Alfred J. Liebmann (b. 1885) was a research chemist. Born in Switzerland, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1910 and became technical director of Schenley Industries and president of the Schenley Research Institute. His studies included the utilization of cereal crops and of distillery by-products. Collection consists of correspondence, broadsides, official forms, and other documents concerning the distribution and use of liquor in the U.S. Topics include trade in rum and molasses in colonial America, Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, military use of liquor, taverns, and importation and sale of liquor. Some of the items are signed by notable political and military figures.
Biographical/historical: An Appreciation by Robert W. Hill, Keeper of Manuscripts, 1954
Most of us can recall instances during recent decades of pessimistic prophets insisting that our country had ceased to be a land of opportunity; another theme of theirs at times has been that the "melting pot" had failed to refine the raw immigrant into a staunch American, especially in this twentieth century. A recent gift of manuscript letters and documents presented to the Library offers a living refutation of such charges in the person of its donor, Alfred J. Liebmann, of New York City.
Dr. Liebmann, born in Switzerland, came to this country about 1910, as a recent university graduate carrying little in his luggage but his diplomas and an excess of hopefulness. His education had been acquired in his native city, Zurich, where the Polytechnic School awarded him its Chemical Engineer degree in 1907; the University conferred its Doctor of Philosophy in physical chemistry, when his dissertation, "Zur Kenntnis der Ober-flachenspannungen geschmolzener Metalle und Salze", was accepted in 1909. Within a year of his arrival here, Dr. Liebmann was at work as a research assistant in the laboratory of the: General Electric Company. In 1921 he was placed in charge of the Elkon Works of that company, producers of ductile tungsten, molybdenum and appliances made therefrom. The interval of a dozen years was filled with advancement in technical experience and in management responsibilities for Dr. Liebmann, his major scientific contributions being in the field of filaments, particularly with regard to improved use of tungsten. He was not a secluded researcher; his extra-laboratory environment was reacting upon him, too, so that he chose, before many years of residence here, to become a citizen and to pledge his allegiance to this country.
In 1933, Dr. Liebmann became associated with Schenley Industries, Inc. As their technical director, he has been president of the Schenley Research Institute, constantly seeking wider utilization of cereal crops and of distillery by-products, improved methods of making alcoholic beverages and ethyl alcohol, more efficient production of plastics and of butadiene from grain. During World War II he served on the penicillin advisory committee of the War Production Board.
His interest in the fascinating "anti-biotics" did not cease when the urgent wartime needs for them tapered off at the close of conflict. In 1947 he reported on investigations conducted by a research team in the Schenley laboratories studying certain molds which promise to yield a substance effective against viruses, thought by many medical men to be the basic factor in various types of influenza. These experiments were focused on a family of soil molds - the genera Aspergillus - also found growing in fruits and grains. Clearly a scientist conducting this kind of research must be in close understanding with the medical profession so dependent upon better pharmaceutics for conquest or control of disease. This collaboration of industrial chemist and doctor was recognized by Dr. Liebmann's election to the board of trustees of Knickerbocker Hospital, a post which he held few over twenty-five years.
The chemist uses distillation as a process for extracting the essence, or "spirit", of any matter; it is a method of ancient origin. Its history caught Dr. Liebmann's interest many years ago, and since then he has gathered a fine collection of early and rare printed works on the subject. He learned, too, as he read American history that distillation had been a significant factor in numerous situations or episodes in that record. Soon he found himself unable to resist collecting historic American documents relative to the production and use of whiskey, rum, and brandy, all these being spirituous liquors obtained by distillation. It is this group of manuscripts which comprises the new gift to the Library for its Manuscript Division, In the course of presentation to The New York Public Library Dr. and Mrs. Liebmann expressed a wish that the donation might be looked upon as a token of their appreciation for the opportunities which this country offers the immigrant citizen - freedoms such as the achievement of business success, participation in civic interests, and pursuit of happiness through hobbies and similar cultural activities.
Content: The Liebmann Collection of American Historical Documents contains approximately 226 manuscript items and a dozen printed pieces, principally broadsides proclaiming governmental regulations or official forms requiring insertion in handwriting of certain essential data. The period covered by these materials extends from 1665 to 1910. The earliest document is a bail-bond for two residents of Massachusetts bound to appear at the county court at Charlestown to answer a charge of selling strong liquor to the Indians of Wamesett; the most recent piece is a letter by President William Howard Taft. The major number of items reflect events or episodes in our nation's history prior to 1865; an effort to categorize the collection as one for the "economic" or the "social" historian defies solution.
