New-York Historical Society

Happy Mother’s Day!

To celebrate Mother’s Day, here is one of my personal favorites from the Bella Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera:

A delightful departure from the sentimental view of motherhood most often associated with the Victorian era, this advertisement features a mother reclining on a chaise lounge and sipping a Pabst Malt Extract — “The ‘Best’ Tonic” — while a nanny tends to her apparently new-born baby. Now that’s my brand of motherhood!

In the late 1800’s, many brewing companies began producing “tonics” — malt beverages containing as much as three and a half percent alcohol — that were marketed to women as well as men (beer was for men only). These “malt extracts” were promoted as health tonics for everything from insomnia to indigestion (for example, one 1903 ad reads “For all men, and for all women — at all times, everywhere — Pabst Malt Extract is a builder of health, strength, vigor and vitality).” Their benefits for new mothers were especially extolled. After all, “‘Just before baby comes'” is the time when a woman needs ‘poise’ and ‘balance,'” as a 1915 Pabst malt extract advertisement points out. “Pabst extract prepares the way for happy, healthy motherhood,” promises another 1913 ad.

Or maybe not. During prohibition, the government issued special permits to Pabst and Anheuser Busch to make and sell medicinal malt tonic, but a 1926 Time magazine article noted that there was no need for the temperance societies — or thirsty beer drinkers — to get excited: “One slimy gulp of it is unpleasant, two are unspeakable, three undrinkable.” It may have been more than just doctors’ orders that made pregnant women quit drinking the “best” tonic!

The New-York Historical Society will present an exhibition about the history of beer in New York that will open in May 2012.

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