Udolpho Wolfe’s Aromatic Schnapps. It sounds pretty exotic, right? As it happens, bottles that contained this schnapps are frequently found on 19th century archaeological sites all over the western world. The particular example of the bottle we’re featuring today was found during the excavation of the site of H. F. Stevens Ltd’s premises. Stevens was a wholesale chemist who was based in Worcester Street, near Cathedral Square, from the early 20th century And no, the chemist wasn’t drinking on the side – the schnapps was marketed as a medicine, and its presence at the site is representative of Christchurch’s position within a global trade network.
Our modern economic system is based on mass international exchange: the exchange of ideas, of labour and of goods. It’s all too easy to think that this system is a product of the late 20th century. In fact, international trade goes back to the Stone Age, but it was developments in the 19th century that really saw a global economy develop. Mass production, the forceful opening of new markets through colonial expansion and the rise of modern capitalist structures such as joint stock companies in the 19th century enabled the building of big business and the export of products all over the world.
Christchurch’s 19th century archaeology offers tangible evidence of this system. Many of the artefacts we find on 19th century sites in the city come not just from England – the country that most European settlers in Christchurch called home – but from all over the world. Amongst these, Udolpho Wolfe’s Aromatic Schnapps provides a particularly good example of the development of trade and industry in the 19th century.
The eccentrically named Udolpho Wolfe was a Jewish-American of German extraction. His family was notable in the United States even without their schnapps legacy. Udolpho’s father was a major in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, as well as being a friend of the fifth American president, James Monroe. Young Udolpho started his career in the 1820s, working for his elder brother Joel, a wine and sprit merchant. At the age of 21 Udolpho became a partner in the business. In 1839 the business went international when the brothers opened a distillery in Schiedam, Holland. And in 1848 Udolpho (now the senior partner) introduced Udolpho Wolfe’s Aromatic Schnapps to the world.
Unlike the sweet fruity schnapps many will be familiar with in New Zealand today, Udolpho’s schnapps was a grain-based alcohol, flavoured with juniper berry essence. The spirit savvy amongst you will realise that this means that it was just plain old gin. What made the schnapps special was the way it was marketed. Sold not as a ‘frivolous beverage’, Udolpho Wolfe’s Aromatic Schnapps was instead marketed as a wonderful medicine. In the (somewhat elaborate) words of the manufacturer:
As a tonic and corrective it is a positive specific, and will be found to prevent and remove the troubles occasioned by malarious influences or impure water, and is therefore an indispensable vade mecum for travellers and those who are unacclimated. At the same time its palatable flavour, and generally salutary qualities render it eminently desirable as a healthful substitute for the fiery potations which, in this country especially, are productive of such deleterious consequences.
New Zealand Herald 29/9/1874: 3
Once described as a “vigorous advertiser” (Putnam’s Magazine 14 (23): 638), it seems that Udolpho Wolfe did everything he could to make sure that this was the perspective held by all potential consumers.
His approach must have worked, as the business of schnapps went from strength to strength. Supposedly over 90,000 cases of a dozen quart bottles (or two dozen pint bottles) were being moved per year by the 1870s; that’s at least 1 million schnapps bottles sold around the world.
Aside from this prodigious quantity, the international aspect of the trade is quite remarkable. After being produced in Schiedam, the schnapps destined for consumption in the United States, Central America and the Caribbean was shipped to New York City for bottling and distribution. Meanwhile, schnapps to be sold in Europe, South America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand was sent from Schiedam to Hamburg, where it was bottled and then shipped away. This, then, was an American company, producing liquor in Holland, bottling it in America and Germany, and exporting it to the four corners of the globe. Because of this massive trade one can now find bottles bearing the label ‘Udolpho Wolfe’s Aromatic Schnapps’ in archaeological sites around the globe.
Having finished its long journey from Europe to Christchurch, the schnapps – and other medicines – would have been distributed by H. F. Stevens to chemists in the city, thus enabling the citizens of Christchurch to indulge in the ‘healthy benefits’ of Udolpho Wolfe’s Aromatic Schnapps, along with the rest of the world. Even in the 19th century, Christchurch was part of the global economic system.
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Carter, M. and Moyle, J., 2012. 103-105 Worcester Street, Christchurch: Report on archaeological monitoring. Unpublished report for Nikau Contractors Ltd.
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Marcus, J. R., 1989. United States Jewry 1776-1985. Wayne State University Press, Detroit.
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