February 6, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Charles Welch

As a minister with deep theological beliefs and an ardent prohibitionist it always seemed to Dr. Thomas Welch that the use of wine as a sacrament was a heretical contradiction. One Sunday in 1869 a visiting minister to the Welch family home in Vineland, New Jersey was "led astray" by the communion wine. Welch vowed to develop a non-alcoholic fruit juice that could be used as a communion wine.

Welch began cooking grapes and straining them through cloth bags. He quickly immersed the remaining liquid into boiling water. It worked. Dr. Welch's Unfermented Wine would surely end the great contradiction of the ecumenical world. Proudly Welch began taking his non-alcoholic wine to local pastors. But he found that churchmen demanded only wine. By 1873, after four years of increasing futility, he abandoned plans to sell his grape juice.

Welch had an earnest desire to solve an important problem for his church and he did. And no one cared. A graduate of Syracuse Medical College, he returned full-time to the practice of dentistry. In his 800-word Autobiography Thomas Welch never even mentioned the achievement.

In 1872 his 20-year old son Charles left home to begin a dental career in Washington DC but grape juice flowed through his veins. In 1875 he returned to Vineland to revitalize the idea of commercial grape juice. His disillusioned father favored dentistry over juice so young Charles compromised and split his time with his dental practice in Washington and his fledgling grape juice business in Vineland.

In 1881 Thomas and Charles operated Welch's Dental Supply Company in Philadelphia while Charles sold an occasional gallon of grape juice. After returning to Vineland in 1886 the balance of Charles' activities began to tilt towards his fruit juice over dentistry. A new brick factory was constructed.

It was not an age of advertising and bold newspaper ads were a novelty. But Charles Welch had no choice; he had to educate the public about the uses for his new grape juice. FOR THE SACRAMENT AND FOR MEDICINAL USE Welch's headlines screamed.

Finally in 1893, 24 years after the first grape juice dripped through his father's cotton cloths, Charles Welch left dentistry and plunged into the grape juice business full time. He travelled to Chicago and gave away samples of "Welch's Grape Juice" from his booth at the Columbian Exposition.

His success at the Exposition convinced Welch to seek areas that attracted crowds. The Welch's stand became a staple of the Atlantic City boardwalk, America’s premier seaside resort at the time. He exhibited at medical and drug conventions. The Welch Palace dispensing pavilion at the San Francisco Exposition in 1912 was a big hit.

Welch was tireless in his promotion of his new drink. Like many beverages of the day Welch touted the medicinal benefits of his grape juice. "Juice makes rich red blood," claimed his ads. Welch always retained the family prohibitionist zeal for the non-alcoholic wine and he found several converts.

William Jennings Bryan, four-time loser for the Presidency and long-time teetotaler, served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. He disliked the tradition of serving alcohol to his guests and used Welch's juice instead. It became known as Grape Juice Diplomacy. At the same time Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels banned alcohol on ships and cartoonists dubbed his charges the "Grape Juice Navy."

By this time Welch had relocated his business to the wine-growing regions of New York. Black Rot disease decimated the Vineland grape vines in 1895 forcing the migration to Westfield, New York. His first year in Westfield Welch pressed 288 tons of Concord grapes to bottle 50,000 gallons of juice. In 1909 production reached one million gallons a year. Welch tried new products in 1912 and found success with jams and jellies. Others, like tomato juice and ketchup, failed.

Welch, still an ardent Prohibitionist, campaigned for governor of New York on the Dry Ticket in 1916. He died in 1926, in the midst of Prohibition, still in full authority of the company he founded on his father's non-alcoholic beverage.

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