Long before American breakfast cereal manufacturers began tempting young consumers with the prospect of stamp collections and secret decoder rings to be had for just "25 cents and 2 boxtops", there was the remarkable promotional campaign of the Phillip Best Brewing Company, offering an ersatz watercolor of First Lady Frances Cleveland in exchange for a twelve pack's worth of product coupons.
As seen at left, The "Best" Tonic, a non-alcoholic malt beverage, contained coupons redeemable for this self proclaimed "work of art." Images of First Ladies, whatever their fine qualities might be, would be an improbable enticement for today's drinkers of "near beer", but things were different back then. Having discovered a well preserved trade card from The "Best" Tonic's advertising campaign among our family papers, I am prompted to look further into the matter.
The Phillip Best Brewing Company, a forerunner of Milwaukee's Pabst Brewing Company, operated from the mid-nineteenth century until 1889. The first term of Grover Cleveland, the only Democrat elected President during a 50 year domination of the executive branch by the Republican party, coincides with the final years of Phillip Best Brewing, suggesting that the 4&5/8 by 3&1/8 color trade card in our archive dates from this period. But it would have required an unusual degree of public interest in Mrs. Grover Cleveland to make consumers purchase a full dozen bottles of non-alcoholic tonic from Phillip Best Brewing Co. just to get a picture of her, and indeed there was. You might even say she was the Jacqueline Bouvier of her day, although Grover Cleveland was no Jack Kennedy.
Frances "Frank" Folsom was the daughter of Grover Cleveland's law partner, and although never her legal guardian Cleveland administered the Folsom estate took and active interest in her education and well-being. Although separated by an age difference of twenty seven years, a romance developed after he was elected to the presidency and they were married June 2, 1886 in the Blue Room of the Executive mansion. Mrs. Cleveland went on to became one of the most popular "hostesses for the nation" in our country's history. She was noted for her beauty and unaffected charm and was a true celebrity in her day.
America's love of memorabilia goes back at least to the days of the Marquis de Lafayette, whose triumphal tour of the United States in 1824-1825, nearly fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, spawned a sea of commemorative items - from porcelain curtain stops to sheet music - emblazoned with his name and image.
The years 1880-1912 are considered "the years of plenty" for presidential memorabilia and merchandizers used the images of presidents and first ladies without seeking permission. Phillip Best Brewing Company likely got in on the interest sparked by the Presidential nuptials by pairing The "Best" Tonic with the First Lady. Other companies pushed their products using the image of the First Lady more aggressively, like the Yatisi Corset Company that implied she used its products.
While the Phillip Best Brewing Company sold the most beer of any American brewer in 1885-1886, the brand itself had only a few more years to run. Of Mrs. Cleveland, one biography notes:"Through the political storms...she always kept her place in public favor." As for the Mrs. Cleveland trade card promoting The Best Tonic, the going rate for collectors today is about $17.