Gustav’s Dream: Local Brewer Finds New Opportunity Post-Prohibition

The Heinz History Center’s newest exhibition, Pittsburgh’s John Kane: The Life & Art of an American Workman, explores the story of a man who found artistic success late in life. But what if you had a career that you enjoyed since you were young, and it was taken from you? How would you feel if you got it back at 70 years old?

Two History Center images illustrate such a moment for Gustav Fritz, brewmaster for Iron City Beer. The images show Mr. Fritz examining the contents of foam-filled tanks at Pittsburgh Brewing Company around 1935. Taken for promotional purposes, these images would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. For Fritz, it was the resumption of a career that he had dreamed about “day and night” since he lost it in 1920 when Prohibition went into effect.

Gustav Fritz at Iron City Brewery, c. 1935. Credit: Senator John Heinz History Center, Detre Library & Archives, Melvin Seidenberg photographs, c. 1828-1988, MSP 0566
1. Gustav Fritz examining the product at Iron City Brewery, c. 1935. A similar image appeared in advertisements for Iron City’s new pilsener and lager beers introduced in the spring of 1935. Credit: Senator John Heinz History Center, Detre Library & Archives, Melvin Seidenberg photographs, c. 1828-1988, MSP 0566

An Apprentice Heads to America

Previously, Mr. Fritz enjoyed what could have been considered an immigrant’s “American Dream.” Born in Germany, family tragedy propelled him into the brewing industry. After his father was killed during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), young Fritz apprenticed to a local brewery in his hometown of Baden-Baden, where he started washing kegs and weighing barrels. After completing a two-year apprenticeship, he studied his craft throughout Germany before making the transatlantic voyage to the United States, leaving Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1879.

Image of Iron City Brewery, 1877. Credit: Illustrated Atlas of the Upper Ohio River and Valley from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Cincinnati, Ohio. Philadelphia, Pa.: Simmons & Titus, 1877. Courtesy David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, https://www.davidrumsey.com/

Arriving in New York City with 30 dollars to his name, Fritz relocated to Pittsburgh in 1880, where he found work at the Iron City Brewery operated by Edward Frauenheim and Leopold Vilsack. German immigrants enjoyed great prominence in America’s brewing industry, and Pittsburgh was no exception. Fritz was not alone as a German working for Frauenheim and Vilsack. Census records in 1880 show him living in a boarding house run by Apolonia [sic] Frauenheim, where Fritz was one of seven men boarding with the housemistress and her two sons. All worked at the brewery. Of the boarders, one was a Pennsylvanian while the rest were born overseas: one from Russia and five from Germany. (Some found love at the boarding house. Appolonia eventually married one boarder, Caspar Muth, in 1883.)

According to their ad, Iron City’s “Delicious, Pure, Foamy Beer,” could be enjoyed with no resulting headache. Credit: Pittsburgh Daily Post, August 30, 1879.
Advertisement for Frauenheim & Vilsack’s Iron City Brewery, 1879. According to their ad, Iron City’s “Delicious, Pure, Foamy Beer,” could be enjoyed with no resulting headache. Credit: Pittsburgh Daily Post, August 30, 1879.

Fritz Rises in the Ranks

The energetic brewer from Baden-Baden soon distinguished himself. After learning the ropes as an assistant in various departments, Fritz went to Chicago for training in 1892. Shortly after, he assumed the role of Iron City’s brewmaster and worked in that capacity for nearly 30 years, supervising as many as 400 men. His memories recalled a booming industry fueled by German entrepreneurs, especially across the Midwest. Starting  in the 1860s, German-led breweries transformed American drinking culture, tapping into homeland practices quite different from the Scots-Irish and English saloon traditions based on hard liquor and typically heavier ales and porters. German immigrants brought the practice of the “beer garden” to America, a family-friendly affair that also featured food and welcomed women and children, at least during the earlier hours of the day. More crucially, they popularized beer styles based on the German lager tradition that eventually dominated the market. American beer empires with names such as Schlitz, Busch, Anheuser, and Pabst emerged during this period. Pittsburgh had its own set of names: Frauenheim, Vilsack, Eberhardt, Ober.

Postcard for Philadelphia’s Deutscher Club Beer Garden, August 1909. Similar establishments were found wherever German immigrants congregated, including Pittsburgh. Credit: Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, https://digital.librarycompany.org/islandora/object/digitool%3A96157

Drink to Your Health?

