Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem
August 9th, 2017

My Gin Craze

Martini

Here’s a fun Distilled History tidbit. I briefly mention in it the “About” page on this blog, but the first version of Distilled History didn’t have anything to do with history. Initially, this blog was going to tell people how to drink.

No joke. After brainstorming ideas with an old friend, I came up with an idea to write a St. Louis cocktail blog. The plan was to drive around St. Louis, tell some fun stories, and write blog posts about who was making a Manhattan cocktail correctly (by stirring it) and who wasn’t (by shaking it). But after a few preliminary drafts, I realized something was missing. I love drinking, but history is my true passion. Not to mention, the idea of publicly judging (and quite possibly annoying) a large group of people who have been very good to me (St. Louis bartenders), a cocktail review blog didn’t seem like the best of ideas.

So I mixed history and drinking together. And just like that, Red, Clear, or Beer became Distilled History.

Red, Clear, or Beer

I’m glad I made the switch, but seeing the original logo reminded me that Distilled History has never become the drunk I intended it to be. I’ve had great fun with St. Louis brewery histories, cocktail histories, and other drinking-related posts, but I know more alcohol is needed here. So I’m going to take a break from my favorite city (St. Louis) and focus my efforts on my favorite booze. That special spirit is gin, and the historian (and cocktail snob) Bernard DeVoto sums up my sentiments about the stuff pretty well.

Bernard DeVoto Quote

St. George Gin

Gin is also an ideal topic for this blog because it has a special story behind it. The history of gin includes riots, wars, revolutions, Italian monks, Dutch distillers, English mercenaries, and even a guy nicknamed “the Orange”. There’s an actual era in English history known as “The Gin Craze” in which an entire country took their love for gin WAY too far (and inspired the title of this post). And although many have told gin’s story already, I thought I’d give it a shot. I had fun with it, but what follows is a whirlwind trip. I did my best to hit the major points of gin’s story, but there is much more to it. Gin: A Global History by Lesley Jacobs Solomonson and The Book of Gin by Richard Barnett are both great sources (along with many others) that can fill in the gaping holes I’ve left here.

Before I get to gin itself, I have to provide a little background on gin’s essential ingredient, the juniper berry. Interestingly (and a sign of what’s to come), juniper berries aren’t actually berries. They are seed cones, and people have been adding them to foods and recipes for centuries due to the unique flavor they provide. That’s important to the subject of this post because juniper is what must be present for a distillate to be officially labeled “gin”. That’s right, along with all those gin varieties containing everything from coriander, saffron, rose petals, cinnamon, cucumber, and pine needles, every one of them must also contain juniper if “Gin” is written on the bottle.

Juniper Berries

Juniper wasn’t always just a flavor, though. As Richard Barnett details in his The Book of Gin, juniper has been lauded since ancient times for its medicinal properties. The ancient Greeks used it to cure tapeworm, the Romans rubbed it under togas as a contraceptive, and medieval Europeans placed juniper twigs in masks to help fend off the plague. Barnett also details a significant twist around the year 1050 when a bunch of monks in Salerno, Italy infused juniper in distilled wine. Their intent was to create a medicinal elixir, and the recipe was recorded in a compilation of tonics titled the Compendium Salerta. This may have been the first time juniper and alcohol came together as one, and Barnett notes this “proto-gin” is the earliest recipe for anything that resembles what we call gin today.

Jabir ibn Hayyan

From these Italian monks, we can thank the Dutch and English for gin’s evolution from a juniper-based elixir to what it is today. But before I explain why, I have to mention the process known as distillation. That process, separating components from a liquid through heating and cooling, is how alcohol is separated from fermented materials such as fruit, potatoes, and grain. Unlike beer and wine, which can happen by accident if yeast happens to be floating around, distillation is a necessary step in the production of spirits like gin and whiskey.

