Ticket to the Twenties Themes & Tangents: Wine Tonics, Elixirs and Bitters in the Prohibition Era

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In tandem with this weekend’s Ticket to the Twenties festival and commemorating the centennial of Prohibition, my talented colleagues in our public programs and collections areas mounted an exhibit in the Homestead Museum Gallery covering the years of 1919 to 1933 in which the national ban on almost alcohol production and consumption took place.

As noted in a post on this blog when the display was completed, a couple of the artifacts from the Homestead’s collection that is part of the exhibit consist of a bottle and box for “New Life Wine Tonic,” a product of the Vida Nueva Company of Los Angeles and which purported to be medicine, promising all kinds of health benefits.

First New Life ad The_Los_Angeles_Times_Tue__May_17__1927_
Los Angeles Times, 17 May 1927.

The package also refers to the product as “bitters,” which refers to the bitter botanical products (herbs, roots, flowers, fruit, etc.) that are infused with alcohol.  The use of bitters as a medicine is generally traced back to the 18th century and were claimed by its producers and promoters to cure almost any ailment known to humankind.

When alcohol manufacturing and consumption were legal and legion, bitters were produced by firms that were usually totally unafiliated with distillers, but that came to change when Prohibition became the law of the land a century ago.  Firms facing ruin with the onset of the “great social experiment” had to find a niche with drying grapes for raisins, producing sacramental wine for religious purposes, or moving into the medicinal realm.

New Life ad St__Joseph [MO]_News_Press_Gazette_Sep_16__1927_
St. Joseph [Missouri] News Press Gazette, 16 September 1927.
It is not known if the Vida Nueva Company was a pre-existing wine producer or emerged from the ashes of a failed firm; in fact, nothing could be found concerning the company, though ads were located in newspapers throughout the country between 1927 and 1931 promoting the product.

As was the case with the verbiage on the box, the claim was the New Life Wine Tonic, which had well over 20% alcohol, would “stimulate the blood,” build up the nerves, and ease sleeplessness and one ad from a drug company in St. Joseph, Missouri specifically targeted “the Tired, Nervous Woman” as the more likely consumer of the product.

A small, perhaps sample, size bottle of New Life Wine Tonic from the Homestead’s collection.

Another advertisement from a paper in Tulare, California in April 1929 advised readers to “Get Rid of That Tired Feeling With Approved Spring Tonics” in which ” MEDICAL SCIENCE and OUR LAWS” joined forces in recognizing “the need of certain stimulating medicines” so that a user would “feel like a new person for a few dollars.”  Six products were listed, including the Virginia Dare constitutional tonic (the museum has one of these bottles in its holdings), New Life, and California Padres Wine Elixir, of which more below.

New Life continued to be manufactured into the Great Depression years, though the early promotional pricing of generally 30% off the suggested retail price of $1.25 was replaced by steeper discounts.  In 1930, for example, the product was marketed at half off that original price, while the following year the reduction was 60% off the already lowered regular price of $1.00.  After late 1931, however, New Life seemed to have suffered an early demise.

Patent Medicines ad [Elmira NY] Star_Gazette_Thu__Aug_15__1929_
Elmira (New York) Star Gazette, 15 August 1929.
As for one of the other products touted in Tulare in the aforementioned ad was California Padres Wine Elixir, of which the museum has a bottle in its collection.  Much more is known about this product and its Los Angeles manufacturers, the brothers Giacomo (James) and Giovanni (John) Vai.

The siblings hailed from northwestern Italian city of Turin and migrated to the United States in 1907, soon settling in Los Angeles where there were many winemakers from their homeland.  It appears that the brothers got into local winemaking not long after arriving in the City of Angels, though James was also an inventor and listed that as his occupation in his World War I registration.

Early California Padres ad The_Knoxville_Journal_Fri__Sep_16__1927_
Knoxville (Tennessee) Journal, 16 September 1927.

After Prohibition took hold, the Vai brothers refashioned their wine company into the California Medicinal Wine Company, which had its headquarters in a still-standing brick building at 845 North Alameda Street and through which visitors can pass to make their way into Olvera Street, which opened as a tourist attraction during the years when the California Padres product was being manufactured.

The product appears to have made its debut at about the same time, 1927, as New Life Wine Tonic, but advertising by the firm was definitely more advanced than its competitor, Vida Nueva.

Early California Padres ad The_Baltimore_Sun_Sun__Dec_4__1927_
Baltimore Sun, 4 December 1927.

As with New Life, California Padres was sometimes promoted in a seasonal way.  An August 1928 ad from a St. Louis newspaper claimed that the tonic would “drive away midsummer languor” because its “nutritive medicants in blended old Califonia wines” would improve appetite, drive away insomnia and generally refresh “convalescents and all who are in a run-down condition.”  The above-mentioned Tulare ad trumpeted Calfornia Padres as “a valuable reconstructive tonic and blood stimulant.”

