Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A History of the Sherry Cobbler (Early 20th Century)

Recently, I posted A History of the Sherry Cobbler (19th Century), exploring the origins and early history of this delicious cocktail. Now, I'm extending that exploration of the Cobbler into the 20th century. As the century began, Sherry Cobblers were still popular but that popularity would wane over the years, and as I said before, it's time for a comeback.

As the new century began, The Times (D.C.), January 20, 1901, published an article, Origin of Mixed Drinks, presenting origin tales for a number of cocktails, such as the Mint Julep, and related terms, such as "cocktail" (said to be of Mexican origin). There was also mention of the origin the “Cobbler.” It stated, “Very many years ago an ingenious shoemaker devised a warm drink compounded out of beer, spirits, sugar, and spice. This he called ‘cobblers’ punch,’ and the concoction becoming widely known and very popular, it was, in due time, carried into this country. Here, however, it was adapted more especially for warm weather in which form it was composed of wine, sugar, lemon, and powdered ice, imbibed through a straw. There are various kinds of ‘cobblers,’ but a ‘sherry cobbler’ is most frequently called for.”

The St. Joseph Gazette-Herald (MO), July 5, 1901, noted the popularity of Sherry Cobbler, especially during the summer. "There is a great demand for beverages of a light order and bartenders claim it is hard to say whether mint-juleps, sherry cobblers, lemon sours, or plain lemonade is the favorite." The article continued, "Light wines are also quite popular with sherry cobblers at the head of the list. The bulk of this liquid is simply plain water with plenty of ice and a few spoons of sherry floating on the surface." This seems to have been a much milder version, with far less Sherry, of the traditional Sherry Cobbler.

President Grover Cleveland enjoyed Sherry Cobblers. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), October 27, 1901, published an article by W.T. Sinclair, Steward for four U.S. Presidents, discussing some of the foods and drinks that were prepared for those Presidents. It was mentioned that Richard Watson Gilder, a poet and newspaper editor, was a great friend of President Cleveland and would always make him Sherry Cobblers when he visited. The recipe for his Cobbler is presented above, and that recipe would be reprinted in numerous other newspapers around this time period. For example, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser (HI), June 20, 1909, stated, “President Cleveland was notably fond of sherry cobbler, the recipe for which he received from a friend.”

Sherry Cobblers beginning to wane in popularity? The Augusta Chronicle (GA), June 8, 1902, noted that "Mixed drinks have nearly gone out of fashion in New York. Visiting Englishmen, indeed, still call for the gin sling, the brandy smash, and the sherry cobbler,...but the every-day New Yorker seldom orders any such refreshment save for spectacular effect."

In addition, the Duluth News-Tribune (MN), July 6, 1902, had an article about a Philadelphia bartender who recently had a customer ask for a Sherry Cobbler. The bartender stated, "I don't know when I've had a call for a sherry cobbler before. I've almost forgotten how to make one. You see, we don't have the call for fancy drinks that we used to have even in warm weather. The high-ball, which is just whiskey and seltzer with a lump of ice, seems to have driven the mixed drinks to the wall."

Cobbler recipe. The Augusta Chronicle (GA), August 25, 1904, in an article on simple cooling drinks provided some instructions to make a Sherry Cobbler. "Cobblers are capital summer drinks and easy to make if one has a shaker or 'medlar.' Take a sherry cobbler, for instance. Put a tablespoonful of sugar into a glass, a slice of orange and a few bits of pineapple. Shaved ice is next added to nearly fill the glass, after which sherry--not too much--and shake thoroughly. Ornament the top with a cherry or berry and drink through a straw."

The New York Daily Tribune (NY), August 4, 1907, discussed some of the theaters in New York, including Niblo's Gardens, which had a theater and garden. In the garden, "one could eat a dish of ice cream or sip a sherry cobbler in luxurious shade,.."

Another recipe was provided in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser (HI), May 9, 1909, in an article titled, Some Dangerous Punches. The recipe was “California Sherry Cobbler—Three tablespoonfuls of sugar, one pony pineapple syrup, fill glass with shaved ice, add one and three-eighths wineglass California sherry wine, then stir well; dash with port wine, serve with straws in large glass, and trim with California grapes.” This is a Cobbler variation, using such extra ingredients as pineapple syrup and Port wine.

There was an intriguing comment in the Oregonian (OR), May 29, 1910, which printed a fictional interview with Halley’s Comet, which has made its appearance in 1910, and its last appearance had been in 1835. “I might state that the same state of affairs prevailed when I was here back in 1835. The brandy smash and the sherry cobbler have been succeeded by the Thomas Collins and the Mame Taylor, by the cocktail and the highball,..” This passage indicated that Sherry Cobbler existed at least as far back as 1835, which certainly is a reasonable statement.

