Ad posters recall a colorful past

Jacques Kelly

November 26, 1990|By Jacques Kelly

Seasoned Baltimoreans start smiling at the recall of a Tolchester beach outing, a July excursion on the steamer Emma Giles and a glass of foaming Bauernschmidt's beer.

A new exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St., captures the sheer delight of the colorful Victorian advertising posters, those jump-off-the-paper explosions of the chromo-lithographer's art. The brilliant carmines, azure blues and golds are fireworks on pulp.

It's odd that these prints, once cast off as mere calendar art or the ploys of snake oil salesmen, now are being revered. Examples of fine American advertising posters such as these now fetch three and four figures in the auction market.

Baltimore, with its major lithography houses that once employed hundreds of skilled artisans, was recognized nationally for its ability to turn out posters, cards, brochures, labels, letterheads and checks. August Hoen and E. Sachse were among the city's best-known printers.

Many of the exhibit's posters are the large, eye-catching variety, about the size of a full-sheet newspaper. Other examples of colorful printing are small enough to be pasted in a scrapbook.

The 1898 calendar for the J.F. Wiessner & Sons brewery (the American brewery in the 1700 block of Gay St.) is a four-alarm dazzler. The building, with its beer kegs impaled by weather vanes, is all steam whistles and bustling activity.

Someone ought to reproduce this calendar and use the proceeds to help save that glorious pile of deterioration.

One of Wiessner's competitors was brewer George Bauernschmidt, who on paper employed a curvaceous goddess to promote his elixir of malt and hops. Amid entwining poppies, the lady pours the golden brew into a pitcher.

If there seems to be an abundance of alcohol ads in the show, there is a logical explanation. Publications of 100 years ago were skittish about allowing ads for intoxicants. As a result, beer and liquor firms had to turn out their own forms of promotion which could be displayed on public walls or in saloons.

The artists who drew these posters had considerable freedom to exercise their creative talents. They seem to take a joy in the fanciful, baroque borders and sprays of flowers they worked into their designs. A trip to Tolchester is made into an excursion to China.

There were some artistic conventions. An ad for tobacco regularly included an Indian. Bock beer used a goat, such as the fierce-looking one in the show for George Gunther Jr.'s brewery.

Gail and Ax tobacco, once a giant in the city, marketed Navy brand. Their poster has a sailing ship off a lighthouse. H.C. Pfaff's Monument Square cigars depicts the Baltimore scene at Calvert, Lexington and Fayette streets.

There's a marvelous early scene of the Patapsco River Valley at Avalon (Ilchester) for the long-gone Avalon Nail and Iron Works, then a bustling mecca of capitalism.

William Wilkens' hair factory, a foul-smelling operation at what is now the Westside Shopping Center on Frederick Avenue, rates two choice prints. The informative and lengthy captions that accompany these prints note that among German immigrants, it was said, "You don't start to become an American until you've worked at the hair factory."

The show includes a case full of trade cards, pieces of light cardboard about the size of a baseball card. Merchants gave out these colorful ads to customers. Many trade cards wound up pasted in scrapbooks. The little cards seem like miniature versions of the wall posters but were often given out by small neighborhood merchants as well as Baltimore's leading corporate citizens.

These cards include examples for the Maryland Journal newspaper in Towsontown; Brown's Iron Bitters (endorsed by Lily Langtry, the Jersey Lily); Chas. Stieff's pianos; J. Eiseman & Co.'s store on Eutaw Street; and August Mencken, the father of H.L. Mencken, who offered Havana Rose cigars.

This is a good time of the year to visit the Maryland Historical Society, which also is hosting a program called an "Edwardian Christmas Day" next Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. with live music, storytelling and the making of a gingerbread house. A choice collection of vintage dolls and doll houses, electric trains and toys will be on display throughout the holidays.

The society is open Tuesday through Sunday. Adult admission is $2.50, children, $1. Admission is free on Wednesday.

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