Distillation (as we know it today) got its start in the 8th or 9th century when alchemists like Jabir ibn Hayyan were trying to figure out how to turn cheap metal into gold. Slowly (with help from inventions like movable type), the distillation how-to manual worked its way to other parts of the world. By the mid-16th century, stills could be found all over Europe, mostly producing healing concoctions referred to as “aqua vitae” (Latin for “water of life”). But distillation, a process rooted in healing for hundreds of years, began to change when it arrived in Europe’s Low Countries.

That’s where the Dutch, a people with a hearty grain surplus and plenty of flavor creativity, embraced a new trend of recreational drinking. Intent on making elixers that tasted better, Dutch distillers began adding herbs, botanicals, and sweeteners to hide harsh tastes produced by unrefined distillation methods. It worked better than expected, and gradually national-scale industry emerged. By the mid-1600’s drinking spirits for the taste (and the intoxication that went along with it) was all the rage. The signature product was jenever, a juniper-based spirit that is maltier and sweeter than what many know as “gin”. Jenever is also known as “Dutch gin”, “Holland gin”, or even just “Hollands” (it’s also often spelled with a “g”). Today, jenever is the national liquor of the Netherlands and Belgium and remains the most popular spirit in that part of the world.

Schiedam

We should all raise our glasses to the Dutch for getting the juniper-based spirit trend going, but the next major players in the story, the English, should get a toast as well. Dutch jenever made its way to England as early as the 1500’s, but it could barely compete in a country filled with pubs serving pints of ale. But according to most gin historians, two major historical events helped England get into the gin game. As a result, jenever would evolve into distinctly English spirit with a shortened name.

William of Orange

The first was the 30 Years War (1618-1648), a conflict in which the Dutch Republic fought to win its independence from Spain. England sent an army to help the Dutch, and in the hours before going into battle, English soldiers steadied their nerves by drinking cups of jenever supplied by their Dutch allies. This is the origin of the term “Dutch Courage”, and when the Spanish were defeated, a large number of English soldiers returned home with a taste for something new.

The second event was 1688’s Glorious Revolution. That’s when the Dutch Republic’s William of Orange arrived in England to overthrow the unpopular King James II. Parliament invited William and his wife Mary to take the throne, and they became co-monarchs in 1689. Taking a page from their Dutch playbook, William and Mary encouraged grain production to get the English economy going again. One way they did that was to make it easy (really easy) to distill grain-based spirits. The industry was unregulated and untaxed, and suddenly anyone in England who wanted to make or sell gin could do so.

Still 630's Volstead's Folly

This all sounds pretty great to a present-day gin drinker, but the results were catastrophic. While some distillers adhered to high standards carried over from the Dutch, a new type of gin maker emerged. Using cheap ingredients and near-toxic levels of alcohol, libations known as “scorch-gut” and “mother’s ruin” became common in England’s major cities. Many didn’t even bother with juniper, using poisons such as turpentine and sulfuric acid to hide the taste. This gin industry was also directed entirely towards the urban poor, often manufactured in seedy back-alley gin shops and sold for pennies in grimy drinking dens. Crammed into the dirty back-alleys of cities like London and Bristol, the masses didn’t hesitate in drinking as much of it as they could. Cheaper than ale, gin helped people fend off pangs of hunger and forget about a life of impoverishment. This period, or event, or whatever stretch of Hell it was, is famously known as England’s “Gin Craze”.

The term “Gin Craze” may be a fun title for a 21st-century blog post, but it was anything but in 18th century England. In less than fifty years, consumption of distilled spirits in England’s major cities quadrupled. Debauchery ruled, with crime, murder, and suicide rates spiking while birth rates plummeted. For the first time in history, women drank to excess in public, and it wasn’t uncommon to find drunk children alongside them. In what could be the most notorious example of gin’s treacherous influence, in 1734 a woman named Judith Defour strangled her own daughter and left her body in a ditch. When forced to explain her crime, she reported she needed to sell the child’s clothes so she could afford another serving of gin.

