + pages of expensive paper and design. As a new kid on the block, it needed an edge: offering freebie art was one.

Who would want the art, for which the British term twee strikes me as apt? In a time when there was no radio, no tv, no internet, when art collection was the preserve of a monied class, lots of people. A.B.C. offered working and middle class people some diverting cultural content, at the right price – none.

I’d guess part of the intended audience too was younger male as some of the pictures depict fetching females. One or two are rather risqué (check out Phoebe). Perhaps part of the target audience was saloon owners. Many saloons festooned their walls with pictures of varying respectability. Not infrequently young women were shown in alluring pose. And of course, the gin mills had a ready source of the bottles needed.

The art offer was for a limited time only: if you missed the window, well, the products would sell themselves, as the savvy ad copy read. This book and the minds behind it are clearly examples of early marketing theory. The gambit may strike as cheesy today, but it was probably new and innovative then. I’d guess the idea emerged from early ad agencies on Madison Avenue or their equivalent in St. Louis. Certainly Kargau’s book shows St. Louis had the full panoply of services needed for a modern economy.

In the same general period, 1900-1919, you start to see articles in the brewery trade press on brand advertising. Merchandizing and advertising were already assuming a modern aspect. Smaller brewers had to get with the parade. The interruption of National Prohibition just delayed the process, it didn’t change it in any way.

Famous names like Anheuser-Busch sold over a 1,000,000 barrels a year when Teddy Roosevelt was President, top of the game then. This can incline to think A-B was the only game in town in its heyday. Not so: despite the reduction in St. Louis breweries by 1903, there were still a good number, and not (again) tiny neighbourhood operations.

Glean the picture by paging through the 32-page breweries chapter in Kargau’s book. There were about 14 breweries, all seemingly making lager.* William Lemp was one of them (later called Falstaff, finally absorbed into Pabst). Lemp Brewery was famed for introducing lager to the area around 1840 (dates differ in the accounts). A.B.C. had to make good beers to compete, and by all evidence it did. I’ll look at the range in a later post.

Finally, St. Louis didn’t start out making lager, it made top-fermented beers in an English way. And there is, as I found out fortuitously, a Jewish connection to very early St. Louis brewing, of interest to Beeretseq due to the writing I’ve done on the c. 1800 Hart brewery in Quebec. More on this soon, too.

Note re image: the first, c. 1900 beer label shown is from the impressive collection at the Tavern Trove website. The second image is from the site of the American Breweriana Association, here. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized users. Images believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*A number were affiliated under one roof of ownership, this is confirmed in Amy Mittelman’s 2007 history of American brewing. This was an era of consolidation often under foreign stock flotations, so clearly not all 14 were independent. In any case, there seems in 1903 to have been 14 operating breweries.

 

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