Last week the New York Historical Society debuted their “Beer Here” exhibit, a history of beer in New York City. I was blown away by the sheer amount of items they actually had on hand and the amount that I learned just by walking around in it. On display were artifacts from circa 1850-1950. It was all laid out chronologically and I enjoyed being able to see the evolution of the beer industry in this way.
It took walking passed it a few times for it to really sink in, but there was at one time an “Ice Industry” in the United States, and the Beer Industry depended on it. Before refrigeration, ice was chopped and shipped where it needed to be. This is still surreal to me even as I write this. Giant saws were used in order to get to the ice from points north of New York City and many were on display in the exhibit. The ones I saw there were hand operated by one human being cutting through pure ice. Amazing. The hard life of the early brewery worker didn’t end there, further down the line for the folks that worked the farms you could see the creative boredom they faced during down time by looking at the door to their quarters that was on display. It featured almost a form of hieroglyphics, with essentially “tags” and drawings all over it.
At the top were some of the early brewing kings that were the bread and butter of the German communities earliest beer gardens. People like Jacob Ruppert, who’s inherited brewery fortune lead him to ownership of the New York Yankees that lasted during the entire span of Babe Ruth’s playing career. People like George Ehret who’s Manhattan based brewery put him among the City’s elite up until Prohibition.
At one point I lived in a neighborhood on Staten Island that used to be called “Prohibition Park”. It was filled with well maintained Victorian Houses that were the original settlements of the leaders in the Prohibition movement in the State. In fact many of the streets in this neighborhood were named after the original States to declare a prohibition on alcohol. This personal aspect made it all the more intriguing when I found out about a brewery that was based on Staten Island called, Rubsam & Horrmann’s (R & H’s as it was popularly known). Unfortunately after prohibition ended, they had to use some cheaper methods resulting in the company’s product being dubbed “Rotten & Horrible”. Needless to say, they folded shortly after.
One of the striking things I noticed was how much some of the early promotion looked similar to today’s New York Breweries. Boasts of the “Quality of Hops” were prevalent. I’m sure much of today’s design for breweries like Brooklyn and Sixpoint borrows from original art from breweries out here circa the 1930s and 1940s by design, but the continuance of style is pretty remarkable when it’s right in front of you.
See all the photos at the Brewed For Thought Facebook page.
Other highlights brought us into the 1950s and the television age, where an old Piels television ad with two cartoon spokesmen interviewing a fictional hockey player was on display. It actually was funny, especially considering how old it was. At the same time you had the Miss Rheingold contests being held and believe it or not they actually had Miss Rheingold 1956 in attendance! The different approaches in the 50s were varied, from the comical, to the patriotic, to the attempts at crossing over into pop culture. It seemed a lot of it lost focus on the beer itself, which is the angle most breweries fortunately take today and definitely took in the pre-Prohibition era.
I left with about triple the knowledge on beer history that I entered the exhibit with and as much as I’ve tried to express that in written form, I’d heavily suggest going through the pictures I took. This was one event where I went overboard with the pics and just couldn’t stop snapping them off. They really tell the story here.