The Belmont and Astor Distilleries were opened in 1881. These distilleries were back to back in Louisville at 17th and Breckenridge Streets. The location is where the present-day Bernheim Distillery is located. Very shortly after the distilleries were opened, the owners hired the artist Carl Brenner to depict the distilleries in paintings. Brenner was a very well-known artist in Louisville at the time and the paintings are very well crafted. Over the years, these paintings have been featured in many advertisements for the brands made at the distilleries. The archive at United Distillers had both of these paintings in their collection.
These distilleries closed down with Prohibition. When Prohibition ended, the distilleries and brands were purchased by two Chicago businessmen, Leo Gerngross and Emil Schwarhaupt, who had also purchased the Bernheim distillery and brands. They had also purchased the Old Charter brand. In 1937, Gerngross and Schwarzhaupt sold their business to Schenley Distilleries, including the distilleries and brands.
This mirror dates from the period when Gerngross and Schwarzhaupt owned the brand – 1933-1937. It depicts the Carl Brenner painting of the Belmont distillery with the name on the distillery “Belmont” being replaced with “Old Charter”. The buildings themselves are very accurately portrayed with the layout of the site matching the Sanborn maps of the distillery in every detail. The setting though has been altered using artistic license. The distillery was located in an urban area, but the painting depicts a very rural area. Brenner was known to place a pool of water in his paintings which would show reflections of the subject. The hills in the background illustrate the knobs of southern Indiana, but in reality, there would have been other industrial buildings, including the Astor distillery, streets and residential dwellings around the distillery. The painting exhibits the 19th century desire to show growing technological advances and makes the black smoke coming from the chimney very distinct in the painting.
This type of distillery illustration was common in the 19th century. Owners of distilleries inside city limits would want to depict their distillery as being in a rural setting. There are many other examples on letterheads and advertising pieces showing urban distilleries in a pastoral setting. I believe that was because they wanted to portray their business as being long established before a city grew up around the distillery. At the same time, they wanted to show how modern their distillery was and they were taking advantage of all that technology offered at the time.
Distilleries would offer bar mirrors to retail establishments selling their brands. This was a common practice before Prohibition. To have such items in a bar or liquor store would place the brand in front of customers coming in to purchase whiskey. They were often very large mirrors that would dominate the back bar, but this one is a more modest size of only 20”x14”. This reflects the trend of the post repeal market. Bar mirrors became less common in advertising and were smaller. They were more often used in liquor stores than bars. The mirror would not be as prominent in an establishment filled with shelves of bottles. Also, larger mirrors would take up too much wall space so the store owner would be less likely to hang such an item on a wall because they would rather have shelf space for bottles to sell. Mirrors and other such advertising pieces became smaller as a result.
The Carl Brenner mirror is a rare find. Schenley continued to advertise the brand and made many other display pieces for the brand, but they tended to be less fragile and less expensive to produce. The Brenner painting does appear in advertisements from Schenley, but they were print advertisements in magazines and newspapers. The original painting was hung on a wall at the Bernheim distillery office and eventually placed in storage.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller