U.S. Beer Tray History

Beer trays have been around for over 100 years. Two of the first companies to produce beer trays competed against one another in Coshocton, Ohio. Two companies, Tuscarora Advertising owned by J.F. Meek, and Standard Advertising founded by H.D. Beach produced a variety of advertising items. In the mid 1890's the companies perfected the process of applying lithographs to metal surfaces including trays.  The marks of these two companies would be seen near the bottom of trays for decades to come often with a copyright date offering a notion of the age of the tray.
These Miller trays feature the famous Miller girl on the moon logo. Each reflects the ideal of female beauty for its period.

Beer trays were one of many effective point-of-sale advertising pieces that were popular at the turn of the century. Brewers did not have the current mainstays of advertising - radio and television. During this period that vast majority of beer sales were made for consumption within the tavern. A lesser quantity was bottled for home consumption. This only served to increase the effectiveness of on-premise advertising. Other items such as signs, foam scrapers, mugs, and glasses also served to help promote beer while decorating the tavern.

Officially beer trays are designed to be used as serving trays. When the waiter or waitress brings the drinks, he or she will often place the brewers advertisment directly in front of the customer. Today's advertising dollars are directed towards the mass media. It is clear from the quality of early advertising pieces that point-of-sale advertising was deemed to offer a good return on investment. By contrast, a look around modern tavern will reveal some nice neon signs but very little in the way of other promotional items. Beer trays are practically non-existent. Signs tend to be made of plastic and more often than not seem to be frail.

Many trays displayed the local scenery including the pre-prohibition Coors tray that features the butte near the brewery in Golden, Colorado. The Sunset Select tray shows some of the mountainous terrain around the silver mining town of Wallace, Idaho. The tray at bottom left from Ruff Brewery of Quincy Illinois shows Indian Mound park along the Mississippi river. The final tray show a picture of Fort Wayne in Erie, Pennsylvania.

During prohibition breweries were prohibited from producing beer but were still able to produce near-beer. This was generally beer containing 1/2 of 1% alcohol by volume. This is about 10% of the alcohol content of a typical beer. The Falls City tray was produced by the Falls City Brewery of Louisville, Kentucky. It features a bottle of Falls City Special Brew - not to be confused with Falls City beer. There were several near beer trays produced during prohibition. Anheuser-Busch produced Bevo during prohibition while the Clausen Brewing Association of Seattle produced a product calls Mother's Malt.
Prohibition limited breweries to producing Near Beer and Near Beer Trays.

The Arrow Brewery of Baltimore, Maryland produced some interesting trays. The tray on the left features one of the oddest characters to ever appear on a beer tray. The tray celebrates the repeal of prohibition. The second tray features King Gambrinus and his court enjoyed a medieval kegger. The third tray is considerably less interesting but more typical.
The Arrow tray at the bottom features one of the strangest characters ever to grace a beer tray.

Back in the pre-prohibition days every small city and many larger towns had their own brewery. These building were often the most prominent structure in the city. They were typically taller than other buildings of the day to take advantage of gravity during the brewing process. Typically the brewing kettles would be located highest, which the fermenting tanks and aging tanks located at lower levels. These sturdy building were ornately decorated and the often the pride of the town. For this reason many beer trays feature a picture of the brewery itself. The picture will often depict the typical modes of transportation of the day. Horse drawn beer wagon pulled by Clydesdales and other draught horses are typically featured. Often steam engines are pictured bringing the necessary loads of grains and delivering the finished product. The trays pictured below include the Dubois tray from Dubois, PA which produced their own Budweiser brand of beer. The Star Brewery of Vancouver, Washington dates back to the 1800's. The tray probably dates from around 1915. The brewery was later renamed the Interstate Brewery in 1939, the Lucky Brewery in 1950, General Brewery in the 1970's before it was closed in 1985. The Stegmaier tray from Wilkes-Barre, PA and the Doegler tray from Newark, NJ both date from around 1940.
Early trays proudly displayed the breweries.

There was no end to the variety of tray designs. Two of the trays below use monks to sell their products. Monks were long famous for brewing beer in their abbies in Europe.
A surprisingly large number of trays feature beer drinking monks. The Holenadel tray at left features a group of monks teaching a small dog to smoke a cigar.

The Fredericks Brewery of Chicago produced this interesting tray in the late 1930's. It reflected the old German influence by displaying an old German Shepard. Companies often played up their German heritage because of the long-standing reputation of German beers. With the onset of World War II they tried to play down their German connection. A large number of breweries had a more patriotic theme such as this the tray from the Scheidt brewery of Norristown, Pennsylvania.

Many brewers such as Fredreicks extolled their German heritage. By contrast, the Scheidt brewery saluted George Washington.

Animals have always been featured on trays. The trays below include Horse Head beer from . The Hensler Beer tray comes from the brewery of the same name from Newark, New Jersey. The tray at left on the second row below is from the Spokane Malting and Brewing Company of Spokane, Washington. This a preprohibition tray dating from a period before 1920. This is an example of a stock tray. The advertising companies sold trays of the same design to numerous breweries. The brewery's name is stenciled onto the tray in a separate operation. It is faintly visible at the upper left of the tray.
Other breweries pictured favorite animals.

Many trays prominently featured their product in bottles.

Then as now, breweries try to sell their products through the use of attractive women. While some modern brewers use the Swedish Bikini team, turn-of-the-century breweries featured attractive turn-of-the-century women. There are two trays pictured from the Christian Feiganspan Brewery of Newark, New Jersey. The tray at the left features just such a woman. It was issued in the early 1900's. The tray beside it contains a reproduction issued by the Doebler Brewery of Albany, New York. It features the same woman in the same Asti painting but was issued nearly 50 years later. The first can on the bottom row was distributed by the Buffalo Brewery of Sacramento, California. The last tray of the series was issued by Schlitz to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Actually at the time the Schlitz brewery was owned by the Strohs Brewery. Since then the Strohs brewery has been sold off to Miller and Pabst. Fifty years ago Schlitz was the number one seller in America.
Many trays prominently featured the product.

Many trays prominently featured the product.

Some trays just emphasize the name of the brewer.

Other trays seek to sell their product through interesting characters.

The trays below include a C
Other trays reminisce about the good old days.