William Hogarth's Gin Lane

It didn’t take long for many to realize that things were of control. As consumption of spirits increased, so did public outrage. Moralists, politicians, and pretty much anyone with a box to stand on started shouting about the impending collapse of society. Perhaps the most famous example of anti-gin propaganda came in the form of two prints published by William Hogarth in 1750. In “Gin Lane” Hogarth depicts a scene of London debauchery and chaos. Among other images, a baby tumbles from a drunken mother’s lap, a man is seen chewing on a bone along with a dog, and people in the distance are lifted into coffins. On the flip side, “Beer Street” shows London as a happy, productive place. Artists paint, portly people smile with mugs of ale, and everyone productively goes about their day.

William Hogarth's Beer Street

Hogarth’s (and other) efforts eventually paid off.  Parliament took its first step in 1729 with the first of eight “Gin Acts”. The first few attempts at regulation didn’t go over very well (people rioted) but Parliament continued to tweak the rules by imposing taxes on gin, restricting where gin could be sold, and even rewarding informants who reported gin-related crimes. After the final gin act was implemented in 1751, the gin craze flickered out. New regulations put the back-alley distillers out of business, and the pint of ale slowly regained its place as the preferred English method of getting a buzz.Gordon's Gin

But the taste for gin never left, and a handful of reputable distillers came to prominence by producing high-quality gins. Many of them are still around today, including Gordon’s (established in 1769), Plymouth (established in 1793), and Tanqueray (established in 1830). Gin sellers also helped improve gin’s reputation by opening classier, upscale bars known as “gin palaces”. These venues, which became popular in the 1830’s, offered a safe, well-lit (often sparkly), and sophisticated venue for one to enjoy a glass of gin.

Improvements to the distillation process also helped. The invention of the column still (also known as the Coffey still) in the mid-1800’s enabled distillers to efficiently (and continually) produce a spirit with more alcohol and subtler flavors. As a result, a style of gin unique to the English emerged. Less reliant on sweeteners and bold flavors commonly found in Dutch jenever (which is made in a pot still), “London dry” gin has since grown to become the most popular style of gin in the world.

The Drink
Martini at the Gin Room

With the Dutch and English settled into their own corners of the gin world, it’s time to bring this post to a close. There’s much more to the story (so much that it makes my head hurt), but what comes next is just too much to get into. It includes other gin varieties (such as Old Tom gin), gin’s path to America, gin during Prohibition, and the stories behind all of the wonderful gin cocktails. I’ll get to those stories in due time, it’s time to get back to St. Louis history (and ordering a much-needed) gin-based drink.

Where to get my drink to celebrate gin was a no-brainer. Few places are as dear to my heart as The Gin Room, located at 3200 South Grand in St. Louis. It’s a gin-lover’s paradise, with shelves packed with countless styles and variations of gin reaching all the way to the ceiling. I also love the place for the events that are always happening there, including gin tastings, tonic workshops, and random gin celebrations.

Best of all, the people at the Gin Room (led by my pal and owner Natasha Bahrami) know their gin. One of the few places where I get overwhelmed by the cocktail menu (a rarity), I always end up with a great recommendation at the Gin Room. The result of my latest visit was no exception, when I was served a Fillier’s martini to close out this celebration of my favorite spirit.

I’ll be back to the Gin Room (I’m even house-hunting near it), so the days ahead are sure to be filled with aqua vitae. My own gin craze will continue for years go come.

The Gin Room
March 9th, 2014

The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874

My Favorite Drinking BuddyOne of the joys in my life is that my dear mother can take a joke.

My mother is brilliant, effusive, hilarious, (and in a very lovely way), kinda nuts. She’s easy to make fun of, and badgering her about one of her many quirks (such as her inclination to chitchat with everyone who crosses her path) is always good fun. But Mom can also dish it back, and this sort of back-and-forth banter always makes for an amusing evening when we’re visiting. While we’re at it, the scene is usually accompanied by gin, colorful language, and laughter as we make fun of each other and (of course) others.

Frequent topics include how one should never willingly ride in a car my sister is driving, accounts of my misbehavior during high school/college/last week, or even the time Mom sprayed eyeglass cleaner in her mouth because she thought the little spray canister was a breath refresher.

