You can see a blown-up version of this photograph at the Oscar Getz Museum in Bardstown, Ky. It is on the wall of one of the rooms with some other old photographs of bottling whiskey at Kentucky distilleries. The original photograph came to the museum in 1993 when United Distillers did a photograph exhibit of Kentucky Distilleries as part of the Bourbon Festival. The original was part of the Glenmore collection of the United Distillers Archive.
The photograph is from the first decade of the 20th century. It shows the women standing outside of the distillery at Gethsemane, Kentucky with their lunch pails. They are obviously taking their lunch break. The “Bottling Warehouse” sign is on the building behind the ladies and there are some men standing in the doorway and on the porch of the building. That the ladies are the main focus of the Image is interesting because in the era in which the photograph was taken, women could not vote and were often portrayed as second class citizens.
However, this photograph illustrates the changes in society of the era. Women were beginning to earn their own money and contribute to the household finances in a way they were never able to do before. The distilling industry hired many women to bottle the whiskey they produced. This only started to happen a little over a decade before this photograph was taken.
Bottling had been expensive before the early 1890s when a process of machine blowing glass bottles was introduced to America. This machine-blown glass made it profitable for distilleries to sell bottled whiskey instead of barrels of whiskey to spirits merchants. The distilleries quickly learned that women, with their nimble fingers and patient work ethic, broke fewer bottles and placed labels on the bottles more quickly and straighter than men doing the same job. They started hiring women for the bottling lines and this opened up opportunities for women who were not highly educated. Before this, only women who had the advanced training to become school teachers, nurses or secretaries were in the public workplace, earning their own money. Many of the distilleries were located in rural areas and this especially opened up opportunities to the women in these areas who also had family farms.
Women quickly became a vital part of the distilling industry as the people who bottled whiskey. They did not earn huge amounts of money and the work tended to be seasonal – during the fall and winter months when the distilleries were most active. For many women, this was perfect. It allowed them to make some money while still being available to help on the farm during the spring and summer months.
These workers were vital to the company and nothing illustrates this better than a letter in the Old Taylor Distillery letter book at the Filson Historical Society. In this 1918 letter, Jacob Swigert Taylor explained that they could not meet the demand for their bottled whiskey because of the flu epidemic. Too many of the ladies working on the bottling line had been sickened and many of them had died of the flu.
When this photograph was taken in the early 1900s, women were just becoming an important part of the bottling of whiskey. Within 20 years they had become a vital part of the whiskey industry. Prohibition would cause many of these women to become unemployed for many years, but after repeal, they returned in larger numbers than before.
World War II would expand the role of women in the industry and women have made steady progress ever since. Maybe not as quickly as they would have liked, but progress was being made. Today, more and more women are involved in the industry and there have been many women who have become Master Distillers and owners of artisan distilleries. This is a trend that I hope continues and these modern women can look at this image and see some of the women who opened the door for their future.
Image from the archives of Michael Veach