The importance of rum and molasses as staples in the colonial economy becomes apparent repeatedly in the history of our seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of us learned from our school or college textbooks about the triangular trade from our northern or New England ports to the slave coasts of Africa and thence to the sugar islands of the West Indies, whence rum, or molasses for distilling into rum, would be the cargo on the homeward leg of the voyage. There was also a considerable short-run trade involving exchange of the New England fisheries catches for the products of the islands: fish and lumber outbound, rum and molasses inbound. While we were British colonies, the Crown's interest in revenues from such trade, and the efforts to exercise close control of the molasses trade especially, led to friction and to occasional smuggling. Much insight into the importance of these staple commodities can be gained from numerous letters of merchants, ship captains and such folk which are represented in the Liebmann Collection. Although rum continued to be of importance in trade and diet during the decades after we declared our Independence of Britain, a more indigenous product gradually superseded it in primacy.
As the new nation pushed its settlements beyond the Appalachians local agriculture came to produce more grains. The predominantly temperate climate, and the geography of the land, much of it requiring the clearance of primeval forests, favored cereals and such fruits as apples and peaches; these are the essentials for making whiskey, brandy or the related cordials. Neither environment nor agricultural heritage directed our early frontiersman into raising sugar cane; to him, flour or whiskey were the best forms through which he might produce a marketable crop. Anything which prevented or retarded such conversion of crops into so much cash as he felt necessary was sure to meet his disfavor. This was the basic cause of the so called Whiskey Insurrection of 1791-1795 in western Pennsylvania.
The Insurrection, sometimes called the Whiskey "Rebellion", can be traced from its inception to its climax through manuscripts in the Liebmann Collection. Although the most scholarly, recent study of this chapter in our history reveals several contributory factors, social and political, which entered into the disturbances of 1794 in the four western counties of Pennsylvania close by the Ohio River, the central fact is that the excise law of 1791 was the recurrent irritant in the situation. The Collection includes some lengthy letters of merchants at the time of the adoption of the bill into law, showing the emergence of sectional differences over the issue of taxes. A manuscript draft of the instructions for making the law effective, bearing Hamilton's signature, is also present.
For the events in the "Rebellion", after the efforts at settlement by a board of Commissioners had come to naught, there are a number of revealing source documents. These fall into the closing months of 1794, when an expeditionary force of about 13,000 men, militia from the eastern sea board, marched into the area of disorder. The "right wing" set out from Carlisle and was comprised of Pennsylvania and Jersey men mainly; the "left wing" composed of Virginians and Marylanders went by way of Cumberland. The Liebmann Collection contains a series of letters of one of the Pennsylvanians recording the intimate picture of the march, with news of others who participated; these have heightened interest because they were addressed to one of the unsuccessful Commissioners. A more official account is given by the orderly book for the "left wing", which was kept by a member of the noted Virginia family, the Nelsons. By these two different types of records one sees the events of October to December, 1794, in a manner not supplied by the current reports in the eastern newspapers of the time. Washington's order authorizing the enrollment of additional troops, for a period of limited service in this emergency, is among the few broadsides accompanying the Collection; this action was made necessary because so much of the regular army was engaged on the Indian frontiers. Although Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers, in August, 1794, had broken the power of the hostile Indians, the Old Northwest was not truly safe for settlers until the completion of the Treaty of Greenville, a year later.
It was during this period that the military use of spirits forecast the general change from the colonial preference for rum. The Liebmann Collection has numerous items illustrating this shift. Many requisitions directed to the commissary departments during the campaigns in the Northwest show strikingly that whiskey had displaced rum in both medicinal and dietary use by the troops; this appears to be true also of its role as a bonus or reward for special services or for marksmanship at target shooting. The items of this class in the Liebmann Collection carry signatures of men who became famous in our military annals: Anthony Wayne, Wm. Henry Harrison, and Zebulon Pike. The Indian campaigns of the 1790s were proving grounds for many young officers of distinction in later years.
