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