Collection taps one man’s fascination for brewing
By Janelle Walker For The Courier-News June 3, 2012 5:54PM
Carl Flaks of Elgin has a large collection of beer-related memorabilia, including advertisements for the many breweries that operated in the 1930s -1950s. | Submitted
Updated: July 6, 2012 10:58AM
ELGIN — As a young man, Carl Flaks had a large collection of Blatz Brewery trays from the 1950s — promotional serving trays emblazoned with the Wisconsin beermaker’s logo.
His mother, however, was of a temperance mindset, and couldn’t use the trays because they were to host women from church. So, she bought spray paint and gave the trays a coating to make them usable for her needs.
Although that tidbit of information made Flaks’ audience moan, it was OK, said the former history teacher and avid collector of breweriana — he still had a few trays his mother didn’t get to.
Breweriana, Flaks said, is the term used for collecting beer-related items. Those items — from early beer cans and draft pulls to drink coasters and bottle openers — were the topic of his presentation Sunday at the Elgin History Museum, 360 Park St.
Flaks, now 73 and of Elgin, started working at a tavern shortly after his eighth-grade graduation in 1952. For a dollar a day, he was a “swamper” at a Lake County tavern, helping the owner clean up in the mornings. Then, during the summer at home from college, he worked at Kapella Distributing, loading the trucks every morning, then helping to make the deliveries to taverns around the area.
“I became fascinated with the signs and other objects,” the breweries used to promote their brands, Flaks said. He started collecting advertisements, beer bottles and cans, coasters, tap pulls, bottle openers, glasses, signs and more — from all different areas and eras of beer promotion.
One of his favorite pieces is one he’s had the longest — a “Blatz Girl” figurine that dates from about 1940. That came on one of the beer trucks from Milwaukee, Flaks said, and ended up sitting in the warehouse for long time, with no one taking it or putting it out. So he took it home with him.
Another rare item to find now are the “cone top” beer cans. He had many of those as a kid, Flaks said. But he’d use a hammer to drive the cone top down, making it the perfect ashtray for his father. When the cans were full, they went into the trash.
There is a large market in the U.S. for beer memorabilia collecting, Flaks said. He attends many conventions with those of a similar obsession to trade and learn.
Collecting breweriana can start with checking yard sales, flea markets, antique stores and even on ebay, Flaks said. He encourages those who want to get started, however, to hook up with one of the three national clubs. They can help give direction and suggestions on where to get started.
He cautions people, however, from websites like Ebay and flea markets where the seller might be overpricing the pieces. Antique stores aren’t a bad place to start, Flaks said — particularly if the buyer goes further west where there are fewer collectors around.
He’s thinned out his own holdings, Flaks said, by selling his beer can collection to a father and son. Those who are getting out of breweriana collecting are a great way for someone to start their own, he said.
Elgin has a history with brewing as well. Before Elgin went dry in 1914, there were two breweries here — Elgin Eagle and Elgin National. Bottles from those two makers are commonly found in Elgin, Flaks said. The museum has a few bottles from that era and a wooden beer carrying case, too.
That also marks an interesting piece of Elgin history, said Elizabeth Marston, museum director. Many of Elgin’s families of German heritage found themselves voted out of a livelihood when Elgin went dry.
Following the presentation, the museum hosted a “tasting” of several craft beers, as well as “traditional” tavern fare from the 1950s. That traditional fare included limburger cheese, pickled fish, pickled sausage, pretzels, ham hocks and hard boiled eggs.