Documents related to the supply problems of the War of 1812, especially several for the naval forces in the Chesapeake, under Commodore John Rodgers, at the time of the British attacks upon Washington and Baltimore; reflect a similar change in the naval ration. Another item in this Collection, a small broadside, shows how our occupation forces entering Mexico via Vera Cruz, in 1847, issued regulations for fondas and cafes, specifying the beverages which might be dispensed by each of them; this is an unusually rare imprint, as it was presumably printed upon a press carried with the invasion forces. The Confederate States of America, during the few years of existence of that government, likewise had to issue regulations upon distilling, and printed items showing the penalties for violators and the manner of disposing of confiscated stills also form part of this Collection.
As an element in the American scene, the village tavern has filled a role equally as prominent as the smithy of which Longfellow wrote. From colonial times onward it has been a social institution. There are most convincing arguments of the need for this public house in a manuscript petition of the inhabitants of the town of Fairfield, supposedly in New Jersey, in 1792. The residents state that a tavern is "necessary for the Accommodating Strangers Travelers and other Persons, for the Benefit of Men meeting together for the Dispatch of Business, and for the Entertaining and Refreshing Mankind in a reasonable Manner" The last kind of service is portrayed by another piece also in the Liebmann Collection; it is a bill rendered by a tavern keeper who served as caterer for an ordination service in his community.
Indeed, it was the communal regard of the tavern as a central meeting place which justified the system of control by licenses which evolved: it was essential to order and sobriety that the person keeping tavern be of good repute. A dozen or more examples of licenses, dating from early colonial times to 1870, and covering localities from Maine to Louisiana, reveal the qualities and conduct required of anyone who wished to keep a public house of this kind. The document dated in 1870 has a two-fold interest for collectors. It is not accurate to call the item a license; it is by reflection a statement of the kind of permit issued legally in Ohio. The document is really an indictment, resulting from a Grand Jury investigation. In the prescribed terminology it finds that the accused party has been unlawfully selling liquors "other than wines manufactured from the pure juice of the grape, cultivated in the State of Ohio, ale, beer or cider", in violation of the act of the General Assembly of the State of Ohio passed in 1854. The item's second point of collector appeal is that it was issued by William C. McKinley as the Prosecuting Attorney, and is signed by him; twenty-seven years later he took office as the Chief Magistrate of the land.
McKinley is not the only President whose name is signed to items in the Liebmann Collection; there are some seventeen pieces having Presidential association, representing ten different men. When one recalls the basic criteria for inclusion, this emphasizes the noteworthy character of this portion.
The form of these items varies from patents to pardons and numbers also some lengthy letters by Washington, Jefferson, and Buchanan all in their autographs. There are numerous military requisitions by William Henry Harrison and by Jackson, before they switched careers of arms for statecraft. The document signed by President Grant has a high degree of "human interest"; it is a pardon for a Kentucky "moonshiner" because he was in abject poverty and had a wife and five children dependant upon him. Other Presidents represented by pieces are Madison, Johnson, and Taft. However, national history is not featured to the exclusion of purely local matters.
Many of the items bearing a New York heading have clear mercantile or shipping significance. The oldest piece of New York origin, dated in June, 1716, is the statement of complaint in a suit over nonpayment for a pipe of wine from Madeira. The second oldest is a deposition in the Mayor's Court in 1720; it relates to three mariners who were playing cards and drinking "flipp made from rum and beer", in the public house of Jacob Swan, in Maiden Lane. The tavern keeper allegedly did not receive full payment of the bill for the drinks. A dozen or so additional items, such as customs receipts and bills presented by mercantile firms, throw light on the importation and sale of spirits through this port city.
An indication of the European belief in this country as a land of opportunity is given by a letter from a British Admiral, addressed to Philip Hone, merchant and once Mayor of New York, introducing a young Briton, "brought up in the wine and spirit Trade", who came over thinking he could get on better in New York than in his native land. Another impressive document is a petition from the municipal gaoler asking that he be permitted to sell spirits to the inmates, because his pay was inadequate to support his family and his duties so confining that he could not take additional work elsewhere.
It is impossible to describe here in detail all the items in the Collection. Dr. Liebmann's own earlier description in the Autograph Collectors Journal, for April and Summer 1951, supplies additional detail. But beyond these two essays it is virtually unexploited material. Many of the manuscripts possess a double nature which should make them useful to either the economic or social historian. Therefore one can foresee their appeal to numerous students interested in a variety of aspects or in different periods of our nation's history.
ROBERT W. HILL, 1954Keeper of Manuscripts
Funding: Digitization was made possible by a lead gift from The Polonsky Foundation.