Sherry cobblers continue to wane. The Bennington Evening Banner (VT), June 8, 1909, mentioned that "Lemonade has almost ceased to be drunk as a beverage....The once much honored sherry cobbler has gone the same way, only more so."

The Calumet News (MI), July 8, 1911, published a recipe for Sherry Cobbler, which is pictured above. The fruit needed included pineapple, orange and lemon.

More origin tales. The Pittsburgh Daily Post (PA), September 12, 1911, published an interesting article, There Are Various Kinds of Cobbles, discussing the various uses and origins of that term. It stated, “A cobble means a lump. That is why some potatoes are known as cobbles. They are simply lumps. Up in Maine farmers plant anything that looks like a cobblestone and a cobble spud is grown. It cooked hard for a week the cobbles taste like real potatoes.” As for the Sherry Cobbler itself, the article noted, “The best and most popular cobbler is the sherry cobbler. It is made of sherry wine and cobblestone juice and is absorbed through a straw.” Unfortunately, there wasn't a definition of "cobblestone juice" or any indication of what it might mean.

Origin tales continued. The Boston Herald (MA), April 12, 1913, stated, “Then there is cobbler’s punch, warm ale, thickened, sweetened and mixed with spirits. Some say that ‘cobbler’ in ‘sherry cobbler’ is short for ‘cobbler’s punch’ and that it patches up the drinkers. We doubt this derivation.” It seems that no one actually knows the reason why it is known as "Cobbler" though there are plenty of theories.

Sherry Cobblers during the winter? The Evening Star (D.C.), January 11, 1914, ran an article about Winter Beverages, including recipes for drinks such as Temperance Julep, Cocoa Eggnog, Egg Milk Shake, Banana Cup, Victoria Punch, Ginger Ale Mint Punch, Pineapple Punch, and Strawberry Cocktail. Strangely, the Sherry Cobbler was also included, with the same basic recipe as the one pictured above from the Calumet News. Most commonly, the Sherry Cobbler has long been considered a refreshing drink for hot weather and this was the first time I'd seen it recommended as a winter drink.

Another Cobbler recipe. The Sun and New York Press, August 16, 1914, presented a summer beverage recipe for the Sherry Cobbler. "Place into each tumbler a wineglass of sherry, a tablespoon of Curacoa, a teaspoonful of raspberry syrup, a teaspoonful of sugar, and a strip of thinly pared orange peel. Full up each tumbler with finely crushed ice and decorate the top with a few raspberries. Serve with straws." I suspect the term "Curacoa" was a misspelling of "Curaçao," the liqueur.

The Boston Herald (MA), September 10, 1914, provided some information about an intriguing boo, The Upper Ten Thousand: Sketches of America Society By a New Yorker (1852) by Charles Astor Bristed. The article discussed the wealthy Harry Masters, who apparently had little to do but spend money. It also noted, "When Masters showed his guest how to make a sherry cobbler, he did not take Amontillado or Manzanilla. Either would have made the cobbler look too weak. The sherry was dark in color and high in flavor. The favorite sherry for ordinary drinking in those days was Manzanilla."

In The Upper Ten Thousand itself, there are multiple mentions of the Sherry Cobbler. For example, at one point, Masters stated, "To be properly appreciated it requires a hot day,..." Then, there was a description of his tools and ingredients that he used to make a Cobbler. "Four large tumblers, two wine-glasses, a couple of lemons, ditto of knives, a decanter of sherry (not Manzanilla, but dark in colour and high in flavour), a saucer of powdered sugar, and another of finely-pounded ice, were paraded on the table, and among them sat Masters, on the table also, examine a bundle of fresh straws."

Masters then gave a lesson to his guests in how to make the Sherry Cobbler, starting with the lemon peel, stating "...pare off the rind very carefully, taking only the yellow, and not cutting into the white at all." He continued, "Sometimes you will see slices of lemon put into a cobbler--nothing can be more destructive; avoid everything but the yellow peel. If you will have something more, put in a slice or orange or pineapple, or a few strawberries."

He even gave advice on how fast to drink the cocktail. "Now don't drink it too fast. You should take a quarter of an hour to each glass. Three glasses a piece will be enough, and we have an hour before us."

Can Sherry Cobblers cure malaria?

The Rutland Daily Herald (VT), August 26, 1913, published an article noting that the Anderson Auction Company would seen offer up for sale the collection of John Boyd Thacher, a former mayor of Albany, New York who also wrote several books on the early history of the U.S. He collected numerous famous autographs and his collection was considered one of the most valuable in the country. The article also mentions many specific, rare autographs in the collection.

