I spent my first four years in Anacostia, before my parents moved out to the Maryland suburbs. A few years ago, I bought a stoneware jug that’s marked “Old Bachelors Club/ Pure Rye Whiskey / Put up by Thos. Gray & Son / Anacostia D.C.” Might you be able to tease out more information on the club and the jug?
— Jim Speicher, Jefferson, Md.
On Nov. 1, 1887, the District Commissioners’ office announced the names of establishments that had been granted licenses to sell liquor in Washington. Some residents of Anacostia had lobbied the city to refuse any more licenses in their part of town, a story in the Evening Star noted. These petitions were denied, for among those granted a wholesale liquor license was Thos. Gray & Son.
Thomas Gray and his son George ran a grocery store at Harrison and Monroe streets (roughly at the intersection of today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road SE), along with a hardware store nearby. Answer Man supposes the liquor license allowed the Grays to fill custom jugs with rye whiskey.
Brandt Zipp of Crocker Farm, the Baltimore County stoneware experts who auctioned the jug in 2011, said this jug was likely made by William Ernest, a D.C.-based potter. While Zipp has seen jugs marked “Washington,” “Georgetown” and “Alexandria,” this is the only one he’s ever encountered that’s marked “Anacostia.”
And what was the Old Bachelors’ Club? (It has a possessive apostrophe in most sources, though not on the jug.) It was part of the great explosion of fraternal organizations that occurred in the United States in the late 19th century. Some of the groups were Masonic. Some were composed of veterans. Some were formed to help members financially, for example covering funeral expenses should a member die impoverished. And some existed for little reason other than to party.
Answer Man suspects that is the category the OBC was in.
There were several Bachelors’ Clubs in the Washington area over the decades, and it can be hard to keep them apart. A Merrie Bachelors’ Club formed in 1857 to celebrate the election of James Buchanan, “one of the bachelorie fraternity.” They met in a hall near the Navy Yard and held an annual cotillion.
In 1889, a different Bachelors’ Club constructed five tennis courts at the corner of 17th and P streets NW. It wasn’t so interested in cotillions. It was an active lawn tennis club, one of the city’s first.
By 1892, Alexandria, Va., had a Bachelors’ Club. In 1895, a Junior Bachelors’ Club met at 15th and R streets NW. This should not be confused with the Young Bachelors’ Club that met in Mount Pleasant.
In 1892, a writer for the New York Times lamented the proliferation of clubs that seemed to be organized around little more than a silly name and a silly concept: “The ingenuity, idiosyncrasies, foolishness and spleen of man have evolved the quaintest, most outlandish, maddest ideas possible as the raison d’etre and actuating principle of social (or unsocial) clubs.”
Among those he listed were the Liars Club, the Candor Club, the Chatterbox Club (talking compulsory), the Thinkers Club (talking punishable by fine) and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Music.
So, which club paid for that jug of whiskey? Answer Man assumes it was one composed of Anacostia residents. It sponsored an annual excursion to River View on the Potomac. Perhaps this jug went along on the picnic, too.
The vessel must date from before 1891, for in December of that year, ads appeared in local papers announcing a receiver’s sale for the contents of both of Thos. Gray & Son’s businesses. Groceries, wines and liquors were among the items being sold at the grocery. Cutlery, glass, counter scales, a buggy and a harness were among items on the block at the hardware store.
Though men were more active in forming nonsensical clubs, women formed such clubs as well. In 1929, the Star published a story on “10 attractive Washington maidens” who, after graduating from Central High, had banded together “to perpetuate the blessings of spinsterhood.”
Members of the Old Maids’ Club ranged in age from 19 to 21 and had formed the group after a particularly heavy stretch of attending other friends’ weddings.
No word on whether they had their own whiskey, but, wrote the Star, “If a member weakens to the extent of becoming engaged, she must donate a 5-pound box of candy to the remaining members. If she is so unfaithful to her pledges as to become married, she must place $5 in the treasury to be released from her obligations.”
The last member got to keep all the money.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.