Beauty and the Beer

Growing up in Irvington, New Jersey, a suburb of Newark, I walked to school from kindergarten through high school. My route took me past a tavern on my corner. We never called it a bar and certainly never called it a pub. I know of a few places still called taverns but the term isn’t as popular now. A tavern serves alcoholic beverages and a rather simple food menu. The word derives from the Latin taberna whose original meaning was a shed, workshop, or stall. It doesn’t sound very elegant and our corner tavern wasn’t very elegant. Of course, I never really saw it until I was older. More on that later.

An article in The New Yorker, September 21, 1957, asked “In what American election is the greatest number of votes cast? The answer is, of course, the Presidential election. In what American election is the next-greatest number of voters cast? The answer is the annual Miss Rheingold contest. In 1956, the vote totaled just over 23 million, this year it promises to be even bigger.”

I remember the contest which ran from 1941 to 1964. I was too young to care much about beauty contest girls and honestly, they looked more like someone’s mom than bathing beauties. They were described as being “clean-cut All-American, lovely, friendly, warm, and graceful – a nice girl.” No cheesecake bathing suit photos.

Pictures of six young women were displayed everywhere Rheingold beer was sold (which was Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine). I never saw the ads in a bar, but I saw them on bar windows and in delicatessens, grocery stores, the package goods liquor store that was next door to the corner tavern and probably on TV.

Actress Tippi Hedren was a Miss Rheingold contestant (she didn’t win) in 1953, years before Alfred Hitchcock would terrorize her and me with his film The Birds.

Rheingold Brewing Company was based in Brooklyn but did have another brewery in New Jersey for a time. The Miss Rheingold contest probably helped make the beer New York’s most popular brew in the 1950s and 1960s. It had been around since it opened in 1883 in Bushwick on “Brewers’ Row,” with other German-American beer companies.

New Jersey has a long beer history too. The first brewery in the state was established in the settlement of Pavonia (now Hoboken) when NJ was part the Dutch New Netherland colony. That is far enough back that it was destroyed by a band of Lenape in 1643.

The large German immigrant populations in Newark and Jersey City led to the establishment of a healthy brewing industry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it became the fourth-largest industry in Newark. Kruger, Hensler, and Feigenspan were among the leading industrial beer families in Newark. Later, Ballantine, Rheingold, and Pabst, among others operated large breweries in Newark and surrounding towns.

During World War I, accusations of German propaganda and some persecution of German-Americans sent some of these brewers to relocate in the Midwest. Rheingold is a name alluding to the German river Rhein as well as Richard Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold. Newark had 27 breweries before Prohibition. None of them exist today. Ballantine closed up in the 1960s, Rheingold in 1977, and Pabst held one until 1985. Some of those brands have been resurrected by other brewers in the past few decades.

Though the state now has many craft breweries, the biggest brewery is Anheuser-Busch at the edges of Newark near Liberty/Newark Airport.

Miss Rheingold ended in 1964 when sales of Rheingold beer were falling off. But also by the mid-1960s businesses could no longer advertise their brand with six smiling white women. I heard that there was an attempt to revive the contest later with contestants that were a more diverse group of female bartenders.

My Irvington corner tavern (I never knew its name – if it had one – we just called it the corner tavern) was still in business when I graduated high school. New Jersey lowered its drinking age from 21 to 18 in 1973 while I was in college. I always suspected some state politicians had kids my age and changed it see they could drink legally in college. It was raised it to 19 in 1980, then back to 21 in 1983. I guess all the state senators’ kids had graduated by then.

My recollection (not to be trusted) is that the corner tavern was a Ballantine beer place that supported the New York Yankees and had Yankee’s promotions. I think the NY Mets were connected to Rheingold. My first entry into the dark, hops and malt den of the corner tavern was when we would go in on Halloween. If the guys (never any women that I saw) were feeling good, you’d get some quarters or even a dollar bill in your trick-or-treat bag. One year I was dressed as Mickey Mantle (we share a birthday) and that was a very good Halloween visit to the tavern.

I went to the bar legally during my days home from college. I was shocked that a draft glass was only a quarter. How had we missed going here? But the clientele was not college kids or long hair-friendly. My last visit was after my friend Dan’s father’s funeral. We went in to toast his father who had been a regular at the corner tavern. Everyone knew him and we drank free and freely that night and got really drunk.

In researching this essay, I came across “Beauty and the Beer” which is a documentary about the Miss Rheingold contest. It has archival footage, interviews with former Miss Rheingolds, and some of the “Mad Men” advertising executives who worked on the campaigns. It’s online at

A Blue Moon to End the Year

blue moon
The moon itself won’t be blue this week, but still…

There is a full moon to end 2009. (December 31, 2009, 19:13 GMT, 2:13 PM EST, 1:13 PM CST, 12:13 PM MST, 11:30 AM PST. (Don’t be surprised that the moon frequently doesn’t become full  during your particular “night.”)

It is also the second full moon this month. And, it is a “Blue Moon.”

Defining a blue moon is a bit confusing. The third full moon in a season with four full moons is actually what is called a Blue Moon. People often think that the second full moon in a month is a blue moon, but it turns out that idea was erroneously reported in an issue of Sky & Telescope magazine way back in 1946 and it has taken on a life in the media ever since. (Like those stupid emails you get.)

Prior to that article, a “blue moon” traditionally referred to an extra moon in a season. If a season had four full moons (rather than the more common three), then the third of the four moons was known as a blue moon. (A “season” is defined here by solstices and equinoxes.)

But, the idea that it is just the second full moon in a calendar month is a common one. Since there are 12.37 full moons in a year, a “blue moon” would occur on the average every 2.7 years, by either definition.

Unlike the other full moons during the year, Native Americans did not have a particular name for this moon. Why? Well, the idea of a “month” was not part of their timekeeping. Another moon simply signaled the start of another lunar period.

All this leads us today to use the idiom “once in a blue moon” to mean something which occurs very infrequently.

In researching the etymology of this term, I discovered an interesting alternative interpretation which is based on the old English meanings of “belewe” which were “blue” or “betrayer.”  The church was responsible for the calendar and it based church events, such as Easter, on the full moon. Lent falls before Easter starting at the beginning of the Lent moon cycle (late winter moon). The next moon is the egg moon (early spring moon), and Easter usually falls on the first Sunday after the full egg moon. Every one to three years the Lent and egg moons would come too early, so the clergy would have to tell people whether the moon was the Lent moon or a false one, which they may have called a “betrayer moon”.

As a kid, I thought the term just referred to a literal color of the moon. Ask a bunch of people to define a blue moon and someone will say something about the color. This actual rare event can occur because of smoke or dust particles in the atmosphere, such as after forest fires or the eruption of a volcano. It is a causal event much like the appearance of a red moonrise due to particles and pollution in the atmosphere, and not connected to any astronomical event.

The next seasonal blue moon won’t occur until August 21, 2013. But, if you want to plan some blue moon parties, you can also go with the calendar version (two full moons in one month) and plan celebrations for 2012 (August 2, August 31) and 2015 (July 2, July 31).

Sounds like this New Year’s Eve might be a good night to listen to Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” and break out the Blue Moon beer. Send me an invite and save me a bottle of Grand Cru…