Seeking to scientifically legitimize the product, the Vai Brothers ran an October 1928 ad in the Los Angeles Times which blared that “Analysis Proves The Purity of this fine Old and Original California Wine Tonic.”  Notwithstanding the fact that the tonic was not old, unless they meant that a former wine product was retooled into the elixir, the reprinted letter from chemist Arthur Maas only stated that a sample had been obtained and tested and was found “to be free of Strychnine.”  That must have been a great relief to potential buyers knowing that the “medicine” did not have an extremely toxic poison in it, thereby demonstrating its purity!

California Padres free from strychnine The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Oct_15__1928_
Los Angeles Times, 15 October 1928.

The wine tonic fad, however, had plenty of critics and a series of exposes in the San Francisco Examiner in August 1929 included chemical analyses, tales of teens freely buying the product in drug stores, and other material that bluntly stated that these products were nothing more than a very thinly disguised way to legally sell an alcoholic drink that had no medicinal value.

One article featured the headline, “History Repeating Itself in Use of ‘Medicinal’ Booze,” and observed that decades of pernicious advertising of tonics and bitters medicine led to federal action in the first years of the 20th century cracking down on manufacturers who passed off the products as medicine to avoid paying liquor taxes.

Wine tonic expose The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Sun__Aug_25__1929_
San Francisco Examiner, 25 August 1929.

Another piece in the same edition, which started off by paraphrasing experts in labeling tonics and bitters as “Worthless!” “No Good!” and “Dangerous!” added that California Padres, though a later entry in the field than Virginia Dare and others, “is a heavily selling brand” in San Francisco and “in Southern California, where it leads all others.”

A chemical analysis conducted by an Oakland firm revealed that California Padres contained just under 21% alcohol, but also included a significant amount of peptone, which is “an enzymatic digest of animal protein;” a small amount of glycerol phosphoric acid, mixtures of which could be used for polishing stainless steel; and a moderate level of citric acid, found in lemons and oranges.

Wine Tonic test The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Tue__Aug_27__1929_
San Francisco Examiner, 27 August 1929.

A quote from one Examiner article stated: “I would not dream of prescribing any of these mixtures for a patient, and I know of no ethical physician who would.”  As a main feature in the series pointed out, “mild beer and light wines are taboo under prohibition.  But the prohibition law sanctions the sale of large quantities of heavily alcoholic liquor labeled ‘wine tonic,’ which claim to be panaceas for a host of ills, and contains sufficient drugs to make the concoctions unpleasant to the taste [read: bitters.]”

Because California Padres, New Life and many others were marketed and promoted as medicinal and were legally allowed under federal law and then normalized by being offered in drug stores throughout the nation, it was impossible to drive them out of the market.

Vai defends wine tonics The_Los_Angeles_Times_Tue__Oct_16__1928_
Los Angeles Times, 16 October 1928.

James Vai, a year prior to the Examiner expose, issued a statement defending the use of “good wine tonics” like his own, which he asserted “have a definite medicinal value and are a bonafide drug item” worthy of being sold exclusively by drug stores.  He and his firm, however, did face other legal issues, including a suit filed by Fruit Industries, Ltd., which acquired the Virginia Dare medicinal wine in 1924, alleging that the California Medicinal Wine Company “issued a product resembling Virginia Dare wine and put out a similar package.”

Notably, the attorney representing the plaintiff was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who lived in Temple City for many years and who was an Assistant Attorney General of the United States tasked with enforcing Prohibition.  After she left that position, however, she found herself defending a product that was, by the Examiner‘s lights, a medical quackery and fraud.

Mabel Willebrandt suit against Vai The_Los_Angeles_Times_Tue__Sep_1__1931_
Times, 1 September 1931.

In 1933, Prohibition was repealed and whatever scrutiny of tonics, elixirs and bitters may have done to weaken the sales of these products, it was the ending of the “great social experiment” that signaled the downfall of many “medicinal wines.”

James Vai, however, returned to making plain old wine and was very successful in the Cucamonga area for the rest of his career and life, remaining president of a wine-making firm there until his death in 1961.  His widow took over the management and the company survived, although badly weakened, for another twenty years.

This California Padres Wine Elixir bottle is also from the Homestead’s holdings.

Visitors to the Homestead’s Prohibition exhibit, whether at the Ticket to the Twenties festival, where our prior gallery exhibit on the Temperance movement that culminated in Prohibition will be remounted, or during general business hours, can see the New Life Wine Tonic product package.

This post is both a thematic supplement (pardon the pun!) and a bit of a tangent in terms of detail, but it hopefully gives some flavor (oops, there we go again!) about a particularly interesting element of Prohibition history during this year of centennial commemoration.


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