Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Artifact: Bicentennial Beer Can

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Bicentennial commemorative beer can. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

This can makes no secret of its American pride. With red and blue stars flanking a bold sketch of the Liberty Bell, Philadelphia’s Henry F. Ortlieb’s Brewing Company appealed to the patriotic fervor of 1976. The company developed the “Collector’s Series,” releasing one can a month starting in September 1975. Every month, an image on the back of each commemorative can highlighted a different Revolutionary War scene or facet of eighteenth-century life to celebrate America’s Bicentennial, the two-hundred-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Looking to the back of the can, we see Paul Revere on horseback with Boston’s Old North Church in the background, presumably with two lanterns glowing in the window. The scene is titled, “Paul Revere’s Ride: Calling the Countryside to Arms.” Though Revere’s ride took place in Massachusetts, eight of the other twelve sketches had direct ties to the Philadelphia area. With depictions of Elfreth’s Alley and Independence Hall, Ortlieb’s capitalized on the city’s rich colonial history while simultaneously paying homage to the company’s roots.

The Henry F. Ortlieb’s Brewing Company was a family-owned business in the Philadelphia area for more than a century. Trupert Ortlieb (1839-1911), a German immigrant and Civil War veteran, began brewing beer in Philadelphia after being discharged from the army in July 1865. In 1879, he purchased his own brewery on Third and Poplar Streets in the Northern Liberties section of the city. Home to a large German population, Northern Liberties was the site of the first lager beer brewed in America. In 1840, a Bavarian immigrant named John Wagner brewed the first lager beer with yeast from his home country. By 1879, eighteen breweries operated in the neighborhood, predominantly owned by German immigrants. Philadelphia’s brewing industry expanded throughout the city with a heavy concentration in the neighborhoods of Brewerytown and Northern Liberties. Ortlieb’s was one of only seventeen Philadelphia breweries to survive Prohibition and continued to grow in the twentieth century.

By the 1960s and 70s, competition from large national breweries threatened Ortlieb’s loyal local following. Following national trends, Henry A. Ortlieb (1948-2004) developed the Bicentennial can series to prompt sales outside the region. From September 1975 to August 1976, patriotic consumers and can collectors from Philadelphia, the Midwest, and New England awaited the next installment of the “Collector’s Series.” Seeing the success of Ortlieb’s campaign, executives at Schmidt’s beer, another Northern Liberties brewery, decided to release their own series of collectible cans.

Philadelphia breweries were not the only companies seeking to profit from the 1976 celebrations. Throughout the country, American manufacturers packaged, sold, and commodified major historical figures and symbols for sale in nearly every possible form during the Bicentennial. Toilet paper, banjos, whiskey bottles, butter packets, and even caskets were marked with Liberty Bells, bald eagles, or any number of American images in order to commemorate the Bicentennial.

In 1977, hoping to continue the success of patriotic advertising, Ortlieb’s started another can series called the “Americana Collection.” However, in 1981, Joseph W. Ortlieb (b. 1929), grandson of the founder, sold the business in response to intense competition from large national brands. Although the brewery was torn down in 2013, the Ortlieb’s Brewpub, located just beside the old brewery, remained a staple of Philadelphia jazz history. From 1987 to 2006, the pub, renamed the Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, was one of the best jazz venues in the city. With no cover at the door, musicians and jazz lovers came to Ortlieb’s to hear local legends like Shirley Scott (1934-2002) and Granville William “Mickey” Roker (b. 1932) or world famous out-of-towners like Cecil Payne (1922-2007) and Al Grey (1925-2000). After years as a renowned jazz club, the old brewpub switched owners in 2006, but Ortlieb’s remained a staple of the Northern Liberties’ beer-drinking public.

Ortlieb’s has been a mainstay of the Philadelphia community from its beginnings as a lager brewery to its current status as Ortlieb’s Lounge, a popular rock venue in the city. Whether featuring local beer, local history, or local music, the Ortlieb’s name signifies Philadelphia pride. During the Bicentennial, Ortlieb’s capitalized on a surge of patriotism nationwide by highlighting Philadelphia’s unique role within the history of the American Revolution.

Text by Chelsea Clarke Reed, jazz vocalist in the Philadelphia area and a graduate student at  Temple University’s Center for Public History.

 

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