Make a list of the premiums offered free from local taverns and you’ll probably come up with a list of reusable plastic cups, a can cooler, maybe a key chain or two.
That wasn’t the case 100 years ago.
At that time, the local barkeep would flop open a heavy 1910 Sears Roebuck & Co. calendar and place an order for a set of Schafer & Vater ceramic bottles. These cork-stopped wonders were marvels of comical ceramic. Often funny – sometimes downright bawdy – the bottles were just large enough to fill with two or three complimentary shots of the merchant’s libation of choice, generally a strong whiskey.
Now the figural whiskey bottles – often referred to as “nips” – are highly sought after for their decoration, detail and various blue, brown and colored glazes. They usually range from from 2 to 3 inches wide and 3 to 7 inches high, although some multicolored examples have been found as large as 10 inches high.
The puckish, little bottles were not the original aim of the Schafer & Vater Company. Founded in 1890 in the Thuringia region of southwest Germany by friends Gustav Schafer and Gunther Vater (pronounced with a long “a” as in water), the firm first produced high quality porcelain products depicting the high design of the era. Vases, trinket boxes or planters were cast in Art Nouveau or Egyptian revival forms in Jasperware or decorated with faux jewels. Over time, however, the pretty, flowing Victorian tea sets, candle sticks and dainty, detailed creamer pitchers couldn’t hold back the prankster waiting to cast tavern jokes in hard paste porcelain.
Schafer and Vater produced an incalculable number of designs based on hundreds of old German, Scottish and Irish drinking sayings, pub songs and limericks. By 1910 Sears, Roebuck began importing the bottles for the American market. That’s when things really heated up.
Some Schafer & Vater pieces are labeled with the impressed mark of a nine-point star and a script “R” inside the star. On rare occasions you will find this mark in blue ink under glaze, according to scholar and collector’s Don Bergseng’s 2003 book titled Figural Liquor Bottles.
Items also are sometimes marked with a four-digit design number and a two-digit artist mark. In addition or instead, pieces may be marked “Made In Germany.” The company also manufactured items for sale under store names, and those would not have the impressed mark. Most of the bottles had “Made in Germany” or just “Germany” stamped on the base.
Longtime Schafer & Vater collector and scholar Carlos Lopez’ research shows many different types of groups gave away the bottles. They were given away at taverns, liquor stores, dance halls and fairs as premiums to celebrate the holidays, as well as businesses. Some have “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” embossed or lettered on them. According to Lopez’ Schafer & Vater Web site, many were even ordered from the porcelain factories by their customers with the name and address of the bar or liquor store stamped on the bottles. Others used the paper labels bearing the name and address.
The giveaways were made of fine quality, highly vitrified hard porcelain. Many are glazed and Lopez said blue and brown glazes are the most popular with collectors, followed by multicolored glazes. Many feature a unique “wood grained” finish on the backs where the opening and cork was situated. The figural bottles include flasks, which took on innovations and novelties for the time. One type in particular, a popular and commonly found bottle, is referred to as a weather forecaster and “Drinkometer.” These featured glass thermometers attached in a special space on the front of the bottle.
Sometimes decanters were produced to compliment certain lines. A porcelain decanter, measuring 11 inches high by 4 1/2 inches depicted a monk in brown glaze. A music box of sorts was fitted into the base with the cork stopper situated in the monk’s hood. It sold for $50 at a Pennsylvania auction in 2006.
Challenges for collectors
“No one knows how many different models they made,” Lopez told Antique Trader. “We keep finding new ones being offered mainly on eBay,” Lopez said. “Schafer & Vater made all kinds of pieces, but the ones that collectors prefer and are willing to pay ‘big bucks’ are the flasks. We don’t care much about the ashtrays, figurines, toothpick holders, mugs and jasperware.”
One challenge facing collectors is the void of any scholarly work on the firm; it’s wares and the state of collections. Lopez’ Web site documents many collectors and their mammoth collections. It’s his way to share the enjoyment of the hobby and keep in touch with collectors worldwide.
“There are no publications on the subject,” Lopez said. “That’s why I keep in contact with several collectors, who take my Web site as the most complete reference. Some sellers on eBay ask me (almost daily) for a value assessment (for listing purposes).
“The most successful collectors are the old ones, who used to buy them at antique shows, antique shops, estate sales, etc., for very little money,” Lopez said. “Now the main source is eBay, but you end up paying a little fortune for each one.”
The general value range for Schafer & Vater produced figural whiskey bottles is
anywhere from $50 to $400. Rare examples in excellent condition always command a higher selling price.
Not surprisingly, the most valuable items in today’s market are those that cross over political boundaries or have some appeal in other collecting genres. A bisque suffragette figurine, measuring 3 1/2 inches high by 2 1/2 inches wide, with the words “We want the vote” on the base and metal spring arms on the figure sold for $775 at a Philip Weiss Auction in 2006. A rare complete Mad Hatter tea service consisting of a teapot, creamer, sugar bowl and two cups and saucers sold for $1,200 in June 2009 in an auction held by Cincinnati Art Galleries.
Dedicated Schafer & Vater whiskey bottle collectors, however, don’t need any other reasons to raise their glass and toast the value of a nice piece of porcelain and a hearty joke.
A short history of Schafer & Vater
Gustav Schaefer and Gunther Vater founded the Schaefer & Vater Porcelain Factory in Volkstedt Rudolstad, Thuringa, Germany in 1890. Their aim was to make high quality porcelain.In 1896 the business had sufficiently grown to purchase the List Porcelain Factory at Neuhaus. By 1910 the American firm of Sears, Roebuck & Company had begun to import and distribute Schaefer & Vater pottery into the United States.
The aim of Schafer & Vater was to produce a wide range of hard paste porcelain and was to include luxury items, figurines, and dolls’ heads. They also produced soft paste porcelain in bisque items and Majolica and Jasperware were other product lines. They produced many figural liquor bottles for distribution by pubs.
In 1913 Paul Schafer had taken over from his father and, working alongside Gunther Vater, built up a successful workforce of around 200 people, using 3 kilns. They advertised the manufacture of porcelain dolls’ heads.
In 1918 the factory was destroyed by fire and they set up a new factory to resume production. The firm closed in 1962 and it is reported that in 1972 the East German government assumed full control of the vacant factory and their records and moulds were destroyed.
Schafer & Vater were better known for their comical and figural items. They manufactured these in teapots, jugs, creamers, bottles, match strikers, and planters, with a backstamp impressed with a crown above an ‘R’ in a star. ‘Made in Germany’ was sometimes stamped in black. The firm used a light blue glaze applied directly to the porcelain.
A hallmark of this pottery is the fine texture of the clay used in production. Mined locally, it was rich with kaolin and this resulted in a product with a velvety texture and very fine grain. Schafer and Vater’s range was wide. The company was an authorized manufacturer of Rose O’Neill Kewpies
However, certain Schafer & Vater pieces can be found without any stamps or reference to their origin. Connoisseurs will recognize them, though, due to their characteristic and unique craftsmanship and design.
— Carlos Lopez, www.schafer-vater.com
Schafer & Vater Whiskey Nips Resources
Carlopeto’s Schafer & Vater Collectors Page: A large and detailed trove of collections, research and photos of German figural flasks, nippers and give-aways.
Donald Berseng’s Figural Wiskey Bottles: www.bergsengs.com
View hundreds of bottles, see latest sale items and find a copy of the book “Figural Liquor Bottles Nippers-Whimsies-Nips-Flasks-Decanters with Foreign Inscriptions & Translations,” $30, 360-882-3912, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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