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Monday, August 20, 2012

Is That A Growler I See?

Cathy, Nora, and I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art yesterday, and I was enthralled by the Impressionists, the Bucks County painters, and by the Ashcan School painters. While looking at those (and the Thomas Eakins collection), I saw this painting by John Sloan: "Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street, New York City."

Taken with my phone; I apologize for the quality.

The gallery note describes the scene: "This painting, which depicts an intoxicated woman crossing a street in a state of confusion and disarray, illustrates John Sloan's compassionate, nonjudgmental approach to the squalor and misery he encountered in the Terderloin district of Manhattan." There's more, but that's the part I wanted: she's supposed to be drunk, and she's carrying a covered that a growler? The painting is from 1907, certainly a time when one would find growlers on the streets of Manhattan.

Take a closer look.
Let me drink my Knickerbocker in peace!

I don't think a woman, a drunk woman, would be carrying home a pot of stew. I believe...that's a growler. Just happened to notice it, and found it interesting.


Gary Gillman said...

Good spot Lew, clearly it is a growler, and you can see too the layer of foam just under the slightly askew lid.

The term growler IMO has an English vernacular/regional origin. It is used there to describe a hip flask, often of silver or another costly metal, to hold whisky or another spirit. Often these are quite large, even a gallon or so, apparently reflecting hunt club appetites or perhaps a sly English sense of humor (or both).

Oddly from a U.S. angle, the term applies in England therefore to an expensive article which is an accoutrement to country life as they say there, that is it is used by those who ride and hunt and generally these are well-off people with landed estates or who frequent same regularly.

There is some irony in this in that the term growler has always been associated in the U.S. with a simple bucket or kettle to ferry the common man's beverage from tavern to hearth. IIRC it is depicted usually in somewhat disapproving or at least "social realist" terms. Frequently children were bidden to "rush the growler" home, for example, and this was thought, probably correctly, to familiarize them too early with drink and its environment.

As so often happens, an inversion occurred after the term crossed the Atlantic. (It is highly doubtful to me the term went the other way especially considering the context in which it is used in the U.K.).

Here is an example of the growler in England:


Lew Bryson said...

Maybe, Gary. But have a look at this. I discovered the bit at the end years ago, and believe it to be the original starting place. The origins of 'growler', as in, why 'growler', seem resistant to research. I'd never heard the term the way you present it, and I thought I'd heard everything about growlers.

Lew Bryson said...

Right...have a look at THIS, was what I meant!


Gary Gillman said...

Thanks, Lew, I wasn't aware of that commentary. He does seem at the end to think the term originated in England.

The use of the term there in connection with a cab is interesting. Maybe it meant originally the transporter of a drink (or a person laden with same!) and this sense was applied to a human carrier too and ultimately to the container of liquor itself.

I'll try to check further.


Steven said...

I can remember my first trip to the Chicago Historical Society (sometime in the early 80s) and seeing an antique growler in one of their exhibits (looked a lot like the device in the painting, even more like the pail the little girl brings into the "pharmacy" at the beginning of DePalma's "Untouchables").

I was intrigued because one bar in DeKalb, IL (home of NIU) always had "growler night" in the late 70s to mid 80s. These growlers were far from anything as fancy as having a hinged lid or being as voluminous as the vintage types, but they were only $5 and $3 for a refill (of basically swill beers, but that's all we had in rural Illinois in those days).

Our growlers of the day were your basic metal pail, held about a quart. But they got me doing research about them and I soon discovered that factory workers on Chicago's south side in the late 19th to early 20th centuries would carry their lunches to work in these pails (remember the term "lunch pail?"), sit outside for lunch and have local kids run to the nearest tavern for a "fill," and use the growler again to pick up a dinner portion of beer on the way home in the evening.

I'd heard that most of these workers were of German and Irish descent, so there's no telling where the actual device originated, and that they were named "growlers" after growling mid-morning stomachs.

I sure wish I could find more information about growlers in Chicago, or why they were so popular in DeKalb at one time. I may have to contact the CHS (now the Chicago History Museum) to see if they still have their ancient growler.

Richard said...

Well, according to my father, when I brought a growler of beer to my parents home for a family function, he asked me what was in the the container. I proceed to explain it was fresh draft beer that I brought from Victory. I told him that the container was called a Growler. He proceeded to laugh. Then he said that when he was a kid living in the Overbrook section of Philly, his father gave him a pail or pot with a lid to fetch him some freah brew at the local watering hole near their home. If he was delayed by friends or the pail wasn't satisfactorily filled, he said his Dad used to growl at him. We both laughed that the name of the container was appropriate.


Gary Gillman said...

Lew, I checked further, and the term growler was used in England colloquially to describe, not just a modern taxi, but its horse-drawn predecessors such as a hackney. Perhaps, indeed probably I'd say, the term therefore derives from the noises of a horse. So, a growler ferried something, people or goods. One can see that the term could transfer to a container which also carried something. Moreover what is common to both is the jostling of the contents.

I think this is probably the simplest explanation and I don't know but maybe the old hackneys and jitneys had a rounded shape that reminded some people of a kettle or bucket.

The term was probably used in its current U.S. sense by some groups who came over with the Mayflower because to this day a metal container holding alcohol is called a growler in England, the core meaning is the same albeit the social groups and particular form of alcohol are different.

To be sure the terms analogous to growler mentioned in that link you gave seem American, roll the rock, rush the duck, and so forth. But one can envision that a term originally foreign inspired a host of imitators on foreign soil.


Lew Bryson said...

Actually, Gary, I've checked further than that. A growler was a cheap, narrow cab or wagon that was usually used to move things, rather than people, during the day. At night, though, growler drivers made some extra money by traveling a set circuit between a ring of pubs. Riding that circuit and going to those pubs was known as "working the growler." (This is from various sources, including "A Study in Scarlet") It's not far from there to "rushing the growler," perhaps?

Gary Gillman said...

Well, it seems close, yes, although there the hack conveys drinker to the booze, and the container-growler does the reverse! It could of course be another inversion, these happen all the time.


Janet said...

Also research "Rush the Duck" I just found a pail in the attic with a note in it explaining this is how they would get the beer. Wish I could attach a picture of what I have. It's a galvanized pail with handle and a lid.