Ghosts Signs of Philadelphia: Esslinger’s Brewery in Callowhill

March 1, 2023 | by Jordan Keiffer

Esslinger’s brewery at 401-29 N. 10th Street. | Photo: Jordan Keiffer

The busy intersection of 10th Street, Callowhill Street, and Ridge Avenue is home to one of the oldest, continually-used industrial facilities in the city. The three-sided Art Deco facade of the former Esslinger’s brewery and its stone ghost sign reading “ESSLINGER’S INC. SINCE 1868” is a testament to Philadelphia’s rich beer brewing history. Although Esslinger’s is the most well-known former occupant, the company actually repurposed the buildings, which date back to sometime between 1826 and 1834 and much earlier than the brewery’s occupation of the site from 1879 until 1964. In 2016, Oscar Beisert of The Keeping Society of Philadelphia nominated the former brewery complex at 401-29 N. 10th Street for historic designation and parts of it were listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Beisert’s research was pivotal in revealing the dense layers of industrial heritage at this site.

The Victorian-style building on the northeast corner was originally constructed for Dallett’s Chandlery between 1826 and 1834 and was the business’ factory for three generations. Natives to England, the Dallett family immigrated to the United States, likely through New York City, between 1805 and 1807. Brothers Elijah and Thomas Dallett began making soap and candles in the Callowhill area around 1824. At the time the neighborhood was home to butchers, food distributors, and soap boilers. The Dallett brothers first operated at 34 High Street beginning in 1809, but were drawn away from the area due to overcrowding. A wood frame building that the company occupied on the northeast corner of Callowhill Street and what was then Rugan Street was consumed by a fire on September 19, 1824. Afterwards, the Dallett brothers began planning for the building that survives, at least in part, today.

A painting from 1886 by Benjamin R. Evans of Dallett’s Chandlery at 10th Street, Callowhill Street, and Ridge Avenue. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Elijah Jr. and Gillies Dallett continued the business after their father’s death in 1848 and changed the company’s name to E. & G. Dallett & Co. Both lived in rowhouses on the 400 block of N. 10th Street that would later be consumed by Esslinger’s sprawling brewery. Thomas H. Dallett changed the company name yet again to G. & T.H. Dallett & Co. and continued operations until the 1880s.

John Weihmann, a brewer, purchased the building in 1886, kicking off the facility’s association with beer making. The space was transformed into the brewery known as John Weihmann’s Bayerische Hof-Brauerei. Weihmann used the building as a brewery, social hall, and residence until 1898. During this time Esslinger’s Brewery was operating in an adjacent three-story building at 417 N. 10th Street. This location would remain the office of Esslinger’s for many years to come and appeared on bottles and advertisements.

The offices of G. Esslinger & Son Brewery at 417 N. 10th Street circa 1896. | Photo courtesy of Beer Institute

After Weihmann ceased operations, the building was used by several manufacturers until it was purchased in the 1930s by Esslinger’s. George Esslinger was a German immigrant who arrived in Philadelphia in 1861. The ghost sign on the facade that reads “SINCE 1868” refers to Esslinger’s first brewery at 1012 Jefferson Street, which lasted until 1879. The company then moved to 412 and 422 Hutchinson Street from 1879 until 1893. Esslinger’s son, Frank, joined the business in the 1890s and began enlarging its operation. The company was renamed George Esslinger & Son which lasted from 1893 until 1907.

Today, the block that Esslinger’s once occupied contains a number of buildings and additions. A notable addition was the five-story brewery, mill, and malt storage building constructed in 1895. It was designed by architect A.C. Wagner, another German immigrant, who would design over 50 breweries between 1883 and 1901. Many of these breweries were in Philadelphia, including Theis & Weger, Weisbrod & Hess Oriental Lager Beer Brewery, G. Manz Brewing Co., Class & Erdich’s Brewery, Hohenadel Brewery, Philadelphia Brewing Company, Robert Smith Brewery, Straubmuller’s Brewery, Excelsior Brewery, and others. Wagner’s portfolio includes buildings from Washington, D.C. to New England. Inside the 1895 addition Esslinger’s was producing its Standard Porter and Brown Stout with delivery of a case costing $1.

A Esslinger’s beer bottle that reads “GEORGE ESSLINGER & SON, OFFICE 417 N. 10TH. ST. PHILA., THIS BOTTLE REGISTERED NOT TO BE SOLD.” The bottle was likely once capped by a porcelain stopper and was manufactured sometime between 1893 and 1907. | Photos: Jordan Keiffer.

Esslinger’s had become a considerable success at the turn of the 20th century. Properties on 10th, Callowhill, and Hutchinson Streets were purchased by the company. Additions between 1900 and 1920 included a two-story wagon shed, a four-story stock house, an enlargement to the Hutchinson Street “bottlehaus,” a beer vault, and additional beer storage. Sales increased slightly through 1906, with beer options including Adonis, Columbian, Export Beer, Ale, and Porter.

