Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Dr. Gale exposes Pabst's false claim of winning a Blue Ribbon (or Gold Medal) at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

It is so rare to change any inaccurate historical account. Still, through my research and perseverance, the Pabst Mansion website changed its claim about what Pabst Brewing Company actually won at the 1893 World's Fair. History has been accurately restored. 
Pabst Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, claimed, on their websites, to have won their Blue Ribbon, then claimed they won a gold medal at the 1893 Chicago's World Columbian Exposition, and that's how their "Best Select" beer (named for the founder of the brewery, Jacob Best) got its name changed to "Pabst Blue Ribbon" after the World's Fair was over.

Pabst Brewing Company won ribbons and awards at many previous beer competitions at home and abroad but not at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

Starting in 1882, Pabst had blue silk ribbons tied around the neck of each bottle as a marketing ploy to make "Best Select" beer bottles stand out in Taverns, Saloons, and Pubs. Considering all the awards Best Select beer won up to that point, they never won a literal "Blue Ribbon." The company said the first Blue Ribbon came from the 1893 World's Fair.
The World's Fair organizers judged all contests a little differently than had been judged in previous world fairs. Instead of competing directly against exhibitors in the same categories, each contest was evaluated against a list of criteria representing a standard of excellence for that category.

Regarding the beer brewers, judges were instructed to score each brew on purity, color, and flavor. Then, assign a score between 0 and 100 within each category. All beers that scored 80% or higher would be awarded a Bronze St. Gaudens Medal (no gold or silver medals were awarded) and a parchment certificate of excellence. 

Things didn't exactly work out that way once the Exposition opened. The beer judges decided to develop their own scoring system with ranked prizes awarded based on numerical scores in categories of their own creation. 

The brewers were left to assume that whoever ended the Fair with the highest score "won," never mind that there was no grand prize and that each medal was bronze and looked exactly the same as all the other medals.
The Bronze St. Gaudens Medal was awarded to all exhibitor winners.
But during the contest, the beer judges went rogue and decided to develop their own scoring system based on made-up categories. The brewers assumed that getting the highest score meant "winning" even though no grand prize existed.

Captain Frederick Pabst quickly announced himself as the "grand prize winner," even though their medal and certificate were the same as those won by other brewers who had scored 80% or higher. As the story is told, Pabst celebrated with the entire Milwaukee brewery draped in a blue ribbon and gave all his workers a paid day off. The attention and sales inspired the company to change the beer name from "Best Select" to "Pabst Blue Ribbon."

Pabst was among the first executives to understand and utilize a national advertising campaign. More importantly, Pabst realized he needed to make his product and insignia available and visible everywhere. He managed this by creating a real estate empire stretching from coast to coast and border to border. Hundreds upon hundreds of Pabst taverns or "tied houses" were built and leased around the country for twenty-five years. These tied houses were to display their logo and exclusively serve Pabst Brewing Company's products.

NOTE: As with all official WCE souvenirs, permission was given to companies to produce items for sale by the Fair's committee. This included official picture books, the many "so-called" half-dollar souvenir coins [not including the U.S. Government minting of 950,000 silver commemorative half-dollar coins in 1892 (original year to open the WCE) and another 1,548,300 minted coins were produced in 1893, which Chicago banks sold for $1 each.), etc.

Pabst continued to boast that their "Best Select" beer was picked as "Selected as America's Best in 1893" and has it printed on every bottle and can of original Pabst Beer. 

The W.B. Conkley company was given permission to produce blue ribbons for the contestants and awarded a bronze medallion and official certificate. The ribbons were made of silk, with gold leaf lettering with gold fringe. Contestants were charged $2.50 ($85.50 today) for each ribbon.

Pabst Brewery stated on their website, until very recently, that they were awarded the "Gold Medal for Brewing Excellence" at the Exposition.

