Q. My son gave me an old Belleville bottle he found at a flea market in Springfield, Mo. It says "J. Fisher Belleville, Ill." on it. How old might it be and what's its history? -- Jean Thouvenot, of O'Fallon
A. If you look up J. Fisher in the old Belleville papers, you'll find about two lines: In 1868, he was a soda water manufacturer on Mascoutah Avenue.
So if you want the real lowdown on him -- or most any early area bottler -- you have to go to a bottle bible published just last year: "Bottled in Illinois: Embossed Bottles and Bottled Products of Early Illinois Merchants from Chicago to Cairo 1840-1880" by Kenneth Farnsworth and John Walthall.
And, thanks to the kindness of Collinsville breweriana expert Kevin Kious, I didn't have to pay $130 for this 816-page volume printed by the Illinois State Archaeology Survey. Instead, he sent me the relevant info from the massive tome, so here's the scoop:
Joseph Fisher was born in Austria but had immigrated to the United States by 1848, when he was living in Missouri. In 1849, he moved across the river and is listed in the 1850 Belleville census as a stone mason.
Fisher finally found his true calling in the mid-1850s when he joined Louis Abegg in the soda and mineral water business. But the partnership apparently lasted only briefly because Abegg began looking into something stronger.
"Abegg broke their partnership to head to Collinsville to brew beer," Kious told me. "He had bought land at the corner of today's Vandalia and Madison streets, where he and Henry Mayer constructed a brewery. The first batch of Collinsville beer was brewed Dec. 31, 1857."
I suppose they made toasts to a prosperous 1858 that night, but it wasn't to be. The partnership ended exactly one year later, Kious said, and Abegg moved back to Belleville, where he eventually opened another soda and mineral water factory at what today is 118-120 S. 2nd St. The Swiss immigrant died in 1879, and was described in his obituary as a "quiet, diligent, upright and useful man."
Fisher, meanwhile, entered into another partnership with Ernst Rogger in the late 1850s, but this, too, lasted only a year or two at best. Still, at least a few "Fisher & Rogger" bottles survive, including one sloppily edited version that appears to read "Nineral Water."
By 1860, Fisher was going it alone and would do so the rest of his days, according to census data. Early on, his operation was listed at his home on Mascoutah Avenue, south of Abend Street, but later he apparently built a new plant at 522 Fulton St. at the corner of Mascoutah.
According to 1880 records, he was operating full time only half the year and half or three-quarters time the other six months. In his busiest season, he employed up to nine workers (including four children), who earned between $1.25 and $2 per day. Take away expenses, and Farnsworth and Walthall estimate his annual profit at $3,800. Like the "Nineral Water" bottle, he also managed to misspell his own name as "Fischer" on some bottles that have been found.
One other interesting note: At least one "Fischer" bottle found contained "Selters Water," but this is not a misspelling of "Seltzer," the two authors say. Selters Spring was a popular 19th century European spa, so bottlers used the name to inflate their product's appeal just as I remember my mom using Midnight in Paris lotions and powders.
Fisher is thought to have died in about 1885, but by that time he had already sold his bottling works to his nephew, John Winkler, in 1882. So, your bottle was made sometime between 1860 and 1882, making it well over a century old and a treasure worth hanging onto or, perhaps, donating to the Belleville Labor & Industry Museum.
If you're interested in its value to collectors, you might want to attend Kious' Eastside Spectacular No. 6, a combined breweriana and antique bottle and jar show from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds in Belleville. In any event, if you e-mail me your address, I will send Kious' thorough research for your records if you wish.
What supposedly were Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's last words?
Answer to Wednesday's trivia: Even after Peter Sellers died in 1980, Hollywood tried to cash in on his beloved "Pink Panther" performances as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. So, they made "Trail of the Pink Panther," which used leftover Sellers footage, and "Curse of the Pink Panther," which did not include him at all. They thought they could draw interest by signing Oscar winner David Niven as Sir Charles Litton, but he was so near death that popular impressionist Rich Little had to dub Niven's voice in both films. (Some reports say he dubbed Sellers' voice, too, in parts of "Trail," but I can't verify this to my satisfaction.) Not surprisingly, both films bombed at the box office.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or email@example.com