Star Saloon & Cafe: A Case Study in Commercial Archeology

Old Pattison Whisky has seen the light of day after 111 years. In yet another example of a beautiful old sign suddenly revealed, this west-facing brick wall on Folsom Avenue in near-South St. Louis was exposed in June, 2011, when the adjoining building collapsed. Don Bonnell, who owns both buildings plus a third connected structure that holds a machine company, explains that the sign had to be painted prior to 1900 because the building bearing the sign was built in 1895 while the adjoining tumble-down building dates to 1899. This four-year window coincides with the short-lived commercial history of Pattison’s Limited of Edinburgh, Scotland, a distillery which incorporated in 1896 and went bankrupt in 1898. The company spent a veritable fortune on advertising—60,000 pounds in1898 or what would today be 4.3 million pounds in the United Kingdom alone—and, indeed, that was a factor in their demise. Yet, a century later, here, across the Big Pond, in a Midwestern city, their legacy lives on.

For several months after the building collapsed, the damage had yet to be attended to, meaning that the building was still in a state of collapse—the facade folding in upon itself; the roof jutting earthward, giving in to gravity; the once-stalwart storefront now a gaping mouth vomiting bricks and mortar. Broad, yellow crime scene tape surrounded the condemned building, fastened to anything upright, hoping against hope to contain the rubble. This urban eyesore was not the fault of  Bonnell, who had paid a contractor to tear down the derelict structure and haul away the debris. The contractor was busy on another job and promised he would get to it when he can. He finally got to it … the following year.

During this interim period between partial exposure and complete unveiling of the old wall, what little there was to be seen of the original sign proved quite tantalizing. At far left, large letters start to spell out “Old Pa—” The line of copy below starts with the letter “W.” Letters are white on a field of dark green. With so little of the sign actually visible, how do we know it is an ad for Old Pattison Whisky? Because the other side, the east-facing wall, of this very building once bore the exact same sign. Bonnell says he admired that one, too; then he painted his own sign over it.

What is entirely legible at the top of this building, above the currently obscured whiskey sign, is the name of the business which once flourished here: Star Saloon & Cafe. It makes sense to paint a whiskey ad on the side of a saloon, especially when that saloon was across the street from the old Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company, one of several plants belonging to one the oldest and most successful tobacco companies in America. The factory, a sprawling complex occupying several blocks, shuttered after a major fire in the late 1970s. But while it operated, it’s a safe bet that the Star Saloon & Cafe was a busy place throughout the day and night, likely populated by hungry, thirsty factory workers coming off or going on their shifts. It certainly was convenient—have a little snort or a cup of joe and then head off to make tobacco products.

In fact, the name of the saloon is a nod to one of Liggett & Myers’ most popular products, Star Chewing Tobacco [not to be confused with Starr Chewing Tobacco]. And just up the street, one block to the west from the old Star Saloon & Cafe is a large, west-facing wall sign exhorting passersby to “Chew Star Tobacco.” The slogan beneath reads “Leading Brand Of The _____ .” Alas, the missing word at the bottom is covered by sheet metal and other large objects which have been set against the base of the wall, for the wall bounds private property, someone’s backyard.

However, it is virtually assured the boast is “Leading Brand Of The World.” Original advertising bears this out. A vintage Star Tobacco pouch features not only this proud slogan but also the cocksure caption “Men who Chew are Men who DO.” With a skyscraper poking up through Gotham’s metropolis as a backdrop, it goes on to say, “Look at Woolworth’s, New York, the world’s tallest building. Each of its fifty-one stories was a ‘job’ that required clear thinking, accurate action. And the majority of the men engaged in the work were tobacco chewers. STAR is the great American tobacco—made just right to suit the American taste.” From 1913 to 1930, the Woolworth Building was ranked the world’s tallest building.

These signs and the few scattered buildings that remain on this section of Folsom Avenue are the only noticeable reminders of a once-thriving city neighborhood

Finally, one day in February, 2012, Don Bonnell called to say the contractor and his crew were on site, removing the derelict building. At last, the wall sign would be revealed. Upon arrival, bricks, stacked squarely, had been palletized and lay in the street, ready to be loaded onto heavy-duty flatbed trucks. These bricks were about to depart for Louisiana, where they would form a new structure there or beyond, reincarnated for 21st century purposes.

We stand back and look at the long-hidden copy, now seeing the full of it. From Top to bottom it reads

DRINK

Old Pattison

WHISKIES

SMOOTH AS VELVET

 

The sign company that did the job gave itself a modest plug. Along the bottom, barely discernible, one makes out the attribution: American Advertising & Bill Posting.

Now that the wall is exposed    elements will have their way with it. Graffiti artists—vandals—will see it as something to be enhanced—violated. Birds will crap on it and Old Sol will bake it onto the surface. Despite all this, motorists, pedestrians and neighbors will take notice. When did that show up? they may wonder. Who’s behind it? Indeed, the answer would likely surprise them. The sign you see is the result of a marketing plan hatched in the mahogany-paneled office of Robert P. Pattison, president of a long-defunct distillery that operated in late-19th century Scotland.

 

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