I’ll also go to work on her with an annoying little game I call “That’s from St. Louis”. It’s a simple game, especially for a guy who knows thousands of useless facts about St. Louis. Here’s how it works:

During our fun chats, all I do is wait for my mother to say something that I can relate to the city of St. Louis. I’ll usually start with something trivial that everyone knows:

Mom & Cameron BanterIn the beginning of the game, Mom will usually respond with something simple like “That’s nice, dear”. But the key is to keep it going. The more random the fact, the better:

Mom & Cameron BanterAfter five or six of these, it’ll start to get to her. I’ll hear a “sigh” in return, or maybe I’ll get one of her “looks”. My mother adores the city of St. Louis, but the button pushing is getting to her. This is when I go in for the kill:

Mom & Cameron Banter(Snap)

Mom's Fed UpI actually have a good reason for telling the story about how I mildly torment my mother. It’s a good lead-in to this post, which is a first in the life of Distilled History. Instead of promoting something that did happen in St. Louis, I’m going to promote something that didn’t.

The Hot Dog: Not a World's Fair Creation

My dumb little game not only led me to learn that I had one of my facts wrong, but it also led me to the fun story behind a classic drink. It’s not exactly St. Louis history, but it’s drinking history. That’s one-half of this blog, so it’s good enough for me.

On the evening when I informed my (somewhat exasperated) mother that the gin-based Tom Collins cocktail was invented in St. Louis, I remember suddenly wondering if it was actually true. Although I’ve been told by a few reliable sources the Tom Collins was born here, I’ve fallen for more than a few myths of St. Louis before.

How to Mix Drinks

Others have as well, and that’s why we sometimes hear people incorrectly boast that the hamburger, the hot dog, and peanut butter were all invented at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. They weren’t, and minimal research will provide evidence that the three foods were around well before 1904. But all is not lost, dear St. Louis. Our magnificent fair 110 years ago can still claim the waffle ice cream cone and cotton candy.

With a bit of research, I also learned the Tom Collins cocktail also belongs in the same “Not-from-St. Louis” category as peanut butter. It turns out the classic libation of gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda was almost certainly first poured in New York City.

Many claim the drink is a St. Louis creation because of a famous bartender named Jerry Thomas, the “presiding deity” of the bar at the famous Planter’s House Hotel that once stood downtown. One of the most famous hotels west of the Mississippi in the 19th Century, it’s possible that during his tenure, Jerry Thomas served drinks to notable guests including Charles Dickens, Ulysses S. Grant, and Jefferson Davis.

The claim does have merit on the surface, because “Professor” Jerry Thomas (as he would come to be known), was in fact there. He did work as the head bartender at the Planter’s House at some point in the mid-19th Century. But it’s a flimsy claim to say he invented the Tom Collins cocktail during his tenure. Not a single shred of evidence exists to support it. In fact, there is no record of how long he was at the Planter’s House, what he did (other than tend bar), or why he eventually left.

What can’t be argued is that in the years after he left St. Louis, Jerry Thomas would become the most famous bartender in American history. This happened in part because of a benchmark book he published, The Bar-Tender’s Guide: How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. Published in 1862, it is considered the first book of cocktail recipes ever published in the United States.

"The Professor" Jerry Thomas

A significant clue that the Tom Collins cocktail is not a St. Louis creation is that the recipe doesn’t appear in the that book. The Collins doesn’t appear (for the first time in print) until the second edition, published fourteen years later in 1876. By that time, Jerry Thomas had been for years firmly rooted in his own bar on Broadway in New York City.

A second (and most convincing) clue is remarkably, a simple practical joke.

In 1874, some random fellow in the saloon-filled streets of New York City came up with an idea to provoke one of his drinking companions. It worked, and the success of the joke caused it to become a popular form of entertainment in the city. It didn’t stop there. As fast as news could travel, folks in Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and any town that could claim a bar and a guy looking to rile up his pal became a place where the prank was rehashed. It was known as The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874, and it’s one of the more amusing (and well-documented) stories in the history of drinking and mixology.

