|By Larry LeMasters
During the late 1800s through the turn of the 20th century, when whiskey was not regulated as strictly as it is today, many grocery store owners found distilling and selling whiskey to be far more profitable than stocking and selling groceries. One such grocer was Mathew Quinn (M. Quinn Company) of Kansas City, Mo.
Quinn, just before closing his business in 1918, stated, “We have given proof that this house is a ’Faithful Servitor of the People.’” “This house” was Quinn’s mail order grocery business and what he was serving the people, along with a good amount of groceries, was a wide range of whiskey and wines. In fact, Quinn advertised his company as the “Largest Mail Order Grocer and Liquor Merchant in the West.”
Quinn learned the grocery business in Kansas City, Kan., but in 1881, Kansas enacted a statewide ban on alcohol sales, so Quinn moved to Kansas City, Mo., where he sought wealth, selling whiskey. He opened his first grocery store at 549 Main Street and quickly built up his liquor sales. Quinn advertised his liquor department extensively, describing it as “the most complete and attractive in Kansas City.”
In 1886, Quinn and Martin Myers pooled their meager resources and opened a store front at 129 North James Street in Kansas City. In 1888 Myers sold out to Quinn and used the money he earned to open a competing store in the next block of James Street.
Over time, Quinn became one of the largest wholesale and retail groceries in Kansas City, buying “train carloads of flour, meat, and washing detergents.” He repackaged grocery items into his own boxes, such as “M. Quinn’s Laundry Soap.” But no matter how large the sale of grocery items proved, sale of liquor was always larger.
As the Temperance Movement forced more and more cities, towns, and states to “go dry,” Quinn expanded his mail order whiskey business so that no one had to be without a drink.
In an effort to have the largest mail order whiskey business in the Midwest, Quinn continually added whiskey brands to his inventory, including Four Roses, VBP (Very Best Procurable), Clarke’s Pure Rye, Sunny Brook, and his own branded label “Quinn’s Quality Quantity” or QQQ as he called it. QQQ proved to be Quinn’s best selling rye whiskey since he offered it for just $1 a quart in distinctive ceramic jugs.
Today, collectors search for Quinn’s jugs with almost as much zeal as men purchased his QQQ. Quinn packaged his brand in ceramic jugs that were shaped like canteens. Offered in several sizes and earthy shades, ranging from brick red to chocolate brown, these jugs were decorated with Quinn’s name and a triangle that encased “Quinn’s Quality Quantity.”
While Quinn sold liquor in many different containers, including some other ceramic jugs with his name and logo, it is his canteen jugs and “QQQ” shot glasses that 21st century collectors admire.
By 1916, the proverbial writing was on the wall for mail order liquor sales, but Quinn kept advertising. In his 1916-17 liquor catalog, he explained how he was able to offer liquor and grocery items at lower prices than his competitors, “Of course we buy in carload lots. Of course we pay spot cash; we don’t even wait the customary twenty to thirty days, which enables us to go into the market and buy the same high class goods for less money than any retail store can purchase them.” And, of course, the implication was clear — we pass on the savings to you, our loyal customers!
Just when it seemed that Quinn might become the world’s largest mail order liquor business, the United States Congress passed the 1913 Webb-Kenyon Act that banned all mail order sales of liquor into “dry” areas of the country. This bill effectively dried up Quinn’s liquor sales, and after struggling for a couple of years, in 1918 he shut his store’s doors forever.
Quinn sold groceries and liquor for almost 30 years, and he boasted, when he was closing his store, “of never having one complaint or one order returned.” During all my years in business, he added, “Not one man, woman, or child has ever lost a penny by dealing with me.”
Following on the collapse of their father’s liquor empire, Quinn’s two sons, Vincent and Ross, opened the Quinn Candy Company of Kansas City. Rumors prevail that the two brothers continued to sell QQQ from their confectionary until Prohibition became the law in 1920.
Today, collectors feel certain that by buying, collecting, and selling QQQ ceramic jugs, they, too, will never lose a penny since these historic and whimsical whiskey jugs sell as hotly today as their contents did 100 years ago.