Published: May 29, 2012
Historians say that wine and beer have been around for about 9,000 years. The two venerable beverages seem eternally popular everywhere, with new wineries and craft breweries popping up around the United States especially in recent years.
Celebrating the joys of wine and beer, two fascinating exhibitions have been mounted. “Uncorked! Wine, Objects & Tradition” at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library through January 6, utilizes more than 300 objects to trace how wine was marketed, consumed and enjoyed in America and Britain, 1500‱950. “Beer Here: Brewing New York’s History” at New-York Historical Society through September 2, surveys the saga of the social, economic, political and technological production and consumption of beer and ale in Gotham over the last 350 years.
At Winterthur, an impressive range of items associated with wine drinking †from wineglasses and cellarettes to song sheets and paintings †attest to the love of wine on both sides of the Atlantic. Winterthur’s senior curator of ceramics and glass Leslie Grigsby has organized the show around six themes in this delightfully broad display.
“Classical References” highlights links between Greek and Roman wine vessels and deities and designs of later wares. Eighteenth Century English Wedgwood vases were often decorated with grape and grapevine motifs. Images of Bacchus, the god of grape harvests and pioneer winemaker, frequently ornamented wine-related accessories.
“The Business of Wine” section examines how wine and related objects were bought or sold. While wealthy consumers sometimes purchased wines from wholesalers, retailers or overseas agents, until the 1750s taverns played major roles in distributing wine to the general public. Thereafter, wine stores began to dominate off-premises wine and spirits trade. Merchants often used images of glasses of wine to add elegance to messages in trade cards
The largest section, “Consumption & Equipage,” focuses on vessels associated with specific types of wine, settings where wine was consumed and wine’s role in social life. Early in America’s history, European wines were most popular, with preferences depending on wine availability, cultural associations and pocketbook. Glasses, decanters and other wine equipment were imported until well after the Revolutionary War. As incomes increased, manufacturers offered a broader range of goods at different prices. Consumers who once could afford only a single set of wineglasses could purchase a greater variety of sizes, shapes and styles. The affluent could also acquire specialized furniture to store drinking vessels, such as cellarettes, or bottle chests, with compartments for various types of beverage bottles and glasses.
To attract increasingly sophisticated consumers, bottles and decanters sold in England and America were embellished with the names of particular wines †Madeira, claret and sherry †engraved, painted in enamel or inscribed on hanging labels. Cruciform, or cross-shaped, carafes were molded to maximize surface areas for chilling, as exemplified by an early Eighteenth Century glass example from England. A great variety of stemware in glass, ceramics and wood became available to consumers from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries.
For those who wished to go out for a drink, a variety of public houses were available in cities or along important roads and waterways. Taverns sold wine, spirits and food. Inns often served wine, beer, ale, cider and food, and offered overnight accommodations for humans and horses.
Whether in taverns, inns or homes, alcoholic beverages were associated with card playing, board games or formed the centerpiece of entertainments themselves. “Puzzle jugs,” pierced strategically to make them challenges to drink from, as well as mugs and pitchers with holes that spilled on drinkers, were much like today’s “dribble cups.”
“Politics, Patriotism & Taxes” surveys the manner in which war, politics, taxes and trade agreements influenced the types and quantities of wines and wine-related items available in England and America. In the colonial era, British monarchs and George Washington were favored subjects on wine wares on respective sides of the Atlantic.
Reflecting wine’s traditional part in religious observances, the “Religion” section displays vessels made for church ceremonies, notably silver and pewter communion services, including beakers, chalices and flagons. Of particular interest is a silver communion wine tankard made by leading colonial silversmith Paul Revere. Items made for the home depicted biblical themes or satirized churchmen showing more interest in luxurious lifestyles than in spiritual matters.
The final section, “Temperance,” illustrates varied efforts over time to reduce drunkenness. Hardly a Twentieth Century phenomenon, they date to early times when people promoted abstinence or at least moderation in alcoholic beverage consumption.
Starting with ancient Greek and Roman writings, enlightened leaders suggested it was crude and uncivilized to become inebriated. When such distilled spirits as gin and whiskey became cheaper and more widely available after the early 1700s, heavy drinking increased among the poor, who had traditionally drunk beer and ale, which were lower in alcohol content. “Some temperance groups,” says curator Grigsby, “even praised beer and ale as healthier alternatives to spirits!”
By the early Nineteenth Century, board games were devised to teach alcohol morality to children, and temperance plays, most famously Ten Nights in a Bar-Room , starting around midcentury, dramatized the evils of drink and the virtues of temperance.
