Prohibition-era handkerchief

Megan Kautz

Catalog Number: 1981.026.10

“Have booze, will smuggle." These words are written on a handkerchief that was found stuffed in the pocket of a tuxedo belonging to Arthur S. Funk.

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

The words were written by hand, with a fountain pen, and the ink has blurred and turned brown with age. It also has transferred through the folds of silk, so it appears more than once on the handkerchief. But those words are still quite legible — and intriguing.

Was this person truly a bootlegger — or just a jokester having some fun?

The initials stitched into the handkerchief indicate it belonged to William F. Funk, Arthur’s brother, of the Funk Steam Boiler and Ironwork Co. The manufacturer was founded in 1865 by their father, Michael Funk, who also founded the La Crosse Rubber Mills in 1897. This phrase hints at the effects of Prohibition on a state known both for its German immigrants and brewing tradition.

While bootleggers were not absent from La Crosse, it's likely this handkerchief was more of a party joke than a shady business deal. Prohibition began in Wisconsin in 1920 with the passing of the 18th Amendment, spelling trouble for bars, taverns and breweries. Many breweries in the state were forced to close or resort to creating new products.

While brewers switched to sodas, dairy products or candy, others produced “near-beers," which had a lower alcohol content. Near-beers were largely unpopular, and some drinkers spiked the drinks to regain the desired effect. The G. Heileman Brewing Co. even cleverly released a near-beer named Spike in 1922.

Like the rest of the country, La Crosse was teeming with bootleg liquor. Basement stills and homemade brew kits were not uncommon, and some people resorted to smuggling alcohol in from Canada. Maybe the owner of this handkerchief — presumably William Funk — indulged in a little illicit alcohol purchasing, and through his playful boasting, wound up memorializing his behavior. Certainly many Americans continued to enjoy alcohol, acquired illegally, until 1933 when the 21st Amendment was ratified, ending Prohibition across the land.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on January 28, 2017.

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