Since the late 19th century, beer trays featuring company advertisements have been produced for both home and public use. The earliest printed beer trays were created by the Tuscarora Advertising Company of Coshocton, Ohio, around 1895. Breweries could either commission a unique design or use one of Tuscarora’s stock images tailored to include their logo, bottle design, and other specific details. In direct competition with Tuscarora was the Standard Advertising Company, also of Coshocton, which quickly began printing its own lithographed tin trays. Both of these manufacturers identified their work with their name and a copyright date along the tray's lower rim.
Though collected today for their visual appeal and branding (Budweiser, Miller, Blatz, and Pabst are just a few of the major beer brands with devoted followers), beer trays were designed as tools to carry beer bottles and glasses from bar to table. The most common trays were circular with a 12-to-13 inch diameter, although oval and rectangular trays were also produced. While the majority were manufactured from lithographed tin, others were created from solid brass or decorated with porcelain enamel.
The smallest beer trays are known as “tip” trays, although they were more likely used as coasters or ashtrays. Oversized trays, called “chargers,” were generally produced as decorative wall pieces and were not meant for day-to-day use.
While Prohibition was in effect, breweries stayed in business by focusing on colas, mineral water, or alcoholic drinks with less than half of 1% alcohol by volume. These so-called “near beers” were meant to taste and resemble beer but without its detrimental physical and mental effects. Thus, businesses continued to sell beer trays, though their advertising was modified to feature these updated products, like the Prohibition-era Falls City Ice & Beverage Co. trays, which show a chilled bottle of “Falls City Special Brew.”
During the early 20th century, many small communities had their own breweries, which were often housed in the largest, most impressive structures in town. Beer trays frequently featured images of these local brewers, with forgotten names like Stegmaier Brewing, Peter Doelger Beer & Ale, or the I. Leisy Brewing Co. Besides brewery-specific imagery, other popular tray graphics included nature scenes, animal mascots, and of course shapely females. Quirkier trays emphasized a company’s authentic German roots, showed exciting scenes of the Wild West, or simply used comedic cartoons to sell their frosty beverages.
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- Red Fox Chapter
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