Before Prohibition, there were no regulations for advertising whiskey. This led to many forms of advertising that people today would consider shocking. These advertising cards for H. McKenna Whisky, made by the firm that handled their whiskey in Boston, Mass. are a good example of how things have changed in the last 125 years or so.
The series of four advertising cards show a little boy, out in the woods, usually fishing, but in one card there is a rifle next to the boy indicating he has been hunting. There are no images of whisky in the drawings, but “McKenna Whisky, 245 Fourth Street, bet. Main and Market, Louisville Ky.” is printed across the top and “C.D. Potter, Sole Eastern Agent, 35 Devonshire Street, Boston” is printed across the bottom. The images are eye-catching and serve the purpose of getting your attention. The real purpose of the card is printed upon the back of the card. Here, the largest print is “Pure Old Line Sour Mash Whisky” with the address of the firm in Louisville, and the location of their Nelson County distillery included in the headlines of the card.
The main purpose of the card is almost lost in the smaller print. These cards are to promote the use of McKenna whisky as a medicine. There is a paragraph that reads, “We, the undersigned, have been using H. McKenna’s Whiskey for medical purposes in our practice for years, and we find it pure, as represented by him and can recommend it to any person needing Whiskey for medical use.” Under this paragraph are the names of a dozen doctors and the towns in Kentucky that they reside. It ends with “Mr. McKenna’s Whisky is the purest and best I have ever seen.”
The regulations put into place after the Repeal of Prohibition would make these cards unusable. The distilleries themselves set some rules for advertising that would prohibit the printing of these cards. First of all using images of children or any other image that would promote the use of whiskey by children was forbidden. Next, the industry agreed not to promote whiskey as a medicine. This included discussing the use to cure specific illness. Famously, Green River had to change its slogan from the “Whiskey without a headache” to the “Whiskey without regrets”.
The nature of the industry had changed in other ways as well. These cards illustrate a pre-Prohibition style of doing business. A large part of the 19th century had distilleries selling their whiskey by the barrel to bars and taverns and usually had agents in different cities that worked as their sales force. C.D. Potter was the agent for McKenna, not only in Boston, but in “east” – probably all of New England. The whiskey probably was not sold by the bottle until after 1890 when the cost of bottles was reduced enough to make it profitable for distillers to bottle their own product. These agents often designed and paid for the cost of advertising cards such as these.
After Prohibition, the additional regulations, from the government and self-regulations in the industry, made the advertising of whiskey more centrally located with the distillery or brand owner being in charge of what was being produced.
Old advertising cards are a very collectable part of whiskey memorabilia. They are colorful and often very humorous. They can be found in antique stores or at online auctions. They are not extremely expensive and look good when framed and hung on the wall. They also tell many stories about whiskey that are often forgotten in the modern world of regulations.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller