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Many still remember when Schlitz was “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous,” a longstanding tagline and a central part of the former Milwaukee brewer’s marketing boast.
In reality, however, it was the entire beer industry and the marketing and printing innovations it fostered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that helped make Milwaukee famous as a brewing and industrial powerhouse. Beer aficionados — and even those who aren’t — can get a taste of vintage brewery advertising and study its impact on the way beer was and still is marketed at an upcoming exhibit at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend.
Art on Tap: Early Wisconsin Brewery Art and Advertising opens July 9 in MOWA’s Hyde Gallery and runs through September 25. The display, which contains “breweriana” (collectable items featuring a brewery’s name and logo) from the 1880s up to Prohibition, gives MOWA an opportunity to venture into new territory, according to curator Erika Petterson.
“This is the type of collection you don’t typically see in the fine art world,” Petterson says. “The pieces are beautifully done and beautifully put together in terms of the advertising and marketing of an important Wisconsin product.”
Milwaukee’s biggest brewers — Blatz, Miller, Pabst and Schlitz — are central to the exhibit, which has been assembled thanks to the help of individual breweriana collectors around the state. Items also were selected from the former G. Heileman Brewing Company in La Crosse, Stevens Point Brewery, Leinenkugel’s Brewery in Chippewa Falls, and other smaller Wisconsin brewers, some of which are only memories.
Ad imagery runs long on buxom beer maidens pouring golden lagers, an approach still popular in modern beer advertising. But what makes the older ads unique, Petterson says, is how their time period dovetails with the latter part of the Industrial Revolution.
In the late 19th century, large Milwaukee brewers were finding new and more efficient ways to brew and bottle beer, meaning their output far exceeded local consumption demands. The growth of the railroad system meant distant markets with larger populations became more accessible.
But beer had always been a local commodity, and outsiders were suspect. The big brewers knew they had to generate interest in their products if they wanted to sell in other markets, so Milwaukee, as both a brewing community and a selection of brands, set out to change the way beer was marketed and sold, Petterson says.
“These are some of the earliest examples of product branding,” Petterson says. “They had to make their beers seem appealing and better than other beers, and I think they did a really good job of that.”
Pabst didn’t always have “Blue Ribbon” attached to its name, the curator explains. That was a marketing ploy to get the beer to stand out and above the local competition so that the brewery could charge more for its product. The same goes for Miller, which added “High Life” to its brand name and “The Champagne of Bottled Beer” as its tagline to appeal to society’s upper crust and imply that only the best people drank its beer.
Color lithographs were the primary means of this advertising, Petterson says, with an emphasis on beautiful illustration and rich colors to make the ads more attractive and, presumably, give them a longer display life. The increase in demand helped make Milwaukee a center of the lithography industry, which literally blossomed in the shadow of the breweries in a uniquely symbiotic relationship.
“Well-known lithographers Gugler, Beck & Pauli, Louis Kurz, and Henry Seifert’s Milwaukee Lithographing & Engraving Company produced a wide range of advertising materials from trade cards to labels to large-scale tavern pieces,” Peterson noted in MOWA’s recent newsletter. “These images were a beautiful, vibrant, and visually appealing foray into modern marketing.”
The brewery ads offered some of the first instances of celebrity endorsements, something we take for granted today. They also were among the first to develop themes that attempted to tie various beer brands to desirable traits.
One of the rarest pieces in the exhibit is a 9’ x 12’ billboard reproduced on linen depicting a racing yacht against a backdrop of the Pabst Brewery name stitched into a nautical flag. The tagline, “Blue Ribbon Winners on Land and Sea,” underscores the image’s message.
The period produced some of brewing’s most enduring images, including the long-standing Miller “Girl on the Moon” which still remains as one of the brewery’s key visuals. The collection represented by MOWA’s Art on Tap offers not only a lesson in brewing and marketing, but also the chance for individuals who don’t normally visit art galleries to immerse themselves in an exhibit that will ring a lot of familiar bells for Wisconsin residents, Petterson says.
“Even if you don’t drink beer, and a surprising number of breweriana collectors don’t, you will still find the images appealing,” Petterson adds. “There really is something for everyone here.”
— MOWA Brews A Tall Draught of Summer Activities —
Lectures, music and even a series of beer tastings are on draft in support of Art on Tap: Early Wisconsin Brewery Art and Advertising. Mark your calendars for the following museum events:
LECTURES AND OPENING EVENTS
Tastings are $18 each for MOWA members, $30 for non-members and includes a level-one MOWA membership; $55 VIP packages contain all three beer tastings and a level-one membership. Pre-order tickets at wisconsinart.org/artontaptastings.