In May 2020, the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans read "Selected as America's Best in 1893," 

BOOK: "After Four Centuries the World's Fair. The Discovery of America was to be Commemorated by an International Exposition" – Published in 1893, using the contest rules written in 1891 by the Department of Publicity and Promotion, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago.
“Awards are designed to indicate some independent and essential excellence in the article exhibited, and as an evidence of advancement in the state of the art represented by it. They will be granted, upon specific points of excellence or advancement, formulated in words by a Board of Judges or Examiners, who will be competent experts; and the evidence of such awards will be parchment certificates, accompanied by bronze medals. Such awards will constitute an enduring, historical record of development and progress, and at the same time afford exhibitors lasting mementoes of their success.”
"The Book of the Fair: a historical and descriptive presentation of the World's Science, Art, and Industry, as viewed through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893" by Hubert Howe Bancroft. The Bancroft Company, Chicago - San Francisco. Published in 1893 [this antique book is in my personal collection].

Designed to set forth the display made by the Congress of Nations of human achievement in material form so as effectually to Illustrate the progress of mankind in all the departments of civilized life. 
“As to awards and medals, it was decided, after much discussion, that they should be distributed among every class of exhibits. By congressional act of April 1890 it was provided that the national commission should, among other functions, appoint all judges and examiners for the Exposition and award all premiums, if any". At a later session of the national legislature $100,000 was appropriated for the casting of 50,000 bronze medals and for 50,000 diplomas, this but a small portion of the outlay to be incurred by the committee of awards.By many of the exhibitors protests were made against awards of any kind, some of them even threatening to withdraw their exhibits on the ground that they had everything to lose and nothing to gain by their goods being classed with those of inferior grade. This question determined, came the method of granting awards, whether by what were termed, in self-explanatory phrase, the single judge or the jury system, the latter the one adopted at former international exhibitions. The former provoked no little opposition, not only from exhibitors, but from the director-general and the chiefs of departments, whose tables were covered with written protests and offers to withdraw applications for exhibiting space. Especially were artists opposed to the single judge system, refusing to submit their work to the judgment of any single member of their profession. By the head of the Fine Arts department it was stated before the Board of Control that the adoption of this system would leave the galleries of the Art Palace almost bare of the choicest works of living artists. 
Finally it was determined to place all decisions in the hands of juries, competitors to state their intention to compete for prizes, a written report to be filed in each instance, stating why an award had been made or withheld, and with right of appeal to the executive committee, by whom a re-examination might be ordered. In the interests of American artists and of the Department of Fine Arts advisory committees and juries of selection were established in the principal art centers of Europe and the United States. Of the organization and functions of these committees mention will be made in connection with art exhibits.” 
Original Statement (9/2016):
"In November 1893, the Pabst Brewing Company was awarded the Gold Medal for Brewing Excellence at the Exposition. (Sorry, there was no blue ribbon)."

Their New Statement as of (06/2021):
The Mansion website now says "In November of 1893, the Pabst Brewing Company was presented with a certificate for brewing excellence at the Exposition, not the often thought blue ribbon."

Statements about the 1893 World's Fair on their website have been totally removed. (10/2023) - https://pabst.com/history

Even after several attempts to correct their articles:
These organizations are revered and are expected to source stories for accuracy before printing historical information. They are propagating inaccurate information about Pabst and the 1893 World's Fair. You can see how wrong information gets accepted as fact.  

The Smithsonian Institution: "Pabst’s Best Select –PBS to its friends, presumably– won the top beer award at the 1893 Exposition." (10/2023)

National Geographic deleted the article from their website (06/2021),

The Chicago Tribune (with many errors; "...the brew was awarded the top beer award.").

