Family’s brewing heritage strengthens collecting resolve

In the 19th century there were thousands of breweries in operation all across America. Brewing was a booming business with stiff regional competition. How did companies get the word out about their brand where there was so much to choose from in the marketplace? By putting their company name on as many promotional products as possible.

Sure, there were the expected freebies such as match books, calendars, ashtrays and coasters, but there were also Christmas carol song books, rulers, thermometers and all sorts of other pieces. These are the sort of collectibles my husband and I – and many of the other Knapstein family members and breweriana enthusiasts – scour the marketplace for. My husband Joe and I have been actively collecting Knapstein Brewery memorabilia since the early 1990s.

The Knapstein Brewery of New London, Wis., was one of the thousands of Wisconsin breweries in operation during the beer brewing heydays. It pumped out its malt-based products from 1869 until late 1958. At its peak, the Knapstein Brewery served a 100-mile radius around New London, located roughly 120 miles northwest of Milwaukee.

Joe’s great-great grandfather, Theodore Knapstein, was one of the brewery founders. It can be compelling to have such a close connection to the subject of your collection. It’s a blessing because the collection can be viewed as part of the family heritage. On the other hand, it can be really difficult to pass items up – even when they’re priced too high.

In the early years, ours was a more casual collecting effort; but once we started finding some really interesting items, the effort and time (and of course money) dedicated to the collection grew. If we weren’t headed to an auction on the weekend, we were headed on an “antique run,” when we would plot a course and hit dedicated antique shop “hot spots” and flea markets.

We’ve been fortunate to come across some really amazing finds. We found a group of exceptional tip trays in during one excursion. The trays measure about 3 inches in diameter and have raised edges. At $150 apiece, it was a steep price to pay at the time. However, if those same tip trays came to market today, they would in all likelihood bring considerably more. Tip trays – especially tip trays with images of women and animals in excellent condition – from small, defunct breweries don’t come to market very often, so when they do, collectors compete aggressively for the opportunity to own them.

The Internet and eBay brought the antique world into our living room, complimenting those finds we’ve made through our antiquing trips. For example, we picked up an absolutely stunning pre-prohibition Knapstein Brewery tray titled “Best Friends.” It is decorated with a lovely lady and a horse. The design, colors, and condition are amazing. For breweriana collectors, pre-prohibition items are the most desirable. Although we engaged in a bit of an online bidding war, we came out of the battle several hundred dollars lighter but richer one exceptional tray.

Another memorable acquisition that comes to mind is a unique wooden sign shaped like a keg or barrel that came up on the eBay block. It’s big. And it’s “different.” It’s a hand-painted sign from a tavern from Dellwood, Wis. For whatever reason, the sign wasn’t used outside; you can tell by the excellent condition that it’s in. (Or, if it was hung outside at some point, it wasn’t for very long.) Instead, legs were attached to the sign and it was used as a table. The painted portion faced down so it didn’t have any wear. The back of the sign suffered the scuffs and scrapes a table is subject to. We won the online auction and doled out the additional $80 for shipping. I was skeptical about the purchase until we received our auction prize. We’ve only seen one other sign similar to it, but it wasn’t for Knapstein’s Beer. That skeptical purchase turned out to be a unique addition to the collection and a great conversation piece as well.

Whether our acquisitions are made via online auctions, conventional auctions, through pickers or antique shops and malls, we enjoy the hunt as well as the prize. We don’t always win the auctions, but we always have fun trying. Sometimes we see familiar faces at auctions that we know are after the same items.

Even if we don’t win the final bid, we know that these wonderful collectibles are enjoyed as much by the winning bidders as we would have enjoyed them. And sometimes—even if someone else does win—it still stays in the family.

Karen Knapstein is online editor for A lifelong collector and student of antiques, she lives in Wisconsin with her husband, Joe, and daughter, Faye. She can be reached at


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