One of the letters in Thacher's collection was written by Dolly Madison, the wife of President James Madison. The Blackwell Daily News (OK), October 28, 1914, reported on the alleged circumstances surrounding this letter. It stated that Dolly had caught malaria from the Potomac flats and the Presidential physician prescribed quinine as the remedy. However, Mrs. Gouverneur Morris sent Dolly a Sherry Cobbler, recommending she try it as a substitute for the quinine. Dolly did so, and interestingly recovered. The letter, which sold at auction for $23, was a thank you from Dolly to Mrs. Morris, certifying to the positive effect of the cobbler.

This was supported in a similar article in the Brooklyn Citizen (NY), November 1, 1914. The Messenger & Intelligencer, December 10, 1914, also mentioned this matter, stating, “All this explains why Mrs. Madison was cured of malaria by a sherry cobbler.” The Chattanooga Daily Times (TN), January 6, 1915, also repeated much of the information, noting the buyer of the letter H.C. Hines. In American Book Prices Current (Volume Xxi, 1915) by Victor Hugo Paltsits, it was mentioned that this autographed letter was undated.

As background, we know that James Madison was the President from 1809-1817. Gouverneur Morris was one of the Founding Fathers, served in the Senate, and was a chairman of the Erie Canal Commission. His wife was Anne (Nancy) Cary Randolph Morris. They first met President Madison and Dolly when they visited the White House in December 1811. Gouverneur Morris died in November 6, 1816, and his wife never remarried.

I sought out a copy of Dolly's letter to Mrs. Morris, to confirm what was stated in these newspapers. The Dolley Madison Digital Edition claims to be "the first-ever complete edition of all of her known correspondence" and "As of May 2020 it is complete through 1849...." On this site, there was but a single letter from Dolly to Mrs. Morris, allegedly dated May 22, 1848. The letter is as follows:

"My very dear Mrs. Morris.
The gift from your hands is more precious than I can express—bearing in your good wishes for me healing on its wings—for these, as well as the beautiful shawl, I thank you. And—I must say that the countenance of your Husband, beaming with health & kindness, was delightful to me, on Annie’s lively eveg.
Constant affection

If this letter referred to the Sherry Cobbler, it was very vague, referring to it only as a "gift." What stood out to me though was the date of this letter. The Cobbler letter was supposed to be undated, which would mean this letter wasn't it. However, the date on this letter cannot be correct. First, Mrs. Morris died in 1837, so Dolly wouldn't have sent her a letter in 1848. Second, her husband died in 1816, and she never remarried, so the letter had to have been much earlier than 1848, sometime likely during 1812-1816. The 1848 date is clearly an error, and we can only speculate as to how that occurred. Did someone read a date incorrectly? Was the date later added by one of the owners of the letter? Did another letter exist which this archive never found?

If the several newspaper references concerning the Dolly Madison letter sold from the Thacher collection were accurate, it would push back our known history of the Sherry Cobbler from the 1830s to the latter half of the 1810s. Based on our knowledge of the Thacher collection, it seems that there was no question of the authenticity of the items in that collection. So, the Dolly letter sold was most probably authentic. However, what were the actual contents of that letter? Did the newspapers create a fictional story around the contents of that letter? If so, why did they do so?

I haven't been able to confirm anything about the letter and the Sherry cobbler malaria cure in any other sources. That certainly raises the question about the credibility of the newspaper story about Cobbler as a malaria cure. There is an auction catalog detailing the Thacher collection however, it isn't readily available unless you want to spend several hundred dollars. The catalog would present more information about the letter, but it's unclear whether there would be a photograph showing the contents of the letter.

For now, this entire matter is intriguing, yet more evidence is needed to determine the truth behind all of it.

The popularity of Sherry Cobbler continued to wane. The Boston Globe (MA), October 19, 1919, detailed the life of George Forbes, 71 years old, who had been a bartender for 44 years at the American House.  George stated, “Sherry Cobblers have been called for but little of late years, yet it used to be a favorite beverage. Catawba Cobblers also were often called for, but lately I have seldom seen the wine mentioned, even on wine lists.

Over the next few decades, references to the Sherry Cobbler diminished greatly, and most of the references were simply scattered recipes for the Cobbler. It no longer was one of the most popular drinks, and had been mostly relegated to an interesting drink of the past. In recent years, there has been some limited interest in bringing back Sherry Cobblers, but more is needed, especially as summer approaches. It's a delicious and refreshing cocktail, and relatively simple to prepare. Why not try a Sherry Cobbler, and share it with family and friends, this summer?

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