This image shows the women who worked on the bottling line at Labrot and Graham Distillery circa 1900. This is typical of bottling lines of the time. The distillers quickly learned that women made the best workers for bottling whiskey. They had nimble fingers that could put labels on the bottles neatly and broke fewer bottles while working. The women worked part time when the demand was low but worked more hours during the peak season of bottling, mostly in the winter months.
Bottling became important to distilleries in the 1890s when machine blown glass bottles became inexpensive and profitable for the distilleries to bottle their own products, as well as, selling it by the barrel.
Women in Kentucky profited from the distilling industry as it was one of the few professions that hired women that were not highly educated. Most other jobs traditionally open to women called for a higher education such as teacher, nurse or clerical worker. Bottling line women were usually educated at the high school level and worked to supplement the household income.
During the summer, when children were not in school and the demands of the household called for women to be at home, was a time when the distillery was not active. Summer heat made it difficult to ferment mash for distilling, so most distilleries closed down in July and August to do cleaning and maintain the equipment. Bottling lines were usually closed down at this time unless a special order was needed.
These women were vital to the distilleries. This is best illustrated in a letter in the Taylor-Hay Collection at The Filson Historical Society. In 1918, during the influenza pandemic, Taylor wrote to one of his customers that he was having a hard time filling orders because so many of his women on the bottling line had died from the flu.
Another letter from Taylor from about 1900 shows that he hired African-American women for the bottling line. Unfortunately, the nature of the letter is that one of his political opponents (Taylor was Mayor of Frankfort, Kentucky) was using the fact that he had placed an African-American woman in a position of authority on the bottling line and his opponent was appealing to racist voters.
This particular photograph is at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, Kentucky. It shows four women in front of their bottling station with three male workers. The people are not identified in the image. The bottles are wrapped in tissue paper to be placed in the wooden shipping crate. It does not show the complete operation of the bottling line.
Most bottling lines of the time would have a copper tank that held the whiskey to be bottled and the workers would fill the bottles from a spigot in the tank. They would then cork the bottle and glue on the labels. It was a labor intensive operation that would quickly be improved with new machinery as the twentieth century progressed. Even with the new machinery, women remained the primary workers on the bottling line.
This image of the past is just one of many such photographs of the bottling lines at a distillery. Women played a vital role in getting whiskey to the market then and still do today.