Before Prohibition, the liquor trade was a popular occupation among German Jewish immigrants in Pittsburgh. The president and first vice president of the national Wholesale Liquor Dealers’ Association were both members of Rodef Shalom Congregation, and several early families of the synagogue had ties to the trade, according to research from Rodef Shalom archivist Martha Berg. Herman Obernauer was also a member of Rodef Shalom. Born in the Kingdom of Württemberg, in southern Germany, in January 1856, Obernauer spent his late teens and early twenties traveling throughout Europe as a salesman. He came to the U.S. in 1880 and settled in Pittsburgh, where he worked as a bookkeeper before opening a wholesale liquor operation on Fifth Avenue.
In the four decades before the Eighteenth Amendment banned the sale of alcoholic beverages, in 1920, at least fifteen liquor wholesalers or retailers operated on Fifth Avenue in Uptown. Herman Obernauer & Co. spent at least eight years at the “old” 395 Fifth. It was a long, thin building with “all the requisite facilities for conducting the business on a large scale,” according an 1890 profile of the operation. “An immense stock of pure wines and liquors, including fine old brandies, gins, etc., and splendid Bourbon, Monongahela and Maryland whiskies of all the leading brands is kept on sale, and a heavy trade with Pittsburgh, Allegheny and all the surrounding sections of the country is carried on.”
It was a contentious time for the liquor business in Pennsylvania. The temperance movement continually threatened the trade, and a pair of laws establishing the state liquor license program — the Brooks Law in 1887 and the Wholesale Act in 1891 — made it expensive to get into business; the annual fee in Pittsburgh was $1,100 in the early 1900s, nearly $25,000 in today’s dollars. The laws also let the public comment on liquor licenses. In 1893, someone asked the court to revoke Obernauer’s license because one of his drivers had been caught selling liquor. The laws at the time restricted wholesalers to selling only in large quantities. Obernauer said the deed went down without his permission, and said he had fired the enterprising driver.
In 1892, Herman Obernauer & Co. moved to 400 Fifth (now 1400 Fifth), at the corner of Fifth and Stevenson. Obernauer made the most of the three-story building and its prominent corner lot by painting giant bottles on the exterior advertising products such as Berthana Medicated Wine, Belle of Pittsburg Whiskey and H.O. Brown Gin, the latter two being patented products from the distillery he operated. Pedestrians passing by the store could peer through two big windows to see displays of bottles stacked four-high.
A lifelong Democrat, Obernauer was a presidential elector on four occasions: for the moderate anti-Prohibitionist Woodrow Wilson, for James M. Cox in 1920, for the ardent anti-Prohibitionist Al Smith in 1928 and for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.
Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall for the liquor trade, Obernauer retired from the wholesaler liquor business in 1915, at the age of 59. He sold the business to a Philip Braun, who operated a liquor business out of the building until at least 1918. For many years, the building housed the Admiral Restaurant. Today it is Aces & Deuces Lounge.
After getting out of liquor, Obernauer used his connections as a director at Merchants’ Savings and Trust Co., a bank located five buildings up from his store, to make the transition into real estate, which sustained him until his death in 1947, at age 91. But before retiring, he dabbled in inventions. Along with a fellow B’nai B’rith member from McKees Rocks, Obernauer patented a design for a “foldable structure that can be advantageously used by campers, tourists and others as stool, table or other support.”
Later in life, as a widower, Obernauer lived in the Arlington Apartments at Centre Avenue and S. Aiken along with his son Harold, a prominent lawyer and an active figure among local Jewish philanthropic organizations. All told, Obernauer had three children.