Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Labels on beer bottles

Fun, isn't it, all this stuff about bottled beer. And all the newspaper bits were the result of just an hour or two's research in the newspaper archive. I've barely scratched the tip of the iceberg is what I'm trying to say.

One of the last lot of letters to the Evening Standard cast doubts as to the practicality of refilling Bass or Allsopp bottles with inferior-quality beer. How could you wash a bottle without removing the label? Other correspondents expanded on this theme.

One suggested taxing trademarks:


Sir,-An ingenious idea broached in your columns of a halfpenny stamp to be affixed to the labels of beer bottles has suggested to me an extension of the plan, which would bring in a considerable amount to the Exchequer without being in any way burdensome, i.e. a halfpenny stamp on all trade marks. If a dealer finds it pay to put a Special mark or name to an article, the stamp would not deter him if it did, the public would in many cases be saved from gross barbarisms of expression and pitiless mutilations of the classic languages. _ I remain, Sir, your obedient servant,
Conservative Club, Jan. 30."
London Standard - Thursday 01 February 1872, page 6.

Not sure what he means about the mutilation of classic languages. Is he referring to something else that was taxed with a stamp?

A letter the next day followed up on the stamp idea:

Sir, — The suggestion made hy Mr. Augustus Goldsmid as to the halfpenny stamp on beer-bottle labels is a very good one, but to be effective it must be across the cork, so that the beer cannot be drawn without destroying the label, just as in the case of the stamp on playing-cards. If the trade-mark, as at present affixed to the bottles, bear a stamp it is perfectly easy for any publican to procure a number of bottles which have once been filled with Bass or Allsopp and still bear their labels, and fill them with some of his own vile concoctions. This is what is done frequently now, not only with beer, but with other drinks, and this is what the public really wish to be guarded against.

We have no doubt that if we go to a respectable firm of bottlers we get a genuine article ; but how is it with people in a country village, who are dependent on the nearest public, or with the pedestrian who calls at the roadside inn for a bottle of beer?

I myself could point out many "hotels" within ten miles of London where Bass is sold nominally, though it would puzzle Mr. Bass himself to recognise the stuff which professes to be his own manufacture. I have seen a similar fraud practised with Hennessy's cognac, and should be very glad to hear of a stamped label being put upon wines and spirits, as well as beer.
-I remain, Sir, your obedient servant.
United University Club, Feb. 1."

What is it with people giving a club as their address? Must be posh bastards. Getting back on topic, I agree that you'd need to put the stamp across the cork to ensure it was broken when the bottle was opened. I'm glad that he confirms the refilling of Bass and Allsopp bottles. Have you noticed how the places accused of selling dodgy beer are all ones frequented by travellers? Railway stations, roadside inns. Presumably that's because regular customers would get wind of the deception and buy their beer elsewhere.

I think this confirms my guess - that the labels were first removed, then the bottles washed:

Sir, - Permit me to inquire of A. Morrison and Co. if they have never seen old beer-bottles being washed at country inns and the labels carefully preserved and dried. Such has been my experience, and I may add that on one occasion the landlord of a small inn threatened to charge extra if I defaced the label on an empty bottle.

The indignation of the large firms appears to me very uncalled for; nobody suspects them of bottling any but good beer: it is the small publican who is at fault.
— Your obedient servant,
London Standard - Friday 02 February 1872, page 6.

It was the small publican to blame. Just like with the adulteration of draught beer at the beginning of the century. Nothing to do with respectable large breweries and bottlers. Was that really true? It's very difficult to discover at the distance of a century and a half.


Phil said...

I think Goldsmid was making a funny (although humour really is hard to detect at this distance) - i.e. the cost wouldn't deter brewers from registering trademarks, but if it did that would also be a good result, as it would spare us a lot of illiterate trade names. Not sure about the cost of an extra halfpenny - per what? surely not per bottle?

Ron Pattinson said...


yep, an extra halfpenny per bottle. That's what the stamp would be for.

phil said...

I got a question regarding Berliner Weisse and you might know.

Why did breweries choose for a wide open chalice similar to Westmalle glasses as a typical BW glass?
I see only deterrents..

Ron Pattinson said...


because they wanted to show off the enormous head on the beer. The glasses were huge in the 19th century. "The size of your head" is how I've seen them described.

Phil said...

If bottled beer was going for 2/6 a dozen, a halfpenny on every bottle is a sizeable tax.

Ron Pattinson said...


yes, it would have been. Goldsmid seemed to think brewers would be happy to pay that to safeguard their brand. Obviously, it would really have been the consumer who paid.