The “Best” Tonic: Pabst Malt Extract Pamphlets in the Academy Library

By Anne Garner, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts

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Girl in yellow embracing a Pabst Malt Extract bottle. Click to Enlarge.

Guinness enthusiasts are well familiar with the brewery’s famous tagline “Guinness Is Good for You.”  But did you know that the American company Pabst staged a successful marketing campaign in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries built on the idea that their own Milwaukee-based malt extract could cure a range of ailments?  A series of pamphlets produced by the Pabst Brewing Company tells the story.

Pabst has its origins in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city well-situated for a brewery with its harbor, its caves (nature’s coolers, before refrigeration), and its large population of German immigrants.[1]

An 1897 edition of Henriette Davidis’ Praktisches Kochbuch, published in Milwaukee in both German and English for an audience of German-Americans, includes some fourteen recipes using the beverage, including beer soup, beer with raisins, and beer eggs.

Pabst was first established as the Empire Brewery in Milwaukee in 1844 by German immigrant Jacob Best.  In 1872, Frederick Pabst, married to Best’s granddaughter, became president of the company.  It was renamed after Pabst in 1889.

Henriette Davidis’ Praktisches Kochbuch (1897). Click to Enlarge.

Milwaukee from “Wedding Secrets,” Page 33. Click to Enlarge.

Beginning in 1876, Pabst won awards for its formula.  The company began to tie blue ribbons around the necks of their bottles to mark its first place status. The name stuck, and was later incorporated into their brand in 1895).[2]

By the 1890’s, many American breweries were manufacturing malt extract for medicinal purposes.  This thick, syrupy liquid derived from barley and grains certainly contained sugar and may have contained some nutrients.  Malt Extracts were widely used as a digestive aid, and for the recovery of convalescents.

Convalescent double-page spread from “Heart Darts” (ca.1908). Click to Enlarge.

But they also contained alcohol.  In 1896 at a meeting of the Boston Society of Medical Sciences, Dr. Charles Harrington shared his findings after a study of the ingredients of these preparations:

“Twenty-one different brands of liquid malt extract were obtained and analyzed. That they were not true malt extracts is shown by the fact that in no one was there the slightest diastatic power; all were alcoholic, some being stronger than beer, ale, or even porter. In a number of specimens a large amount of salicylic acid was detected.”[3]

Pabst promotes their Malt extract in a series of pamphlets in our collection.  In the earliest of those here at the library, “More Secrets,” (1889), the text asserts that their tonic is:

“a simple extract of Malt and Hops, precisely similar in nutrition and medicinal value to those hitherto so extensively prescribed by the entire medical profession.  It is not a patent medicine.”

Two years earlier, a paper given by author and researcher S.P. Sharples, showed that Pabst’s malt extract contained 5.16 cubic centimeters of alcohol in a 100 cubic centimeters of the liquid.[4]  Like many patent medicines, a full list of the formula’s ingredients is not given in the advertising material.

The pamphlets also suggest use for ailments similar to those treated by patent medicines.  A pamphlet called “Heart Darts” (ca. 1908) recommends Pabst Extract for the overworked, the nervous, the dyspepsic and the old aged, and includes charming illustrations of the afflicted:

Dyspepsia, insomnia, nervousness and overworked, all from “Health Darts” (1908).

Pabst also claimed to cure insomnia.  “100 Points of Perfection” (ca. 1894) argues against taking drugs for sleep, but recognizes the necessity of sleep to produce calm nerves. How to sleep?  According to “100 Points,” choose Pabst, and “Take a bottle a day, for two weeks.”  Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Ghosts and sleep from “100 Points of Perfection” (ca. 1894). Click to Enlarge.

During the 1890’s, Pabst ran a series of ads in women’s medical journals to target nursing mothers.

Ad from Women’s Medical Journal (1895). Click to Enlarge.

As their pamphlet “Baby Secrets” explains, the extract is “an ideal preparation for nursing mothers, giving them abundant nourishment to resist the extra drain upon the system” and aids in sleep. Harried mothers are also promised that a bottle a day for 24 days will restore beauty.

The back cover of “Baby Secrets” (1897) features a conspiring Cupid whispering into a stork’s ear. Click to Enlarge.

“Baby Secrets” is one in a series of “Secrets” pamphlets produced in the 1890’s, available by mail order for free.  The Academy Library has eight in total. Click on images to enlarge.

“More Secrets” (ca. 1889) opens with the assertion that Pabst malt liquor is not a patent medicine, but “a simple extract of Malt and Hops, precisely similar in nutrition and medicinal value to those hitherto so extensively prescribed by the entire medical profession.”

“Still More Secrets” (1890) offers guidance for nursing mothers: Do nurse him, do help him,/ Throw bottles away;/ You take the “Best” Tonic,” / He’ll come here to stay.”

“Untold Secrets” (ca. 1892) emphasizes the importance of sleep.

“Ominous Secrets” (1894) which contains stories of mysteries and omens, journeys and old world luxuries, shows an old man kneeling in front of the Sphinx.

“Wedding Secrets” (1895) features a sheepish Cupid, next to the discarded flowers and shoes belonging to the bride and groom.

“Home Secrets” (1898) features a smiling woman with her head resting languidly on her hand, waving an empty teacup.

“Open Secrets,” (ca. 1895) recommends Pabst malt extract as a meal and as a remedy to young mothers, whose children have “almost drained their young lives away.” It closes with a plug for their beer– “we will see that you get [it] without difficulty.”

Malt Tonic from “100 Points” back cover (ca. 1894).

When Prohibition went into effect in 1920, Pabst had the manufacture of malt extract to fall back on (as well as another Wisconsin no-brainer of a product: cheese).  That same year, Pabst began to market it for its cooking properties, as a sugar substitute and to leaven bread.  But it really came in handy for bootleg home-brews.  The newspaper of Lima, Ohio reported in 1929 that the weekly sales of malt there could produce the equivalent of 400,000 pints of beer.[5] 

McGuiness menu cover and beer list.

When the Volstead Act was repealed, Pabst reprises their production of their Blue Ribbon brand with a vengeance.  This New York menu, probably from the 1940’s from the midtown New York Irish bar McGinnis shows a range of beers available, including both Guinness and Pabst.  We’re wondering if the 5 cents price difference implies that while Guinness might be good for you, Pabst was banking on an audience that thought it might be even better.

References:
[1] Smith, Gregg.  Beer in America:  The Early Years – 1587-1840.  Boulder:  Brewer’s Publications, 1998.
[2] From “The Whole Story.”  Accessed March 2, 2017 at http://pabstblueribbon.com/pbr-history/.
[3] See Martha Meir Allen’s Alcohol:  A Dangerous and Unnecessary Medicine.  Marcellus, N.Y. : National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, c1900. P. 316.
[4] Allen, p. 317.
[5] Lima News, March 31, 1929.

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