Whiskey Business

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”

– Mark Twain

During prohibition (1920-1933) whiskey and most other alcoholic drinks were outlawed by the 18th Amendment, which was enforced by the Volstead Act. However, America’s thirsty population employed a myriad of ways to acquire liquor. Some illegal, such as smuggling in booze from Canada or distilling it in their own homes. Others wanted to avoid bathtub gin or white lightning and chose to acquire their alcohol legally. During prohibition the U.S. Treasury Department authorized physicians to write prescriptions for medicinal alcohol. In our collection we have two bottles of prescription whiskey, one of which is still full with the seal unbroken.


Prohibition era liquor prescription form

The sealed bottle was prescribed to Percival N. Cutler by Kenilworth’s resident physician Dr. Rufus Stolp on August 26th, 1929. Stolp was highly active in the village, having founded the Kenilworth Historical Society. His practice was located on the second floor of the Kenilworth Store and later in his home.


Prescription on sealed bottle of medicinal whiskey

Cutler, who lived at 207 Woodstock Avenue, may have suffered from a variety of ailments. Alcohol was prescribed as a treatment for anemia, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and high blood pressure, among other disorders. A pint of prescription whiskey cost $3 – $4, equal to around $40 today. In 1917 the American Medical Association (AMA) issued a resolution stating that alcohol’s “use in therapeutics as a tonic or stimulant or for food has no scientific value…the use of alcohol as a therapeutic agent should be further discouraged.” However, many doctors ignored the AMA’s statement and issued prescriptions for record amounts of medicinal alcohol, cashing in on their privileged status.

Our full bottle was distilled by Bond & Lillard. Campari America (Wild Turkey whiskey) recently released a Bond & Lillard bottle as part of their Whiskey Barons Collection.


Sealed bottle of Bon & Lillard perscribed by Dr. Stolp



Empty bottle of Old Hermitage

Our empty bottle of Sour Mash Whisky was distilled by Old Hermitage, a brand owned by W.A. Gaines and Company from Frankfort, Kentucky. Gaines erected the Hermitage distillery in 1868 and were the largest producers of sour mash whiskeys in the world.  W.A. Gaines and Co.’s involvement in the whiskey industry ended with prohibition in 1933. National Distillers owned the brand until 1987 when it was bought by Jim Beam. Apparently, the prohibition age whiskey still holds up as one reviewer found.




Bottles on display in the museum


Both bottles are currently featured in the museum. We’ve raised the bar with our newest exhibition, How Can I Help You? Business and Commerce in Kenilworth. Stop on rye and see them soon, they’ll be gone before you know it.


Our Shipshape Collection

People have always liked collecting pieces of things, fragments from some bigger moment in history. They’re found in gift shops all over the world from Berlin to Alcatraz. I’m no exception, during a trip to San Francisco I purchased a rock from “The Rock” to help fund an ongoing restoration. The KHS even has a few architectural fragments in our collection. But this piece of history was not torn from a building, it was stripped from a ship.


USS Constitution

The USS Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel afloat. It’s also the only active ship in the U.S. Navy to have sunk an enemy ship. Constitution was launched in 1797 and named by George Washington after one of this country’s founding documents. Constitution first saw combat in the First Barbary War. However, she gained her reputation during War of 1812 against the United Kingdom. It was during a battle against the HMS Guerriere that she earned her nickname of “Old Ironsides”, as well as the public’s love. During the American Civil War she was used as a training ship.


Constitution and Guerriere at battle

Years later she was retired from active service in 1881. Today, Constitution is a floating museum under the Naval History & Heritage Command, but she is still crewed by active sailors of the U.S. Navy. Her mission is to promote understanding of the Navy’s role in war and peace efforts. The USS Constitution Museum’s website has much more information about the ships history.

Constitution is still afloat largely due to public support. In 1830 a false newspaper article claimed the navy was going to scrap her. Two days later Oliver Wendell Holmes published a poem in support of the ship that sparked a public outcry. Within a few years the Navy began the first of many repairs and refitting’s. Unfortunately, her sister ship Congress was unceremoniously scraped in 1835.


Souvenirs of “Old Ironsides” announcement, 1927. USS Constitution Museum Collection

Souvenirs from Constitution have long been a favorite of the public beginning with her first major overhaul in 1833 in the Charlestown Navy Yard. The commander at the time, Captain Isaac Hull, ordered all of the wood and copper removed from Constitution during the restoration sent to Washington D.C. to be fashioned into memorabilia. Canes, boxes and other trinkets were sent to friends and public officials throughout the U.S. The most sought after pieces were made from the ships copper sheathing.


Wood and copper souvenir fragment, KHS

Constitution’s 1927-1931 restoration was the first time fragments of the ship were made available to the public and sold as ashtrays, bookends, and plaques to help fundraise for her repair work. It was during this restoration that our fragment, a piece of wood with a copper plaque was created. The USS Constitution Museum now collects these souvenirs and wrote an interesting blog post about them last year.