An article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 13, 1874, details how the prank worked:

How the Hoax WorkedWith his friend sufficiently riled up, the two men would set forth to locate Tom Collins. Entering the crowded saloon he was directed to, the joke’s pawn would angrily demand of the bartender “Where is Tom Collins?” Already in on the prank, the bartender would direct the man towards some unsuspecting patron about to deny being familiar with anyone named Tom Collins. In the resulting confusion, tempers would flair, the joke would eventually be realized, and the crowded bar (most certainly in on the act) would erupt with laughter.

Tom Collins Ad

Of course, this sort of scene would require a round of drinks to get everyone to simmer down and heal egos.

The prank became so popular that even newspapers became participants. False sightings of the notorious “Tom Collins” were reported, advertisements promoted his preferences in hats and cigars, and articles with titles such as “That Infernal Tom Collins!” appeared frequently when the joke succeeded. People even wrote songs to memorialize the good times had with the prank.

In one humorous account, the joke caused conflict even when the victim knew what was happening. In June 1874, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed an account of a hotel patron who became quite angry when he was handed a card that said “Tom Collins wants to see you after dinner”. Already victimized by the joke two or three times previously, the man became “wrathful”. This led to “hard words” with the identified prankster, and a “first class scrimmage hung in the balance”. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

As 1874 wound down, so did the joke. The more it was staged, the more difficult it became to find someone who’d be an unknowing patsy. But the hoax has a lasting legacy that lives on today. According to cocktail historian David Wondrich (and several other sources), it’s this joke that gave us the name of the famous Tom Collins cocktail we know today. In his book Imbibe: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar, Wondrich asserts that the ancestor of the Tom Collins is a gin-based punch with the similar name of “John Collins”. Popular in England, the recipe was likely transported across the Atlantic by British sailors visiting New York City. However, Americans have a tendency to put their own spin on things, and before long the “John Collins” became known as the “Tom Collins”.

And it’s delicious gin that gives us the answer why.

Tom Collins Quote

In 1874, the London dry version of gin (think Bombay Sapphire, for example) that many prefer today was practically unheard of. Order a gin drink in 1874 and you’d either get Dutch Jenever or British Old Tom gin. Both are sweeter and maltier versions of the London dry everyone is familiar with today. These (delicious) versions are still around today, but London dry is now the standard (due in large part to the popularity of the martini cocktail).

Anyway, when angry guys started storming into saloons in and demanding to see a “Mr. Collins”, bartenders started putting their own spin on the joke. A “Collins” was also a drink, so holding one up and bellowing back “Here’s your Mr. Collins!” became an amusing way to enhance the prank.

Title Page of Jerry Thomas's Book

The final piece of the puzzle occurred when an unknown bartender or patron decided to refer to the drink as a “Tom Collins” instead of a “John Collins”. This likely made more sense at the time, because it was very probably that Old Tom gin (or just “Old Tom”) was used to make it.

Like the hoax that had spread from bar to saloon, and town to city, so did the freshly named drink. Then, two years after the joke took the country by storm,  Jerry Thomas sat down to write the second edition of his popular cocktail recipe book. Surely recalling his own experiences from the hoax the Tom Collins recipe was included. It would be the first time the recipe appears in print. The rest, as they say, is drinking history.

Tom Collins Recipe

The Drink

The Planter's House

The location of the drink for this post is one I have been saving for few months. The Planter’s House, named after the famous St. Louis hotel, recently opened on the on the corner of Mississippi and Chouteau just north of Lafayette Square. Frequent readers of this blog will likely become very familiar with Planter’s House, because it’s going to be featured in this blog for years to come. The first time I walked in the door, I instantly recognized that St. Louis had been blessed with another place at which I could satisfy my cocktail fix.

I knew it would be good even before that because a guy named Ted Kilgore is one of the proprietors. I don’t know Mr. Kilgore personally, but his name carries weight among cocktail connoisseurs in this town. I’ve been telling people for years that the best Manhattan in St. Louis is the one he served when he ran the show at Taste. Now it’s at Planter’s House, and I’m giddy that it’s actually possible to order a pitcher of them from the cocktail menu.