German brewers promoted beer as a healthful and nutritious beverage. When the temperance movement regained strength after the Civil War, many erroneously believed that this perception and the brewing industry’s power would shield them from calls to banish the saloon and render America a dry nation. (Until the very end, even some politicians believed that Prohibition  would focus on hard liquor, and beer production would be allowed to continue.) Breweries even allowed beer drinking on the job. Fritz recalled that workers at Iron City received a gallon of beer per day, doled out in four-quart measures from a bar in the center of the brewery. The company bar prevented employees from helping themselves to the suds flowing elsewhere in the plant.

Gustav Fritz always claimed that this brew was his creation. Credit: Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 12, 1906.
Advertisement announcing Pittsburgh Brewing Company’s new Tech Beer, 1906. Gustav Fritz always claimed that this brew was his creation. Credit: Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 12, 1906.

Gustav Fritz’s chief claim to fame at Iron City was the creation of “Tech” beer in 1906, which reflected beliefs about beer’s healthful qualities and the growing concerns about food safety. Unsurprisingly  the introduction of this beer brand with its Scotch-plaid label raised howls of protest from the nearby Carnegie Technological School (now Carnegie- Mellon University). But Iron City insisted that the word stood for the “technical perfection” of the brew, not an insignificant claim during a period when concerns about adulterated food and drugs and searing exposés such as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” (1906) soon inspired the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906).

Tech Premium Ale beer bottle label, 1950s. Iron City continued producing Tech Beer through the 1970s, until the great popularity of new products such as Iron City Light prompted the elimination of less popular brands in the early 1980s. Credit: Senator John Heinz History Center, Detre Library & Archives, Records of the Friday Family, MSP 0245

The End of a Dream

But brewers could not prevent the fierce anti-German sentiment that rose with World War I. And in some respects, they were their own worst enemy. As they began using beer saloons to distribute their own products, they fueled industry expansion, saturating cities already awash in alcohol. They gave groups like the Anti-Saloon League, the nation’s first bipartisan, single-issue lobbying organization, all the fuel needed to finally pass a Prohibition amendment.

“Our New Citizens,” advertising card satirizing German beer traditions, George Topp, 1882. This card was part of multiple sets issued in 1882 that ridiculed American immigrant groups, including Germans, Irish, and Jewish citizens. Credit: Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution – https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/homebrew

After 1919, Iron City continued to produce a low alcohol version of “Tech cereal beverage.” But Fritz’s days as brewmaster seemed to be over. He retired to a farm in Valencia, Butler County, where he and his wife grew a garden, raised bees and cows, and lived a quiet life with their pet cats. Fritz never forgot his true calling. Profiled for the Pittsburgh Press in 1932, Fritz likened himself to a wagon pulled out of its comfortable rut and “overturned.” He told the reporter: “I was in the business as brewmaster so long that I’ll never be content at anything else. I hope I may go back to it.” (1)

A retired Gustav Fritz (erroneously called “George” by the newspaper) showed off his collection of trophy beer steins to a reporter in 1932. Credit: The Pittsburgh Press, November 19, 1932.

A Wish Fulfilled

Within three years, Fritz’s wish came true. Swayed by public fears of crime and a federal need for more tax revenue, President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept his campaign promise and legalized beer in March 1933 and fully repealed Prohibition by the year’s end. As local breweries fought to reclaim market share during the Great Depression, Iron City’s former brewmaster became an asset. In late 1934 or early 1935, the company invited him to rejoin the operation. Fritz was about 73 years old, but of course, he agreed. By April 1935, Iron City prominently featured him in ads that trumpeted his pre-Prohibition credentials and his role in creating a new lager and pilsener. The History Center images were created around this time.

Fritz’s image is viewable in the bottom right corner of the ad. Credit: The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 2, 1932.
“Here it is!” Advertisement announcing Iron City’s new pilsener and lager beers, 1935. Fritz’s image is viewable in the bottom right corner of the ad. Credit: The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 2, 1932.

Fritz continued to appear in ads until about 1940 and seemed to have maintained his connection with Iron City until his death in 1948. At that time, announcements concerning his successor, Hugo Larsen, noted that Fritz had worked as brewmaster at Iron City for 56 years. It was as if that strange interlude between 1919 and 1933 had never happened.

Credit: The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, November 20, 1940.
Advertisements continued to include Mr. Fritz’s image through the early 1940s. Credit: The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, November 20, 1940.

1.“Turn on the Spigot,” The Pittsburgh Press, November 19, 1932

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