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Take Two Shots and Call Me in the Morning: The Business of Selling Beer and Liquor

By Michelle Montalbano

Posted on November 17, 2020

East Flatbush, 1980s

East Flatbush, 1980s

Jamel Shabazz Photograph Collection, SHBZ_0039, Center for Brooklyn History

There’s a long history of medicinal uses of alcohol.

Cooking too, for that matter. Recipe is the Latin imperative, and its original use was not for instructions on how to prepare dinner, but in prescriptions, where it was used as a command preceding a list of medicines to combine into a…cocktail. This also speaks to a more holistic understanding of food and drink as healing medicine, and chef as apothecary. But more on that in another POTW post!

"Grip, Colds, Catarrh...Cured" Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1903, Center for Brooklyn History

Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey’s advertising campaign in the early 20th century (1903-1907, or thereabouts) leaned particularly hard on this “only reliable cure for influenza” angle. Ads involved testimonials from prominent physicians and health experts, as well as letters written by individuals claiming to have cured themselves or ill family members of la grippe or catarrh with nothing but Duffy’s pure, strong “tonic-stimulant.” Even “temperance doctors” couldn’t help but swear by the stuff.

The American Medical Association issued an official statement declaring that alcohol had no medicinal value in 1917, but during Prohibition, the U.S. Treasury Department authorized physicians to write prescriptions for medicinal alcohol. Not surprisingly, the range of ailments that a doctor would prescribe pints of whiskey to cure was wide—from asthma to cancer—and this ultimately served as a nice way for doctors and pharmacists to line their pockets.

According to Dr. William Schaffner, Chairman of Preventative Medicine at Vanderbilt University, the science behind this isn’t totally dubious. The alcohol dilates blood vessels, making it easier for mucus membranes to deal with the infection. Which is great, because it’s toddy season.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1909, Center for Brooklyn History
"More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette." Sound familiar? This now-Mad Men famous approach to selling cigarettes was actually taking a page out of Duffy's playbook. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1950, Center for Brooklyn History
Selling Brooklyn Beer in the Mad Men Era of Advertising

Brooklyn was once a beer-brewing capital, but by the mid-20th century its breweries had been hobbled by prohibition and national competition. They were further wounded in 1949, when over 7,000 workers at 14 Brooklyn breweries went on strike for 81 days. Legend has it that Trommer Brewer’s original German yeast strains died during the strike and its beer never tasted the same. And while the local breweries were shut, nationally-distributed brands like Pabst and Budweiser, already growing in market share, filled the void.

In the 1950s, the struggling breweries turned to aggressive advertising campaigns to survive, just as  televisions were entering more and more homes. The ads no longer hid behind dubious medical claims, but unapologetically promoted alcohol consumption for its own sake. They targeted an expanded audience including women, young people, and the heavier drinkers who comprised a large part of sales (Schaefer Brewing Company, Brooklyn’s longest-operating brewery, bore the slogan, “The one beer to have when you’re having more than one”).

Piel Bros. Brewery coaster, 1957

Piel Bros. Brewery coaster, 1957

Coaster, Artifact Collection, M1987.35.3, Center for Brooklyn History

Brooklyn’s Piel Brothers Brewery hired Madison Avenue ad agency Young & Rubicam to create a campaign that would reach American audiences in their homes. Y&R unveiled two iconic animated characters, Bert and Harry Piel, who represented the Piel Brothers (the actual Piel brothers were Wilhelm, Gottfried and Michael, who got their start in East New York in 1883). Bert and Harry were enormously popular, but they could not prevent the sale of Piel Brothers Brewery in 1963. Other brewers including Schaeffer, Stroh, and Pabst continued to license and produce the Piel Brothers label until 2015.

Cracking Open the Case on the Beer Car

For our final artifact, we fast forward to the 1980s. The scene? East Flatbush. Here, we see a beautiful Black model posing seductively, challengingly, with her foot on the running board of a beer can-shaped car. The logo on the hood, which you have to squint to see, was the subject of some debate. Initially we thought this was a Schlitz logo, but in fact it’s Stroh’s, a national brewery located in Detroit that acquired Schlitz, as well as Schaefer, and many other local breweries, in order to compete on the national stage with the likes of Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors. Schlitz was acquired in 1982, so we might be able to reasonably deduce that this is a pulling-out-all-the-stops promo by the beer conglomerate to try to win local favor after subsuming hometown favorite​s.

This post was co-authored by Cecily Dyer

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