The 18th Amendment was passed and Prohibition went into effect in January 1920. Esslinger’s, like many breweries at the time, switched to the production of nonalcoholic “near-beer.” The process involved making a lager beer from malt and hops, allowing it to age and create traditional flavors, and then taking the alcohol out of the drink to bring it within the boundaries of the law. Esslinger’s did everything it could to advertise its Prohibition-era drinks and malt beverages with slogans like “The Kick Within the Law” and even advertised to mothers and children.

First image: A Esslinger’s Prohibition-era advertisement with the slogans “Step Out” and “The Kick Within the Law.” Second image: a serving tray featuring Little Man, the brewery’s iconic character. Third image: An undated photo showing the real life Little Man, played by Martin Needleman, in his promotional vehicle. | Images Photos: Newspapers.com, Trayman.net, and Breweriana Aficionado

Company founder George Esslinger died in 1921, and his family sold the business to brothers Michael, James, and Louis Brown that same year. The Browns kept the Esslinger’s name and were responsible for one of the company’s best-known advertising ventures, the logo for Little Man Ale. A cartoon character in a bellhop or server uniform became the company’s trademark logo for many years to come. In real life, the character was played by Martin Needleman of Havertown, Pennsylvania who passed g out cigarettes at promotional events. Expansion of the facility continued during Prohibition to include a steel cooling tower and a cold storage facility.

The brewery’s name was changed to Esslinger’s, Inc. after the passing of the 21st Amendment in December 1933, which ended Prohibition. The Browns quickly converted their near-beer equipment back to alcohol. Further expansions of the facility included the acquisition of the Dallett-Weihmann building on the northeast corner and several other buildings between 1930 and 1940. These buildings were repurposed and others were newly constructed in the Art Deco style, with the use of red brick, copper spandrels, and the stone tablets that feature the old Esslinger’s sign. In 1935, the company applied for a permit to remove the facade of the Dallett-Weihmann building and replace it with a 13-inch-thick brick exterior. The original gabled Victorian roof was saved in 1935, but later dismantled. Much of the work was designed by local architect Richard Ross Neely.

A photograph of a Esslinger’s billboard 33 miles outside of Philadelphia, location unknown, dated September 21, 1948. | Photo courtesy of Taverntrove.com

Esslinger’s used slogans like “Philadelphia’s Only Premium Beer” and introduced its easy-pour quart bottle, claiming in one advertisement that “When we couldn’t improve the beer, we improved the bottle.” Another invention was Esslinger’s “Steinies,” a compact, pint-sized bottle. One old advertisement states, “Here’s the new convenient way to enjoy Esslinger’s in bottled ‘STEINIES’ hold just as much as regular ‘pints,’ yet they’re shorter… take less room. Easier to stack and handle. Packed in handy light-weight cartons. You’re sure to like them… just as you’re sure to like the Beer and Ale that’s in them–Esslinger’s–the best you ever tasted!”

Beers produced around this time included the Repeal Beer, Gold Medal Brew, King Pin Beer, Summer Ale, Esslinger’s Cream Ale, and Goblet Beer, which was later changed to Keglet Beer after losing a copyright lawsuit with a Detroit-based brewery. Esslinger’s also claimed to be the first brewery in Philadelphia to offer its beer in cans. The newer buildings and modern technology allowed Esslinger’s to place its beer directly into vacuum-sealed cans. This effectively eliminated the need for refrigeration and allowed the products to be sold more quickly and at greater distances. In 1953, the brewery introduced Party-Quiz Pak, a six pack of colorful cans with 21 fun facts printed on labels. In 1960, Esslinger’s launched a buccaneer-themed campaign and the “Cold Chest,” an iceless container designed to keep six beers cold for up to eight hours. When competitor Gretz Beer Company closed in 1961 Esslinger’s purchased many of its brands.

Top: An undated photograph of the Esslinger’s brewery building shows the original gabled roof and a painted advertisement. Bottom: what the building looks like today. | Photos: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Jordan Keiffer.

The brewery’s success could not last forever, and it was purchased by Jacob Ruppert Brewery of New York City in 1964. The acquisition included the Esslinger, Keglet, and Gretz brands. The Brown family later established the Esslinger Distributing Company, Inc. to sell Ruppert’s products. Later that year, National Chemical bought much of the brewery complex and began bottling cleaning supplies. The company still uses the facility today. In 1977, the Esslinger brand was purchased by The Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. 


About the Author

Jordan Keiffer has been documenting Philadelphia’s ghost signs on the Instagram page Philly Ghost Signs since 2019. His goal is to connect people to the forgotten stories of these faded signs through historic narratives and supplemental images. His work was featured in a special exhibition on ghost signs at the Neon Museum of Philadelphia. A native of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Keiffer is a proud Temple University alum and enjoys long runs through the city.

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