Cocktails

Seriously, What’s Up With Angostura’s Midcentury Ads?

February 11, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

Art: Via Reid Mirenbuler

In the 1940s and ’50s, the company’s strategy for selling bitters skewed bizarrely violent and deeply disturbing.

The drinking world is filled with cocktail fanatics who shudder if their Martini is shaken and not stirred, their Manhattan served on the rocks or their Sazerac arrives with a lemon twist inside the glass, not discarded. Perhaps you are one of them. But would you shoot someone for these offenses? Would you throw them out of a window? Would you stuff them down the garbage disposal?

These are among the violent fates of unskilled cocktail mixers in a series of bizarre advertisements that Angostura bitters ran in the 1940s and 1950s. In one representative drawing, a man holding a gun behind his back and sporting a maniacal grin tells his wife, “So Poppa’s little lambie thinks the Manhattans are better without bitters.” One senses things are not going to end well for lambie.

The ads all feature the illustrations of Virgil Partch (1916-1984), a man with a decidedly unique visual style verging on the grotesque. Partch men sport angry eyes, large noses and gaping mouths full of menacing teeth. A prominent cartoonist of the time, Partch—who signed all his drawings with a distinctive “VIP”—created a number of recurring comic strips and published several collections of his cartoons. His work could be found in nearly every prominent magazine, though rarely in The New Yorker; according to comic historian Bhob Stewart, the magazine’s founder, Harold Ross, disliked the artist’s overripe style.

Partch’s advertisements for Angostura, however, did make it into the pages of the magazine, beginning around 1949. Some of these gags are even witty, such as one in which two men crawling through a desert pass up an oasis of a bar simply because the phantom establishment doesn’t put Angostura bitters in their Manhattans. But it’s the male-on-female rage spots that stay with you and make for nightmare fodder.

In one typical spot, a man ties his wife’s arm into a ghastly knot, saying, “Now will you remember to put enough Angostura in my Old-Fashioneds?” In another, a husband ties his wife to a chair and leaves her because of a similar mistake. When Partch’s Angostura men aren’t assaulting women, they’re committing other sorts of violence. A manager whips a bartender for omitting the bitters in a drink; an angry customer obliterates his bitters-less cocktail with a machine gun; an anthropomorphized Tom Collins holds a gun to its own head, the caption reading, “Lay that pistol down, Tom! Even if your life’s not worth a plugged nickel with Angostura, there’s still hope.”

Is this any way to sell bitters?

A representative for Angostura, who asked not to be named, recalled the ad series, but knew nothing more about the campaign’s origins. It would be easy to simply accuse the company of an exercise in extremely bad taste, but it is likely more accurate to view the campaign less as an aberration than as a symptom of its era.

vintage angostura bitters ad

“If you look at these old ads in Esquire and The New Yorker, there’s a lot of misogyny going on,” said Bob Mankoff, the former cartoon editor at The New Yorker. “Men spanking women and all sorts of things we would not tolerate today.”

Reid Mitenbuler, author of the 2016 book Bourbon Empire and the upcoming Wild Minds, a study of early 20th-century American animation, is uniquely qualified to assess the intersection where alcohol and cartoons meet. It didn’t take him long to set a scene of a bunch of 1950s-era, Mad Men-ish ad execs approving the Angostura ads. “I picture a bunch of men, with pipes, chuckling,” said Mitenbuler. “‘What do you think of these, Jenkins?’ Of course, they think it’s funny.”

Madison Avenue may have thought the ads funny simply because they were by Partch, a well-known figure in his day. “It could be someone in the advertising agency knew of Partch’s work, and said, ‘We can appropriate all these cartoons for the brand,’” suggested Jonathan Barli.

A fan of the cartoonist’s work since childhood, in 2013 Barli published the only biography of the artist, VIP: The Mad World of Virgil Partch. Barli speculates that Partch didn’t actually pen the bitters cartoons specifically for Angostura. Rather, the comics likely already existed in published form elsewhere and were adapted for the purpose, with each drawing given a different, cocktail-related punchline.

Still, Angostura could be forgiven for getting on board with Partch’s work. More than any cartoonist of his day, he was associated with bar-world gags. According to Barli, Partch and his fellow cartoonists were known for their prodigious thirst. “Nowadays, cartoonists are perceived as being nerds, anti-social,” he says. “In Partch’s era, it was a very high-paying profession. Many were drinking, smoking, rough-and-tumble kind of guys.”

Partch poured his firsthand boozing experience into his art. Collectors of old cocktail books will recognize his work from the cover of Ted Shane’s 1950 Bar Guide (published by True magazine, a men’s magazine that frequently employed Partch). On it, a crazed-looking man with rumpled hair and wide eyes mixes drinks by holding one bottle in each hand and a third in his teeth. Partch found his greatest publishing success with a 1950 volume called Bottle Fatigue, a collection of drinking cartoons that sold nearly 100,000 hardcover copies. With this oeuvre of sodden scribblings in mind, the Angostura ads were a natural fit in the same troubled era.

While Partch certainly had legions of fans, the off-putting nature of his brand of psychotic lunacy did not completely escape notice. Barli notes that even within an atmosphere colored by rampant sexism, “he went for the jugular.” Reviewing his work in The New York Times in 1944, critic Isabelle Mallet went a step further: “Partch must be swallowed whole, or left severely alone.”

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