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 vimeo.com/185674784/f05e7c3023