Our historic image archive is full of thousands of images that give us unique insights into New York City life. Recent additions show drag performances in the 1990s, the HighLine before it became a world-famous park and tourist attraction, and changes to our surrounding architecture over the years. The Robert Fisch collection is our most recent addition to our image archive.
Fisch’s collection showcases sights around him during his youth in the 1980s, familiar landmarks in Greenwich Village, various buildings in the city, the Gay Pride Parade, and images from the attack and days following 9/11. Fisch grew an extensive collection, and one of the most interesting finds in the collection, in my opinion, is the unique aspects of buildings Fisch chose to highlight — especially the many “ghost signs” he captured around the city.
Ghost signs are interesting in many ways. They invoke a connection to the past, typically promoting products or businesses now gone, or at least no longer associated with the site on which the sign is located. They are fading works of commercial art made permanent by photographs like Robert Fisch. But with a little investigation, they can also help unlock real stories about the long-gone people and businesses of our neighborhoods and city.
The faded sign on the side of a block of tenements on 66th Street shows an advertisement on top for “omega oil” — a concoction which may or may not have any relationship to the Omega-3 fatty acids found in certain kinds of oils which we today believe imparts valuable health benefits. On the bottom of the sign, however, we can just about make out an advertisement for a product we would have a very different perspective upon today. It’s for a formula that promises to relieve insomnia and dyspepsia “Prepared by S. Liebmann’s Sons Brg Co, Brooklyn.” The promised solution is a Teutonic beverage, a concentrated drink of “Malt and Hops.”
In 1895, the Libemann’s Brewing Company brewed the Teutonic drink and advertised it for those recovering from illnesses, nursing mothers, those suffering from insomnia, and dyspepsia. The company was able to gain a celebrity endorsement from Jean De Reszke, a Polish tenor and opera singer who even performed by request for Queen Victoria.
The Libemann’s Brewing Company was undoubtedly kept in business during prohibition through prescription alcohol. And even though by 1917 the medical community had generally come to a consensus that alcohol had little to no medical benefits, an estimated 11 million prescriptions were written by doctors a year for alcohol throughout the 1920s. Faith in the effectiveness of alcohol had been dwindling, and prescriptions began to cease at the end of prohibition.
The Libemanns stayed in business as they continued brewing their Rheingold Bock Beer until the 1970s, eventually going under the name of Rheingold Brewing and even holding a “Miss Rheingold Contest” in the 1950s. But they were eventually driven out of business by the powerhouses of Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors.
This is just one window into our city’s past these pictures and signs can offer. Head to Robert Fisch’s collection to see more ghost signs, long-gone beloved restaurants, changed streetscapes, and other wonderful details of our neighborhoods.