Currently, Constitution is in dry dock undergoing another restoration (2015-2017). If you want to own a piece of history the museum is selling medallions cast from the ship’s recently removed copper hull.


Wood and copper souvenir fragment, KHS

Unfortunately, our souvenir was lost in our collection until recently. It may have been donated in the 1980s, but other than that we don’t know much about it and can’t establish a connection to Kenilworth so it might have to walk the plank. Unless we can find more information on this piece it will become a prime candidate for deaccessioning.

Our mission statement and collection’s plan keep our collection in shipshape and insure we only collect artifacts related to Kenilworth’s history. Without these rules our collection would lack direction and meaning. Sometimes you have to let an interesting piece of history go. but we always find a better home for pieces that are removed from our collection. Maybe it’s time we ship this artifact back home, USS Constitution Museum might want to add it to their collection.



The Man Behind the Mask


Joseph Sears’ death mask. (Kenilworth Historical Society)

For my first post I decided to start with one of the more startling objects I’ve found in the collection, Joseph Sears’ death mask. Until I happened upon it in an unmarked box, I had no idea we had such a macabre object in the collection.

A death mask is a mold of a person’s face, usually cast in wax or plaster and the impression is typically taken directly from the corpse. They can be used as mementos of the dead, but some were used to create postmortem portraits. Death masks date back to the Middle Ages and eventually fell out of style in the nineteenth century.

You don’t have to travel far to find one. The Chicago History Museum recently had one of Lincoln’s death masks on display in their exhibit Undying Words. From Napoleon to Lincoln, museums all over the world have death masks in their collections. There are even a few museums whose sole mission is collecting death masks. Here is a fascinating article about the masks and their history if you want to lean more.

Now for the man behind the mask. Joseph Sears was a successful businessman, a philanthropist, and the founder of Kenilworth. (No relation to Sears-Roebuck) Sears was born on March 24, 1843 in Lockport, IL, however he lived in Chicago for much of his childhood and early adult life. In 1868 he married Helen Barry and started working at N.K. Fairbank, a company that manufactured lard, oil, soap, and candles.  He soon moved to the fashionable Prairie Avenue neighborhood on the near south side of Chicago. Sears witnessed the Great Fire of 1871 and lost several children to the unsanitary conditions in Chicago.


Joseph Sears photographed on Christmas 1911, just before his death. (Kenilworth Historical Society)

Haunted by his loses, Sears decided to use his wealth and develop his own pristine community fashioned off of those he visited in England. In 1889, he formed the Kenilworth Company and purchased several plots of land on Chicago’s North Shore between Wilmette and Winnetka. It didn’t take long for Sears to layout streets, construct a gas works, and begin building houses.  He donated much of the parkland in Kenilworth, as well as the land for the local elementary school named after him. Sears died in his home in on January 30, 1912.

Now on to the mask. It was most likely donated in 1965 when the Society received a sizable amount of Sears’ family items from Joseph’s descendants. The mask was most likely created during a short window between when Sears died and when he was cremated on February 3, 1912. The sculptor, John Paulding, engraved his signature on the bottom of the mask.

Paulding attended the Art Institute of Chicago and was well known for his World War I sculptures. A few of his sculptures became very popular and casts of them can be found all over the United States.


John Paulding’s engraved signature on Joseph Sears death mask (Kenilworth Historical Society)

Joseph Sears is a gargantuan figure in Kenilworth’s history. His shadow falls across nearly every story this village has to tell. Over one-hundred years after his death, Joseph Sears’ lasting impression on Kenilworth can been still be seen.


Welcome to Found in Collection. I’m Kyle Mathers, curator at the Kenilworth Historical Society (KHS). This blog will highlight the interesting artifacts I find in the Society’s holdings as I conduct an inventory of the museum’s archival, 3D, and art collections. I’ll also pull from some interesting things I’ve found working at the Society for the past two years. The collection of KHS may be small in scope, but it’s no secret that many affluent and influential people have called the small village of Kenilworth their home. Due to this, as well as aggressive collecting by early volunteers of the organization, KHS has a vast and diverse collection, considering its size and scope.

I’ll post weekly photos or scans of the fascinating things I find and give you the provenance (background information) of the artifact, but I also intended to place the object in a local, regional, or even national context if appropriate.

I was inspired to write this blog one afternoon as I was combing though a box I found in our collection room. In a single box I found a prescription bottle of prohibition era whiskey, a death mask, a piece of the White House and much more. It’s no secret that the vast majority of museums’ collections never see the light of day. For example, The Field Museum in Chicago only has 1% of it’s collection on display at any given time. Museums just don’t have the gallery area (or budget) to display all the wonderful things we have. This project will shed light on the hidden treasures in our collection while exploring the captivating history behind them.