John R Steiner
John Steiner Sr.
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Pre-war Wisconsin Labeled beers and wooden cases
The reasons about why and what we collect are as varied as the actual memorabilia we covet. One of my favorite categories is beer bottle labels. How I arrived at this collecting interest is somewhat complicated, so some background is required.
My father worked for the Miller Brewing Company for 34 years. He was a City Delivery Driver in Milwaukee, peddling bottle, can, and keg beer throughout the downtown area. While my dad was not a collector of breweriana as such, he had built a bar and rec-room in our basement and wanted to decorate with authentic brewery point-of-sale items. So, I grew up in an environment where not only current, but obsolete signs, trays, coasters, and all sorts of promotional items were on display and actually used.
My father knew everyone in the tavern, restaurant, and hotel business in Milwaukee, and had access behind every bar and into every basement in the commercial district. A lot of obsolete brewery items were easily found and either given to him, or traded for “lunch beer”. I don’t believe he ever paid cash for anything, as all the “junk” laying around in the early 1960s was there for the asking! As a kid, I even spent a few summer days riding the Miller route truck with him and seeing these hidden from the public spots in person!
I started working for the Pabst Brewing Company in Milwaukee when I was 18. During those early 1970s days, the Milwaukee breweries could not keep up with demand and all of them hired unskilled temporary workers during the summer. It was not unusual for some new guys to work 75+ days in a row, many times in excess of 12 hours a day before returning to college in the fall. The filling lines ran 24/7 and only shut down for a few hours on Sundays to allow for sanitation. Since all of the new guys got last choice for shift preference, we all worked nights, usually 10pm to 6am.
So, while the perks of the job where quite nice, (all lunch rooms were supplied with unlimited fresh beer either on tap or in bottles, and most of the crew were involved in running card games), working throughout a long night week after week on a less than mentally demanding job got to be a bit tedious.........
My second job in the brewery that summer was in bottle receiving. Pabst did a huge business in returnable bottles, supplying demand throughout the upper midwest. We worked in the hot basement of the bottlehouse, where there were no windows, and the noise caused by the machinery and tens of thousands of beer bottles clinking together made conversation difficult. Distributors would send semi-trailer loads of empty bottles back to brewery for refilling. These cases of bottles were conveyed through an inspecting station then uncased and sent to the soaker to remove the old labels and start the cleaning process. The inspectors watched for unusable glass (we used only amber bottles) and if too much white or green glass was spotted those case were kicked out for rework. When the bottles were coming in too slow from the market, trailer loads of bottles were pulled from Pabst’s remote warehouses, where they might have been in storage for years.
My job was at the Mix Table, where we were tasked with sorting through all the clear Miller bottles, green Rolling Rocks and Heinekens, and odd-ball sized non-returnables and foreign glass. We would recase those that could be exchanged with other breweries, or throw unusable bottles into dumpsters for recycling. It was an unending job, with cases of bottles being brought in by forklift operators by the pallet-full. In addition, the soaker operators were kicking out any odd bottles that had escaped the case inspectors and sending those to use. Hour after hour, night after night, tens of thousand of bottles had to be sorted. No real thought was involved in the job so something was needed to get the time to pass quicker. Since I had been exposed at any early age to breweriana in general and had in interest learning more about the industry, I decided to see how many different labeled bottles I could find.
At the time most returnable bottles were standardized, so our Pabst Blue Ribbon cases could contain labeled bottles from multiple breweries. Bartenders and consumers rarely if ever sort their empty bottles into proper cases, so labeled bottles from every brewery in the country could be rolling down the conveyors or be found in rejected cases at any time. In addition, people seemed to always be cleaning out their basements and distributors were often dejunking their warehouses to recover their bottle deposits, so occasionally bottles up to 40 years old would appear on the lines. I chose to grab anything of interest and made a display at my work station. This was at the time when most people were just starting to amass beer can collections, and I figured bottles were a more unusual pursuit. I proceeded to see how many different labeled bottles I could find and had others guys on my crew watching for the oddities as well! Just imagine, I was literally surrounded by tens of thousands of bottles to choose from, both 12oz and 7oz, and new ones would take their place every few hours....... It soon became apparent that I needed a home for my collection. I started taking “my” bottles home, or rather to my parents’ home as I had already moved out. I slowly converted my dad’s rec-room onto a bottle museum, and he helped, building enough shelves to handle around a thousand bottles.
At some point, my interest in bottles reached brewery supervision. A general memo appeared, banning the taking home of bottles as I was taking them out by the shopping bag every morning. Now, even so, my “take” in comparison to the shear number of bottles coursing threw Pabst’s Bottle House was minuscule, but rules are rules. Management did make a concession to me though, and soon amended the new rule to allow my soaking labels off the bottles and taking home only the paper.....and no requirement that I do this on my own time. Times were good in the brewery, and as long as I got my work done, a little extra-curricular activity was not objected to.......
So, is this how I got interested in collecting beer bottle labels? Actually not! I wanted the original complete package, one that had actually passed through some far away brewery’s filling process, not some wrinkled old piece of paper. (I still have that bias, I MUCH prefer original, labeled bottles to just labels). But, this was one reason I started to go to garage sales, flea markets, and early beer can shows looking for that new to me labeled bottle. I slowly found older and older labeled bottles, which caused me to refine my collection. Out went the foreign and newer bottles to make room for “new” old finds. Eventually, out went anything that was not from Wisconsin as even I ran out of room for display. (picture attached of my first collection). I doubt I now have more than a handful of those first found bottles in my current collection of 600 plus labeled Wisconsin Beer bottles (I also collect Wisconsin labeled soft drink and mineral water bottles, so only the most interesting beers are retained).
So where does label collecting fit in? Well, I did finally realized that there are thousands of interesting labels I may never find on a bottle. At first I obtained labels from various sources, just to have examples until I could find the comparable bottle. But the idea of having a complete set of labels from every Wisconsin brewery, collected in albums for reference like a stamp collection, appealed to me. I now actively collect both. It’s not enough to have a particular label on either a bottle, or in my album, I try to find them in both formats. I display the bottles in mass, but also enjoy having a historical record of a brewery’s activity at my fingertips in book form.
I'm always looking for Phillip Best Brewing Company items as well as obscure Pabst Brewing Company artifacts.
current label collection
my collection in the mid 1970s
Pre-Prohibition & Prohibition era Wisconsin brewery labeled bottles
Seasonal display with Steiff Studio Animals
Kitchen collectables - Wisconsin consumer goods and advertisements
Wisconsin paper labeled vegetable cans, malt syrup cans, and soft drink bottles
Full size (8 foot wide) 1905 - 12 sheet lithographed billboard
Bears and Beasties
Schoenhut "Christmas Tree"