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The Essence of Old Virginia

June 26th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

If you’re looking for the essence of old Virginia, then you can certainly find it in this whiskey-bottle label from around 1859. Knowing that your slaves are happy and not about to run off or rise up surely must have made any fine drink go down even more smoothly.

You can read more about the distillers, A. M. Bininger & Co., here. And if you want an entire blog post on African Americans in whiskey ads, you got it.

Turns out that Bininger’s Essence of Old Virginia coincided with a popular dance of the same name. The London playbill (above left) announces:

The celebrated
VOKES FAMILY
Will appear in their diversified Entertainment, in which Master VOKES will dance his “Essence of Old Virginny.”

The Vokes family, by the way, were Fred, Jessie, Victoria, Rosina, and Fawdon. They were big into pantomime.

Anyway, ten years after the Master did his dance, one J. H. O’Neil performed a parody song, “Quentessence of Old Virginia Schottisch”—a schottisch being an old German country dance. Mr. O’Neil was an Irish comedian who sometimes performed as Uncle Tom, presumably in blackface. The Kentuckians, who love their whiskey, also loved O’Neil’s minstrelsy:

Mr. O’Neil as Uncle Tom is true to life. We have never seen the character so well impersonated. He looks like the veritable Southern negro, full of the pathos of an old negro’s soul, with heart as tender and mind as submissive as that of a child.—LEXINGTON (KY.) TRANSCRIPT.

IMAGES: Essence of Old Virginia Wheat Whiskey, A.M. Bininger & Co. / Sarony, Major & Knapp liths., N.Y., ca. 1859 (Library of Congress); mixed playbill, Pavilion Theatre (Whitechapel Road, London, England), 1861; “J.H. O’Neil’s Quentessence of Old Virginia Schottisch,” parody on “that well-known and popular dance styled, ‘The Essence of Old Virginny'”, C. G. St. Clair (composer), 1871

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