The Planter's House Tom Collins

Another aspect of the (new) Planter’s House that I appreciate is the attention to St. Louis drinking history. Not only is the name of the establishment a nod to Jerry Thomas and the original Planter’s House, but the accompanying “Bullock Room” is named after a notable African-American bartender who worked in St. Louis in the early 20th Century. That’s a guy who will be getting attention in this blog sooner or later.

I’ll be back often for the Manhattans, but the purpose of my visit was to get a Tom Collins. It’s listed as one of the “House Favorites” on the Planter’s House cocktail menu, and I’ve never had a better version. My only complaint is that this brutal 2014 winter continues. Accompanied by fresh lemon juice and orange peel, I believe a Tom Collins is most enjoyable during warmer weather.

To add to my excitement, I was elated to learn that Bol’s Genever, not London dry gin, is used in the Planter’s House Tom Collins. That’s how Jerry Thomas would have prepared it.

Served in a tall Collins glass over perfectly clear ice, the drink is ideally made at Planter’s House.

Now all I have to do is get Mom, my favorite drinking buddy, back to St. Louis so I can take her to the Planter’s House for another.

January 30th, 2013

Our Flag is Better Than Yours

The St. Louis Flag

When I was bicycling around south St. Louis a few weeks ago, I noticed the St. Louis city flag flying prominently in front of several private homes. St. Louis pride runs deep in this town, so it makes sense that many fly the flag. I share that pride, but I believe there’s another reason the flag is so popular: It looks really, really good.

Aesthetically, I think it’s one of the best flag designs in use anywhere. I actually sit around and think about ridiculous things like “who has the best flag”, so I’ll take on any challengers to this argument. Unless you live in the United Kingdom or maybe Bhutan, I think the St. Louis flag is better than yours.

Seeing it around town, I started to wonder how it came to be. When was it adopted? Who designed it? How did St. Louis get this minor aspect of their city so right? Turns out, it’s a pretty good story.

The St. Louis Flag

St. Louis’s flag is exceptional for many reasons. It’s simple, it’s unique, it uses just a few basic colors, and it contains several components that symbolize the history of the city. It doesn’t have lettering (it’s difficult to read a waving flag), it doesn’t have a seal (a seal is meant to be seen up close, such as on a document), and maybe best of all, it doesn’t use the image of the Gateway Arch. The St. Louis flag does exactly what it’s supposed to do: It’s a symbol for the city and it’s easy to identify from a distance.

I’m not alone in my opinion. In my initial research for this post, I stumbled upon an organization named the North American Vexillological Association. According to Wikipedia, vexillology is the “scientific study of the history, symbolism[,] and usage of flags or, by extension, any interest in flags in general”.  It also seems there are quite a few prominent vexillologists around that take flag design very seriously. In 2004, NAVA held a survey to rank the top 150 American city flags. St. Louis came in fifth, behind Washington D.C., Chicago, Denver, and Phoenix. Personally, I think St. Louis has them all beat. Maybe I need to join NAVA and set things straight.

topfour

In contrast, take a look at Milwaukee’s flag below. I’d wager not many porches in our fellow beer town are waving this travesty. I thought I’d offer up my own design that I think is a far better representation of that fair city.

milwaukee

How about Mankato, Minnesota? The folks there must know a thing or two about good flag design. They know the St. Louis flag design is so good, they should just rip it off. Too bad they screwed it up by adding the riverboat, lettering, and a putrid color scheme.

mankato

It’s actually only a recent development that American states and cities starting flying official flags. Prior to the 20th century, many believed the United States flag was the only banner needed. Despite this sentiment, Baltimore kicked things off in 1914 by adopting an official city flag, followed by New York City in 1915.

Baltimore & New York Flags

It didn’t take long for St. Louis to join the fun. In 1915, a man named Percival Chubb suggested that St. Louis should design and adopt an official municipal flag. Soon after, a group named the Pageant-Drama Association held a contest, offering $100 to the winning design. The winning design would then be offered to city authorities as an “appropriate city flag”.

