Saturday, March 8, 2014
This New Year’s Eve, The Root is raising a toast to booze. In this post we look at an alcohol-related historical archive with Don Lindgren of Rabelais Books in Biddeford. We will chase this post with one on some wonderful rare cocktail books tomorrow.
Ledgers from the DuVivier & Co. archive.
On January 17, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect banning the manufacture, sale or importing of alcoholic beverages. Nearly a year earlier, a New York-based importer and distributor of wines and spirits had begun making efforts to survive and adapt to this law. The company shifted its inventory of top flight wines to Canada, and hardware and other materials were purchased for a possible bootlegging or clandestine storage operation at a warehouse in Guttenberg, NJ. One can imagine the firm’s owners as part of a criminal experiment - gun toting organized crime syndicate partnership and all.
Factually, we know the firm - DuVivier & Co. – at one time large and far reaching, and a source for truly “great” wines (think Chateau d’Yquem) - went bankrupt in 1920. For nearly 80 years boxes of manuscript ledgers, notebooks, and correspondence documenting this multi-generational family-owned business, a tiny piece of America’s history of booze and of the Prohibition era, sat in a family member’s home in Connecticut.
Earlier this year, this archive came into the possession of Don Lindgren of Rabelais Books in Biddeford, Maine. The archive’s papers, notebooks, and ledgers represent the period just prior to the firm’s official founding (1840s) to just after the company was dissolved in bankruptcy following the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment (1919).
One of the 40 huge ledgers from the DuVivier & Co. archive.
Globally, there are fewer than a dozen or so antiquarian book dealers specializing in rare culinary books. The number who deal with culinary archives is closer to one. Don Lindgren, who has been in the antiquarian book business for more than 30 years, has worked for himself and for some of the large firms, and he’s become one of the people libraries and individuals reach out to for appraising and cataloging archives when they surface – especially if they have to do with food or liquor.
Booksellers who do this are a bit like the English archaeologist Howard Carter looking at the raw materials of history, except that instead of discovering a pharaoh’s tomb they examine something simpler and less obvious. “The rare book trade is filled with people who are passionate about history as it is represented in physical objects, especially paper physical objects,” said Lindgren. “Whether that is paper archives, manuscripts, correspondence or books, it’s what really motivates us and turns us on about the materials we find, we research, and we sell.”
The DuVivier & Co. archive came to him from a colleague, another rare book dealer in Connecticut. Upon receipt of an archive, the first thing Lindgren wanted to do was get a sense of the pieces. In the case of the DuVivier & Co. archive that amounted to 20 salesmen’s pocket travel notebooks, 40 huge ledgers, 10 checkbooks, and more than 1800 pages of correspondence, including orders for labels and corks, etc.
Lindgren explained that it’s necessary to sit and study an archive until it reveals itself and all the small details start to come together to create a narrative. The goal is to describe the physical materials to a potential buyer (almost certainly a university or major public library), but also why it is valuable. What story does it tell? What might it add to a major collection? In the case of the DuVivier & Co. archive, it stretches over a significant time in the history of booze – tracking from the beginning of the development of big international brands right through to its temporary derailment with Prohibition. The company had to survive a number of significant challenges, including high tariffs on imported wine and spirits brought about by the Civil War; and the “phylloxera plague” in the late 19th century, which destroyed much of their European wine supply. In both cases, the company adjusted with new products and new lines of supply. Finally came Prohibition, after which their core business was simply illegal. Evidence of a possible bootlegging operation named “The Guttenberg Project” came together after piecing together references in notebooks and receipts for various hardware materials including pumps, pie and hoses, dated 1919 forward.
Some of the 20 salesmen's pocket travel notebooks found in the DuVivier & Co. archive.
“They were very smart – they adapted, they adjusted, and they grew,” said Lindgren referring to the expansion of their distribution territory into the fairly young western part of the United States as documented in a group of salesman’s notebooks from the 1850s, 60s, and 70s, each specific to different cities and territories.
“In the Memphis (salesman pocket) notebook, you could get some idea of the Memphis booze scene at this time,” said Lindgren. “These were surveys this (sales) person did by visiting all these cities and other territories and then taking notes on what the city was like, but also what the places that sold liquor were like.”
A salesman would write about the various bartenders, tavern owners, and retail owners, about who they sold to, and about what the clientele were like. Were they seedy or respectable, was the place clean, did the guy own his own house, did he own the building where the bar was located, did he look like he was going to pay his bills? The salesmen were determining credit worthiness, but also if it was a place they could sell some product and make some money.
“Classic salesman notes, but they also give you a good sense of what is going on in these towns,” said Lindgren. “The Cheyenne, Wyoming notebook asks the question, is this place going to be around in 30 years. Is Cheyenne just a cow town soon to disappear when the railway changes? People were asking if this was a good place for to stake their businesses. These are firsthand accounts. “
One entry reads: “M. Fahy, Yonkers, N.Y. Oct 23-94. Saloon & Grocery. His place is far away from center of city, out among the tenement houses, his store is a place about 15x25 & very untidy you would hardly imagine he did any business, but! he does, & a large one too. He says he sells about 35 bbls whiskey alone every year, he has a big Irish trade also family trade. He is quite well to do & good for his purchases, he is a rough sort of an Irishman, but very frank. (Like this) Well before you sell why don’t you blow the boys off around here to a drink, I saw how to take him & did blow the boys off twice, I expect to do good business with him later, he was a stranger to me untill I was directed there by a saloon man & now I think I have already got him on my side! Oct 23-94—Sold him 1⁄2 BBl. Chieftan $1.70. “
History is still being discovered through archives like this one. They’re tiny pieces of the past, which when put together build a bigger picture of history.
The DuVivier & Co. archive includes more than 1,800 pages of correspondence. All photos courtesy of Rabelais Books.Tweet
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.