Then there's Mental Floss, who made up a non-existent, unprovable story: 

INACCURATE (06/2021): "Leading Pabst by two points near the end of judging, Anheuser-Busch began celebrating early, ordering an award placard for their exhibit and taking out ads in the local papers announcing they had won the nonexistent grand prize and were the “King of Brewers.” After the final category had been scored, the judges’ table devolved into deadlock [1] and in-fighting, and a special supervisory committee [2] had to be formed to sort things out. In the end, Pabst ended up ahead of Busch by just a fraction of a point. Pabst quickly announced himself as the “grand prize winner,” even though his medal and certificate were exactly the same as those won by other brewers."  — Mental Floss

NOW FACTUAL (06/2023): The first Blue Ribbon, according to the company, came at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The attention and sales that followed inspired the company to change Best Select to Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Other accounts of the Columbian Exposition contradict Pabst’s claim, though. Like other fairs of the day, the 1893 exposition lured exhibitors with promises of awards. But according to a few modern and historical sources, its organizers went about the prizes a little differently. Instead of competing directly against each other, the exhibitors in different categories were judged against a list of criteria that represented a standard of excellence for that category. “Every entrant who met the standard would leave Chicago with a commemorative bronze medal and a parchment certificate. 

I am happy with the outcome I received from sending the Pabst Mansion, Pabst Brewing Co., and the Wisconsin Historical Society my research digitally and snail-mail beginning in 2016. They knew the truth for 124 years and backhandedly corrected themselves.

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D., 
All Rights Reserved.


  1. SO, Dr.
    You were able to put a pin prick into the bubble of a long time myth that hurt no one, especially since the company has gone through so many subsequent acquisitions.
    No one else's "Due Diligence" uncovered this anomaly. Your info is not going to change anything about a great old American beer and Brand.

    1. It's awesome for an historian to correct history @Wesssss. I too am surprised that I'm the first to uncover a 124 year old lie. You should reread the article so you’ll understand that I did not make any claims about Pabst products or brands. So... YES. I'm taking credit for the discovery and exposure of the "real" facts.

  2. Any beer is better than no beer.. It stumps me when people say they can taste any difference. To be abole to discern the tast, means you are really so deep intop drinking that by the time you taste it, you are inebriated to the point of not knowing any difference to begin with. I do avoid beers that give me bad hangovers-- and buy more of the ones that don't, but that's after the fact..

  3. A bit saddening to read...but I'll still drink it!

  4. How rewarding for you to get acknowledged for your research!!! I am impressed that the company changed their claim after holding it for so long. This is a good example also of not always honest advertising as well as how repetition of claims becomes accepted as fact. I may not read all of you postings, but please know I do appreciate your hard work and diligence in your research. THANK YOU!!

  5. Wow..$2.50 per ribbon in 1893? That was expensive!

  6. What I don't see here is a discussion of the scoring dispute that left both Pabst and Busch claiming victory. From the Chicago Herald (I've only seen the reprint in the the Houston Post, December 26, 1893), although there wasn't an official first prize "winner" awarded as you noted, the judges did use a scoring scale. A Busch beer apparently had the highest raw score when the scores were initially submitted, a fact that was leaked by a clerk before the official awards were handed out. In the interim, before the medals were issued, the board of judges changed the scores, increasing Pabst by two points, putting them in a one-point "lead" on the score sheets. Busch appealed the scores, claiming that the points were changed improperly - the changes were made by a quorum of judges, but not a majority of all judges (they also alleged bias by some judges who had some relationship with Pabst). An appellate board upheld the changes in scoring, but reiterated that there was no first prize awarded, and that they both received the same generic award on the same level. In the aftermath, Pabst advertised its highest revised score, and Busch advertised using the original raw scores. So, while I guess your conclusion is technically correct, perhaps Pabst can still claim the highest raw score, for all that's worth - which may be nothing.

    1. A moot point since there was only one award given to all 1893 WCE contestants that scored above the 80 points in each contests criteria.

      Raw data doesn't excuse Pabst lying about winning a "Blue Ribbon" nor winning a "Gold Metal," both claimed by Pabst, when neither were officially issued.

  7. Maureen Ogle also covered the battle between Pabst and Anheuser Busch in her 2006 beer history, "Ambitious Brew."

  8. Neil, this is fascinating. Though I don't drink PBR, I guess I never gave any thought to where the name came from. Great research!

  9. It’s worth noting that Carta Blanca also claims to have won the “grand prize” at the 1983 worlds fair. It’s still on all of their labels to this day.


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