Krondl's Winning Design

A winning design was announced in January, 1916. The winner was a young St. Louis artist named Edward A. Krondl. It featured a white figure of St. Louis on his horse in front of blue background. Surrounding St. Louis are four fleur-de-lis, representing the Louisiana Purchase and signifying the city of St. Louis as being the fourth-most populated city in the United States. The flag also contained three stripes on the right, signifying Krondl’s idea that St. Louis would soon advance to third place.  The color blue behind St. Louis represented celestiatlity, the white stripe represented purity and cleanliness, and the two orange stripes represented gold, wealth, and prosperity.

His winning design kicked off quite a debate. Some argued that a flag was no place for a portrait. Percival Chubb complained that the blue was too blue and the orange wasn’t orange enough. He made Krondl change it. Almost everyone agreed that the four fleur-de-lis representing St. Louis as the fourth city was impractical. If St. Louis dropped in the rankings, the flag would need to be redesigned (today, it would need fifty-eight).

The city aldermen were the least impressed, with some even hinting favoritism. Alderman Gus Bauer was accused of promoting Krondl’s design since he represented the area where Krondl lived.  In one humorous exchange during the debate, Bauer barked at one of his accusers “What do you know about art? You’re a florist!”.

Aldermanic Contest Winner

Ultimately, the city aldermen rejected the design and decided to hold a contest of their own. After reviewing over 150 designs, a new winner was announced on May 20, 1916. This time, a young man named A.P. Woehrle was awarded $100 for his winning design. The new design replaced orange with red and centered the image of St. Louis in front of a blue shield. Stars replaced the fleur-de-lis, but surprisingly, they held the same symbolism. St. Louis was to be represented as the fourth city.

It’s not difficult to notice that the two designs are very similar. And that’s where things get interesting. It was soon discovered that the same artist designed both flags. Claiming that he wanted to win on merit and not on the prestige from winning the first contest, Edward Krondl entered his new design under the name of his friend, A.P. Woehrle.

By this point, the aldermen didn’t really care. Except for one alderman who refused to vote for any flag that wasn’t the stars and stripes, they had their flag. To celebrate the new design, the aldermen all hopped on a riverboat and took a ride on the Mississippi with the new flag proudly snapping in the wind.

St. Louis Flag 1916-1946

Thirty years later, it was discovered the flag argument wasn’t finished. In 1946, a local man stumbled upon a collection of varying St. Louis flag designs. Unaware of the competitions held in 1916, he walked over to City Hall to see what he could learn. He was startled to discover that St. Louis didn’t have an official flag. After their friendly boat ride promoting the new banner, the aldermen went back to work on other matters. They never bothered to make the new flag official.

An ordinance was quickly passed in 1946 to correct the oversight, but many St. Louisans were now reminded that the design wasn’t very good to begin with. Prominent St. Louisan Charles Nagel, an architect who would come to play a role in the selection of the Gateway Arch design, declared the 1916 flag to be “wretchedly bad in heraldic design”.

Proponents for a new design became more vocal in the 1950′s. Even the St. Louis Post-Dispatch promoted the idea of a new flag with an editorial in 1957. Eventually, Charles Nagel called upon an acquaintance who had experience designing flags. Theodore Sizer, an art professor at Yale, came to St. Louis and designed the flag that flies in St. Louis today.

stlflag_diagram

Sizer also used specific colors to represent the four empires that have ruled St. Louis:

  • Spain – Red and Gold
  • Bourbon France – Blue and White
  • Napoleonic France – Blue, White, and Red
  • The United States – Red, White, and Blue

In an article for St. Louis Magazine in October 1964, Sizer explains that designing the flag presented quite a challenge. He was asked to incorporate the history of the city into the design, with references to the Louisiana Purchase, Charles Lindbergh, and even Stan Musial. Most importantly, he was told his design must include the image of St. Louis on his horse.

Theodore Sizer

Fortunately, Sizer had better ideas in mind. In response to using the image of St. Louis, he stated:

“I have nothing against St. Louis, or his white horse, but on a flag it looks like anybody on any horse. Dammit, you look at it and you can’t tell if it’s Saint Louis, King Arthur, or Robert E. Lee.”

