Tuesday, December 28, 2010


More Than Meets Your Eye
The California gold rush produced some interesting and rare products that were contained in square glass bottles. Gin, various brands of schnapps and more than a handful of medicated, aromatic and other vague sounding alcohol based concoctions competed for their share of the California market.

Did the companies that produced and sold these products understand or care what words they had blown in the containers that held their products? I, for one, think they probably did. They chose carefully what they had embossed in their bottles to entice consumers, that could read, into buying their product. For those potential customers that couldn’t read, horses, jockeys, animals and other attractive objects were blown into their glass bottles. I’m not an expert on 1850-60s’ marketing, but I do know a little about the California gold rush. During the beginning of the gold rush you could sell anything you could get to California. Not so true during the mid to late 1850’s. By the late 1850’s every liquor distributor on the east coast was “riding the elephant” and the California market was flooded with goods from the east. Just take a look at any late 1850’s California newspaper and count the advertisements for cases of liquor products being auctioned right off of the wharf that the supply ship was moored to.

What this all boils down to is the competition was extremely fierce during the late 50s’ and early 60s’. Liquor distributors had to use their wits to compete in an over supplied market. “Medicated Gin”, “Aromatic Schnapps” and “Club House Gin” were but a few of the products that were being pushed on the buying public. The advertisements for these products claimed to cure as many ailments as the patent medicines of the period. Oh, and by the way, they tasted better and left you feeling tipsy if not downright comatose.

Ever wonder what these early gold rush squares contained? I certainly have. Two of the foremost products were Gin and Schnapps.

Gin - we all know that gin is a strong colorless alcoholic beverage made by distilling or redistilling rye or other grain spirits. There were dozens of varieties of gin and each agent claimed theirs was the best tasting, most medicinal or had the greatest healing properties.
London Gin is your basic run of the mill dry tasting gin and usually doesn’t have any flavorings or spices added. Old Tom Gin is a lightly sweetened gin that was very popular back in the day. Dutch or Holland gin was typically distilled from Juniper berries and had a distinctive aroma and flavor. And then there’s the medicated gin (containing some sort of medicine), Cordial Gin (a stimulating and invigorating concoction), Clubhouse (high class belonging to a club) kind of gin and it goes on and on.

Schnapps, on the other hand, is a Dutch spirit distilled from potatoes and sometimes other grains. Schnapps was possibly the first widely distributed liquor based product during the gold rush. We find scads of them in the early gold rush camps and towns here in California, and like the gins, there were dozens of different brands and types.

Udolpho Wolfe’s Aromatic Schnapps, the most common of schnapps found here in California, was a distilled spirit flavored with spices to give it a pleasing aroma and flavor. Voldner’s Aromatic Schiedam Schnapps was distilled from juniper berries, and as such, had a very different aromatic flavor.
The word Schiedam refers to not only to the city in Holland but to a particular type of schnapps. The recipe for Schiedam schnapps varied by manufacturer but almost always included the addition of honey, nutmeg and orange flower water to give it that “aromatic” flavor. Yummy! Schnapps was always advertised as a medicinal product and recommended for family consumption.

Next time you take a gander at one of various Clubhouse gins, aromatic schnapps, or one of the dozens of colorful embossed or un-embossed glass containers that made their way to California during the middle of the 19th century. Remember you're not just looking at a piece glass, you're looking at a GOLD RUSH SQUARE!

Thanks to Max Bell for the pictures and contributions to this post


  1. Great article and nice pictures, I love square bottles. That Russ's Schnapps is killer, wow what a bottle! I've dug my share in the Gold Country and can report that 1850s & 60s embossed square Gins and Schnapps are not that common in comparison to all the wine shaped bottles & blacks I've uncovered. All of which contained the same kind of a likely lessor product as the squares. These were private mold bottles costing far in excess to produce than that of a generic slick. The packaging was definitely more appealing too and I'd bet the product generally was also costing more than other brands in generic containers. The squares seem more prevalent where there was money especially in the Gold Country. Being square, cases could be more condensed than that of round making transport to the hills a little easier. Keep up the good work guys, love the river pictures. How about some more pics of what bottles diggers do to beat the winter blues???

  2. Thank you for a very nice post... fun to read, and what beautiful glass! I keep gravitating to that Wistar's...what a gorgeous bottle, and killer color. I have found a few Wolfe's Schnapps, but never a Russ's,Von Thoffen's, or Charle's...I can see why there is a renewed interest in these Gold Country early squares, and have been watching the prices climb.
    Thanks for sharing the photos of those squares!

  3. Very interesting, informative post. Never did know what was in all these squares. Really makes the bottles more desirable.

    Thanks for your continued fine effort Rick & Happy 2011!