Collecting a Liquid Library

By Cara Caputo, WMAPC Class 0f 2021

You might not be surprised to see a book on George Washington sitting on a library shelf, but you’d soon realize that the contents of Esprit de Washington hold liquid spirits rather than tales of the figure’s military and political feats. With its paper covers and imitation leather spine, this flask would have easily blended in with a shelf of books, but once removed, its true function as a flask would have been immediately evident. Displayed in Winterthur’s Albany Room, this flask is not meant to deceive visitors but instead invites them to consider the purpose of creating a flask in the shape of a book and the use of Washington as the book’s subject.

Glass flask covered with orange paper featuring a print of George Washington, the title “Washington,” and a poem in French.

“Front Cover” of the Flask. The glass flask is formed in the shape of a book and covered with paper to create the front and back covers of a book on George Washington. Photo by Author.

Side of book flask meant to look like the spine of a book with red leather and gilt decorations. Reads, “Esprit de Washington” and “Courage” and features gold lamp motifs.

“Spine” of Book Flask made of paper and meant to imitate red Morocco leather binding. Photo by Author.

One may assume from the front cover that this flask was made for an American audience, but upon closer inspection, the flask’s text, including a poem praising Washington, is written in French rather than English. Displayed prominently on the back of the object is the maker of this object: Fremy Freres Bottrel et Cie (Fremy Brothers), a French distillery that primarily produced fruit liquors and whiskey. While most of the paper has deteriorated, one can see a 19th-century still in the print on the object’s “back cover,” which is likely meant to depict a man working in the Fremy Brother’s distillery.

In 1822, the Fremy Brothers were issued a “five-year patent for glass bottles of various sizes, having the shape of a book, and intended to contain liqueurs.” A physical representation of this patent is visible as the text on the “back cover” of the flask reads in French, “By Patent of Invention and Improvement.” This text also suggests that the flask was made no earlier than 1822.

Back of glass flask covered with orange paper to imitate the back cover of a book. Text reads the name of the maker (Fremy Brothers) and a deteriorated print of a man working in a distillery.

“Back Cover” of Book Flask featuring the maker’s name, a print of a distillery, and text indicating that the design of this object is patented. Photo by author.

The Fremy Brothers produced several book flasks with different covers and titles, encouraging consumers to collect them all until they acquired a complete flask library. The creation of this “liquid library” would have ultimately served to increase the Fremy Brothers’ liquor sales as each flask is branded with the company name and encourages customers to fill their flasks. Other examples of book flasks by the Fremy Brothers provide insight into the “ideal French library.” The subjects of these “books” range from the mythical to political as the series includes biographies of historical figures, such as Rousseau and Voltaire, and famous stories, including “Love and Psyche.”

Back of glass flask covered with brown paper to imitate the back cover of a back with a print of Rousseau in the center; Brown and Black imitation leather made to look like the spine of a book with gold gilt decoration and the text, “Esprit de Rousseau” and “Le Contrat Social.”

Spine and Back Cover of Book Flask made by Fremy Brothers made to imitate a copy of the Social Contract by J.J. Rosseau. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Angers.

While a book on an American icon, such as George Washington, may seem out of place in a French library, the idolization of early American leaders was a prominent practice in 19th-century France. The poem on the front cover praises Washington for his role in leading America to independence and he was strongly associated with liberty, one of France’s central ideals. The Fremy Brothers also made a book flask featuring Benjamin Franklin, further asserting that stories of America’s founding fathers and their association with independence and liberty held a prominent place in the canon of nineteenth-century French literature.

Glass flask covered with pink and red paper to imitate the front cover and spine of a book and features a print of Benjamin on the front, the title, “Franklin,” and a poem in French about Benjamin Franklin.

Book Flask by the Fremy Brothers entitled, “Esprit de Franklin.” Photo Courtesy of the Rare Books Forum.

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