Featured Stein: January 2010

~ A Schnitzelbank Stein ~
by  Stewart Eastman

This musical Schnitzelbank stein is a ¼ liter German stein with a musical works by the Swiss musical device company Thorens. It is part of my extensive collection of Schnitzelbank steins and related items. There can be few items that celebrate song, beer, and decorative art better than a musical beer stein that depicts and plays a tune. Yet this song, famous and long-lived as it is, always raises questions. ( If you do not hear the song playing in the background, turn up the volume on your speakers.)
One of the first questions that comes up is “Is it really a German song?” It doesn't do any good to ask a German, because they usually won't know or will give a wrong answer. The answer is yes. The first published version was printed about 1830 in Karlsruhe and various later versions were also printed in Germany. Then and now the song and its many variants and cousins seem based in the southwestern-most part of Germany and across the border into Switzerland. Today these are mostly thought of as either a children's song or adult Carnival songs depending upon the version. But the Schnitzelbank did not stay there, it came to America with German immigrants in the mid-19th century. Two places where the song particularly took hold were among the Pennsylvania Dutch and the large German community in Buffalo, New York. Around 1893, Lizzie Wilson, a singer and comedienne from Buffalo first sang the Schnitzelbank song at Tony Pastor's in New York City, the original home of Vaudeville. She became known as “the Schnitzelbank Girl” and performed her German act around the country for years, even returning for old timer nights in the 1930's. Meanwhile the song became popular, other vaudeville performers including the Marx brothers and Alfonse and Gaston performed it. Various versions were published and recorded on all sorts of media, including piano rolls, Edison cylinders, and many 78's. After Prohibition, the charts were used as advertising by breweries and German restaurants (see example below). The song is popular to this day at German heritage events and Oktoberfests throughout the US and Canada.
Another common question is “Just what is a Schnitzelbank anyway?” Again, it doesn't do any good to ask a German because they usually won't know or will give a wrong answer. The problem is that the correct English translation is a “Shaving horse” and if you ask an American what a shaving horse is most of them won't know either. But, when the song was becoming popular many people had one in their barn. The schnitzelbank is a very handy, easy to construct and use woodworking device that combines a place to sit with a foot operated vise. It is especially good for making and repairing barrel staves. You can see them being used today by woodworkers at heritage festivals and historic villages around the country.
The other questions are usually about what the items are in the song. Well, the items are each depicted in a picture on the singing chart, or on the stein in this case. So what you see is what the words are. A few can use further explanation. An Ochsenblas is depicted as an ox bladder (balloon), but it actually means ox blast, or flatulence. A “Schnickelfritz” is 19th century slang meaning roughly “little rascal”. The Tannenbaum is a fir tree, not specifically a Christmas tree. The “Gefaehrliches Ding” depicted by a dragon is a “dangerous thing”.

If you have not seen the Schnitzelbank performed you should try to do so. There is a leader who sings and points to the items on the chart, while everyone else sings along as best they can. It is best appreciated with lots of beer; but, kids like it too. If you have a Schnitzelbank stein, you can sing along without being near enough to read the chart! 
This chart was given out by the Falstaff Brewing Corporation circa 1953.
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