To the benefit of St. Louis, he took his design in a completely different direction.

“The one distinctive feature about the city of St. Louis are the rivers, the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. The confluence was the reason for St. Louis being founded by the settlers in the first place.”

Sizer stressed the importance of how the flag would look at a distance. When it was suggested an eagle be included in the design, he responded that it would have “looked like a chicken or some other bird”. Fortunately, he also rejected incorporating the newest of St. Louis symbols.

“And we decided to stay clear of the new Saarinen arch. Would have looked like a chicken wishbone at thirty paces.”

Fortunately, Sizer was able to bring others around to his way of thinking. When the process was complete, Sizer’s design was officially adopted as the St. Louis municipal flag on February 3, 1964.

Theodore Sizer died in 1967. Today, his design can be found flying around the city without a whisper of derision. Eat your heart out, Milwaukee.

The Drink
STL-Style

Before getting a drink, I thought it’d only be appropriate to get out and buy my own St. Louis flag. For that task, I knew exactly where to go.

STL-Style is one of the neatest stores in town. Located at 3159 Cherokee Street in Benton Park West, it’s owned and operated by two brothers, Jeff and Randy Vines. Like myself, these guys have a deep pride for St. Louis city. Back in 2001, they decided to make it their mission to create a line of apparel that promotes the city as they saw it.

Twelve years later, that mission has evolved into a unique store filled with fun pro-St. Louis merchandise. They’ve since built a team of artists who create witty and eye-catching designs that promote the city and the neighborhoods in it. It started with t-shirts, but they’ve since expanded to sell prints, bags, mugs, stickers, hats, onesies, and even underwear. The St. Louis flag is available in two sizes, but Sizer’s great design is also available on shirts, bags, and other store items.

It’s a great store for tourists, but the designs are really meant for St. Louisans to promote their city from within. Get down there and check out their inventory. They’ll have something to represent whatever neighborhood you call home.

STL-Style Designs

Their passion goes beyond selling t-shirts. Dig around their website, or simply talk to them, and you’ll discover two guys working to make St. Louis better in many different ways. They are even on the Board of Directors for Landmarks Association of St. Louis, a great organization I mention often in this blog.

Stl-Style InteriorFor the record, I’m plugging this place without any kickback from Jeff and Randy.  I simply think they have a great store and I appreciate what they are doing. And since it’s tough to tie a flag to a drink, I asked them where to get my drink for this post. They didn’t disappoint. They directed me to the The Fortune Teller Bar, located nearby in the eclectic Cherokee Street neighborhood.

fortuneteller

I’d never been to the Fortune Teller, so I was happy to they recommended a place that takes cocktails seriously. As soon as I walked in, I noticed a well-stocked bar with a great selection of spirits. The Fortune Teller also offers a good craft beer selection. As I sat down at the bar, I noticed a bottle of Old Tom’s Gin on the shelf. If a bar has Old Tom’s, it’s going in my belly. With that in mind, I ordered the “Alpine Daisy” off their specialty cocktail menu.

The drink was delicious. Served on the rocks in a highball, it was tart and refreshing. And since it was a dark and stormy night, I followed it up with their version of my beloved Manhattan. Since I know I’ll be returning to the Fortune Teller, I’ll save that review for a future post.

NOTE: In my research for this post, I came across several references to the St. Louis flag being dubbed the “Three Rivers Flag”.  These sources claim the Meramec River is also represented as one of three rivers in the design (instead of two). I found no evidence to support this. As Sizer quoted to St. Louis magazine in 1964, the key feature of the design is the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri. The Meramec is never mentioned. There is also no mention of the Meramec in the official city ordinance passed in 1964.

Furthermore, putting the Meramec on par with the Mississippi and Missouri is absurd. It also makes no sense in the design. Are the three rivers supposed to be flowing together behind the bezant? So, until someone proves otherwise, don’t call it the “Three Rivers Flag”.

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