R.D. Blumenfeld on Drinking Ways. Part I.

Countering the American Sumptuary, 1930

A concise biography of the American-born editor and journalist Ralph David Blumenfeld appears in Encyclopdia.com. Fairly long-lived, 1864-1948, serious illness ended his active career in 1936. Much of his adult life was spent in Britain, where he was naturalized in 1907. He became an influential Fleet Street editor, rising to editor-in-chief of the Daily Express, a post he held until 1932.

His father was a German-Jewish immigrant to the American Midwest who had founded a German-language newspaper. The son worked for his father as a compositor. He later gained experience as a telegrapher, and wrote for newspapers in Chicago and New York. He became an editor in New York even before reaching 30.

Blumenfeld settled in the U.K. in 1894, initially to sell linotype equipment to British newspaper owners, so he had left journalism for a time.* He was successful in such line but could not resist journalism’s lure. In 1900 he re-entered the fifth estate, this time in his adopted country.

Together with Canadian-born Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) and another Canadian journalist, Beverly Baxter, Blumenfeld injected an American flavour in British journalism. The Daily Express was partly refashioned on American lines, using a large-type format and featuring human interest stories.

I discussed Baxter earlier in my post “When the Americans Arrived”. His smooth interviewing and Yankee-style writing now make even more sense, as further sources indicate Blumenfeld was a mentor.

In 1930, towards the end of his active career, Blumenfeld delivered a portrait of drinks and drinking at Christmas-time, “Seeing old Year out in wet England”. Printed in a Washington, D.C. newspaper, it offered a tantalizing view of foreign drinking ways to a society sapped by years of bluenose National Prohibition

Reading the opening paragraphs, I was reminded of Jack Kerouac’s portrait of a well-stocked cafeteria in wintry New York in the novel Visions of Cody. Kerouac described luscious foods as perceived by an impoverished Beat wanderer. The misty showcase disclosed technicolor glazed cakes and pastries, all beyond the means of the artist forever estranged from conventional society.

Americans reading Blumenfeld in 1930 had to react with similar longing. Beer is not mentioned as such but one photo shows a server drawing beer in a pub. Another, more telling, shows savants dressed à la City judging beer at a competition. I discussed one such event in the post “The Bitter Test”.

A snippet from the piece shows the Blumenfeld style well:

His [shop] window is a blaze of electric lamps, shining on imitation snow and ice. Lying on the snow are sledges piled high with every drink you can imagine. There are bottles of very old brandy which you may buy for the price of a bottle of inferior bootleg gin, graceful Hock bottles with their long stems, jolly, fat Hollands [a gin], clarets, Burgundys, Bordeaux, bottles of Scotch and bottles of Irish, and in a sledge all to themselves the succulent, insidious French liqueurs so dear to women and so cheap to buy.

On and on he went, readers’ eyes widening apace:

…at one end of the display Santa Claus is loaded to the white and bushy eyebrows with kummel, white port, Gordon’s gin—the real, not the synthetic—Rhine wine, vodka, and a sack over his shoulder from the neck of which peep the golden tops of bottles of champagne by such firms as Heidsick, Pol Roger, Pommeroy, Lemoine …

Blumenfeld’s sketch of the wine vaults at the London Docks, built by the great engineer Rennie in the early 1800s, evoked an institution that lasted for much of the last two centuries but has now (2020) passed. An invitation to taste wine in the dank cellars was a mark of social distinction.

Such connoisseurship is now more broadly disseminated in our society, for wine, beer… almost any drink you can think of, or food. By revealing the arcane rituals of wine and beer experts in 1930, Blumenfeld forecast our modern time where everyman (metaphorically) can be an expert, should he wish.

Increased democracy and the capitalist ethic, boosted by the information age, have made it so. The National Portrait Gallery harbors today a painting of R.D. Blumenfeld. He looks a man of discernment, and judgment.

Part II.


*On this point see this death notice printed in Australia.

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