Tuesday, August 23, 2016

New Deal Rum

Above: The Great Depression contributed to the destruction of the Virgin Islands' sugar and rum industry. So, in 1934, the New Deal's Public Works Administration (PWA) provided $1 million in seed money to start up the "Virgin Islands Company" (about $18 million in today's dollars). The Virgin Islands Company (VIC) provided much-needed employment on the island of St. Croix. The women above are working in the rum distillery of the VIC, 1941. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

   Above: A man working in the VIC's rum distillery, 1941. During its first few years of existence, the VIC virtually eliminated unemployment. However, drought in the late 1930s and shipping disturbances during World War II limited the VIC's economic contributions. After the war however, the VIC played a more prominent role in the Virgin Islands, providing loans, building infrastructure, promoting tourism, and more. For more information about the VIC, see the Living New Deal's summary here. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Above: The VIC produced three types of "Government House Rum" - White Label, Gold Label, and Dark Label. In the advertisement above, from the October 11, 1943 edition of Life magazine, we learn that White Label was good for making daiquiris, Gold Label was good for making Rum Collins, and Dark Label was good for making Planter's Punch. Image used for educational, non-commercial purposes.

Above: This (empty) 1937 mini-bottle is probably one of the few remaining bottles of Government House Rum. A few sources note that the artwork may have been designed by President Roosevelt (see here, for example). With respect to the rum itself, reviews were mixed. In 1948, attorney and famous amateur bartender David Embury wrote: "I have never yet tasted a good Virgin Islands rum, but Old St. Croix and Cruzan are probably the best I have tried and Government House the worst" (in Wayne Curtis's, And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, p. 181). On the other hand, an article in the Virgin Islands Daily News--titled "Government House Rum Is Popular In U.S."--reported that Government House was "making quite a hit on the liquor markets of the United States. In New York City it is the best seller of all rums" (November 15, 1937). Photo by Brent McKee.

Above: A closer view, showing "Virgin Islands Co." This White Label rum was made with molasses, and it was reported in 1938 that "Americans use a light type of rum for cocktail purposes during the summer months and a heavier type of rum, such as 'Government House' Rum Gold Label for winter drinks. The aged 'Government House' rum Gold Label can be used successfully in any cocktail preparation in the place of whiskey" ("Virgin Islands Company Puts Out New Rum," Virgin Islands Daily News, July 15, 1938). Photo by Brent McKee.

The story of the VIC is an interesting and forgotten piece of American history. And it's another example of how President Roosevelt and his fellow New Deal policymakers tried to address the needs of struggling Americans - in this case, jobless men and women in the Virgin Islands. Often they succeeded and sometimes they failed, but the important point is... they tried. Compare that to our policymakers today, many of whom twiddle their thumbs and look away as children drink lead, wild fires rage, Zika spreads, and college graduates suffocate under oppressive student loan debt.

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