Hilbert Bro’s

Provenance: Richard T. Siri Collection

The Hilbert Bro’s bottle is very rare, crude, and has an applied top. There is a story here as the Hilbert Brothers ran a saloon, operated a retail business, and had a bottle made with their name embossed on it.

Fred H. and Christian H. Hilbert set up shop in 1890. The first reference we find was in the 1890 Crocker Langley City of San Francisco Directory. The brothers were located on the northwest corner of Seventh and Bryant. They remained at Seventh and Bryant for two years and relocated to 101 Powell Street in 1892. They were listed in bold type in the directory which gives the impression that things were going well. The brothers obtained telephone service and were assigned #3171 by the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company in February 1893. Trouble appeared on the horizon as early as the following month. On April 6, 1893, the Hilbert Brothers advertised that the 101 Powell Street address was for sale. Not only was it for sale, but the ad also stated, “must be sold.”

The firm had a “near-miss” with disaster on the evening of October 29, 1893, when the fire department responded to an alarm at an address listed as 101-103 Powell Street. Firefighters extinguished a fire in the area used for wine storage. The cause of the fire was determined to be unknown which seems suspicious considering the state of the company affairs.

By 1894, the Hilbert Brothers, still directory listed the 101-103 Powell Street address. Instead of bold type, they were back to being shoehorned in with the rest of the small-time operators and all but disappear in small font size. The year 1895 saw them reassigned with a new telephone number, South 171, but still at the 101-103 address on Powell. Early 1896 appears status quo but by the fall of 1896, all reference to the 101 Powelladdress vanishes, and they are listed exclusively at the 103 address. The San Franciso Call on October 1, 1896, lists their “old-established liquor store and bar” for sale.

On January 18, 1897, the noose appears to have tightened further and their grocery and bar enterprise was offered simply for lease, lock stock, and barrel, for the princely sum of $750 for three years.

John L. Thomas in Whiskey Bottles of the Old West states that the name of the firm was changed to the Hilbert Mercantile Co. in 1903. An advertisement dated December 7, 1903, supports this and advertises them as Pacific Coast Agents for ABC Beer.

The 1905 directory does list Hilbert Mercantile, located at 136-142 2nd Street. Things get a little cloudy about this time though. A newspaper article dated October 28, 1905, lists Hilbert Bros. as the creditor in a suit filed against F. Cavagnero (Columbian Kentucky Bourbon). It seems like the moniker Hilbert Bros. was still being used. Another contradiction appears in the form of an advertisement from that year showing their Bourbon Whiskey being sold at fire-sale prices. It would appear that the beginning of the end was at hand and they were grasping at straws to hang on.

Oddly enough, the pre-earthquake 1906 directory fails to list either Hilbert Bros. or Hilbert Mercantile. Although Thomas states that they were destroyed in the disaster, evidence points to the firm’s demise shortly before.

That being said, it is evident that they were exclusively at the 101 address embossed on the bottle for only two years; 1892-1894. Times were apparently tough during that window of opportunity. Our best guess is that they jumped in with both feet and had private molds made as soon as they moved into the 101 Powell Street location. Once the initial supply was used up, their product was probably bottled with paper labels only to reduce expenses.

Had the firm prospered, one would expect to see volumes of advertising, and a bottle embossed with both the 101 and the 103 address. Instead, we see one amber full-face cylinder design (both tooled San Francisco glass and German connection glop top), another clear (both tooled San Francisco glass and German connection glop top), with 101 embossed, and another San Francisco glass full-face tool top sans any address in the way of early bottles. There also exists an extremely rare coffin shape bottle with the 101 address on it.

Newspaper archives are completely and totally void of any advertising and it appears that they were either content with, or forced to make ends meet on a very small scale. The firm of Hilbert Bros. seems to have endured ongoing financial hardships for its entire life span. The early years were tough, but they managed to eke out an existence, barely, and we have that to thank for the exceptional rarity of their early glass.

Frederick Henry Hilbert

Frederick Henry Hilbert was born on July 25, 1863, in Hamburg, Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1884 and was in California at least by 1888 when he is listed in the San Francisco business directory as working for Hildebrandt, Posner & Co., wholesale liquor dealers.

Frederick is listed in the 1900 United States Federal Census living in San Francisco with his wife, Amelia (Hoch) Hilbert, and two daughters (Frieda, born September 10, 1892, in San Francisco, and Vera, born September 29, 1896, in San Francisco.) He was absent from his wife and children, who were living in San Francisco, in the 1910 census. Frederick was with Amelia in the 1915 to 1918 Vallejo city directories as president of the Vallejo Brewing & Bottling Co. and in 1920, when the census reports Amelia living with her daughter, Vera, and her husband, Capt. Chester Shephard, U.S. Army. The 1930 census gives a little conflicting information. It notes Frederick was living in the town of Mount Shasta, California, with his wife, with a listed occupation of “game herder.” Five days later, the 1930 census notes his wife was living with their daughter, Frieda, and son-in-law, Claude Littlepage, in San Mateo, California. Amelia was scheduled twice within a short period of time. Such conflicts do occasionally happen in census records.

By 1940, Frederick was widowed and living in San Francisco with no occupation. During the last few years of his life, Frederick worked as a guard at the WWII shipyard in Sausalito, California. Frederick died in San Francisco on June 13, 1945, and with his residence in Larkspur, California.

Christian Hilbert

Frederick’s brother, Christian Hilbert traveled the world, which often left a record of his movement. He was born at Altona, Schleswig, Holstein, Germany on April 7, 1867. Christian first arrived in the United States on May 24, 1882, at the age of 15 years, from Hamburg, Germany, at New York aboard the ship Suevia and claimed continuous residence in San Francisco from that date until 1898, becoming a U.S. citizen in San Francisco in 1894. He traveled to Manila, P.I, from 1898 to 1901 and again from 1906 to 1910. From 1911 to 1916 Hilbert lived in Brooklyn and White Plains, New York. In 1916, Christian sailed from Vancouver, British Columbia, to destinations in Japan, China, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, purportedly to sell American goods while in the employ of Horace R. Kelly & Co., commission merchants of New York. Christian and family went to Europe in 1920 while working for B. Castellano & Co., of New York City, importers of Havana Leaf Tobacco, and returned in September 1921.

The 1920 United States Federal Census finds Christian Hilbert living in Scarsdale, New York, with his wife and two daughters, Mary E. (age 17, born in New Jersey) and Helen R. (age 13, born in New York). He is listed as an importer. Hilbert had moved to Carmel, New York by 1924.

Actually, his oldest daughter, Marie Elizabeth Hilbert was born in San Francisco on January 22, 1903, and his second daughter, Helen Robbins Hilbert, was born in Manila, Philippine Islands, on March 15, 1907.

Christian Henry Hilbert died February 21, 1928, at the Hotel Quisisana, Capri, Italy, and was taken to Rome for cremation. He was traveling with his wife, Maria Robbins Hilbert who then took possession of his ashes. She was born on November 26, 1877, in Suisun, California.

We can find a number of newspaper reports that place the brothers in trouble. An example is below.

Primary Image: The Hilbert Bros. bottle imaged on location by the FOHBC Virtual Museum midwest studio led by Alan DeMaison.

Support: Primary research from Bruce Silva at Western Whiskey Gazette and Eric McGuire who provided background research on the brothers.

Support: Reference to Whiskey Bottles of the Old West by John L. Thomas, 2002

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