The history of beer brewing, marketing and consumption has traditionally been the province of beer aficionados. The New-York Historical Society exhibition aims to broaden the subject by examining the city’s long relationship to this age-old beverage in the wider context of New York’s history.
Beer has been brewed in New York City and state since the days of its earliest European settlement, when it was both a source of nourishment and tax revenues. Brewing continued both locally and statewide in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; in the Nineteenth Century, the state was home to one of the nation’s largest brewing industries. Vital to this achievement was the early Nineteenth Century development of the state’s hop-farming industry. New York State was the largest producer of hops in the country, 1840‱890.
The exhibition begins with an examination of the nutritional properties of colonial beer and offers such artifacts as the 1779 account books of city brewer William D. Faulkner, who sold beer to both the Continental and British armies.
The importance of ready access to clean, potable water for New York City’s brewers †and inhabitants †prior to the 1842 opening of the Croton Aqueduct is reflected in a section of wooden pipe from an early water system, the Manhattan Water Company, chartered in 1799. An expansive painting by Andrew Fisher Bunner, “Cutting Ice, Rockland Lake, N.Y.,” circa 1890, is a reminder of how much Nineteenth Century breweries relied on ice harvested from fresh water sources north of the city.
An early prohibition effort, via a law passed by the state legislature in 1855, is recalled in a bronze medal that pleaded for “No Repeal.” The state Supreme Court soon struck down that temperance measure.
The Nineteenth Century influx of immigrants from Europe, especially from beer-loving Germany, stimulated the founding of large-scale breweries in the Big Apple. A color lithograph created by Currier & Ives to promote “Fresh, Cool Lager Beer” recalls that brewing and consuming cold, lager beer was introduced in the United States in the 1840s by German immigrant brewers.
An interesting section of the exhibition concerns the post-Civil War rivalry of two of the city’s most important brewers, George Ehret and Jacob Ruppert, who competed for the same markets from back-to-back breweries in Yorkville.
A color lithograph, “George Ehret’s Hell Gate Brewery,” shows a expansive red brick complex built in several stages, combining elements of a castle, firehouse, factory and car barn, topped by a large clock tower with a flagpole resting on gilt beer barrels. By 1877, this site was the largest brewery in the country. Ruppert’s less flamboyantly designed brewery was not far behind.
Since in those days most beer was sold on tap or in buckets and jugs, Ehret and Ruppert competed for customers in saloons. It was common practice for them to loan saloon keepers start-up money or to own saloons themselves. With 42 saloons in the city, Ehret was called the “King of Beer Corners.” Ruppert promoted sale of his beer and ale through metal bar trays featuring clinking mugs filled with foaming beverage.
Curiously, in spite of their intense competition, Ehret and Ruppert got along well personally. As Christopher Gray wrote recently in The New York Times , “The entire brewery fraternity seems to have been on extraordinarily close terms, as if management of Coke and Pepsi vacationed together.” He notes that both beer barons, of German extraction, supported the same organizations, attended the same balls and weddings, had family members who intermarried and even co-owned a silk mill. Ruppert was native-born; Ehret a naturalized citizen.
Things were dicey for German Americans during World War I. Ehret †so closely associated with German causes †had his business (valued at $40 million) taken over by the government as alien property. Jacob Ruppert died before America’s entry into the war, and his son, who took over, was protected from harassment by virtue of having served in the National Guard and as owner of the New York Yankees, who soon acquired Babe Ruth.
When ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920 instituted Prohibition, Ehret tried to ride it out by keeping his workers on, but he died in 1927 and two years later his family shuttered Hell Gate Brewery. When the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933 and the beer business boomed, Ruppert hired 300 additional workers, and in 1935, he acquired Ehret’s brewery.
After Jacob Ruppert Jr died in 1939, business slowed down. In 1965, the entire brewery was closed. It was demolished in urban renewal a few years later and replaced by mixed-income housing.
The exhibition concludes, appropriately, with a small beer hall featuring a selection of favorite New York “artisanal beers.”
These interesting and revelatory exhibitions underscore how wine and beer have become part of the social fabric of America, with continuing consumption prompting new forms of beverages and ubiquitous advertising. Wine has become a beverage of choice at all levels of society, particularly among the elite, while as someone once said, the act of drinking beer with friends is the highest form of art.
A free, informative, illustrated booklet accompanies the Winterthur exhibition.
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library is at 5105 Kennett Pike. For information, 800-448-3833 or www.winterthur.org .
The New-York Historical Society is at 170 Central Park West. For information, 212-873-3400 or www.nyhistory.org .
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