The Whiskey Merchant’s Diary
An Urban Life in the Emerging Midwest

By Joseph J. Mersman
Edited by Linda A. Fisher

“A very interesting look into the business and social life of a merchant...lavishly illustrated and footnoted.”

Stacked: Weblog of the Mercantile Library of Cincinnati

“(T)he 1840s [have] never been so accessible. [Mersman’s] charm (where it seeps through) and his drive (on every page) are an inspiration to those who pursue their dreams, no matter what the odds.”

Ohioana Quarterly

“(Fisher’s) annotations are copious and complete. Even minor obscurities are tracked down and identified.... While the diary will be of greatest interest to professional historians, it is suitably engaging for general readers.”

Missouri Historical Review

“Fischer has done a superb job of teasing out all the details of Mersman’s diary, creating excellent references, maps, and illustrations throughout the publication. Her notes to each chapter are relevant and generous, and the depth of her research adds significant value to the publication.”

Northwest Ohio History

Joseph J. Mersman was a liquor merchant, a German American immigrant who aspired—successfully—to become a self-made man. Hundreds of the residents of Mersman's hometown in Germany immigrated to Cincinnati in the 1830s, joining many thousands of other German immigrants. In 1847, at the age of twenty-three, Mersman began recording his activities in a bound volume, small enough to fit into his coat pocket. His diary, filled with work and play, eating and drinking, flirting and dancing, provides a unique picture of everyday life, first in Cincinnati and then in St. Louis, the new urban centers of the emerging Midwest.

Outside of Gold Rush diaries and emigration journals, few narrative records of the antebellum period have been published. Illustrated with photographs, maps, and period advertisements, the diary reveals how a young man worked to establish himself during an era that was rich in opportunity.

As a whiskey rectifier, Mersman bought distilled spirits, redistilled or reprocessed them to remove contaminants or increase the alcohol content, and added various flavorings before selling his product to liquor retailers. In his diary, he describes scrambling for capital, marketing his wares, and arranging transportation by steamboat, omnibus, and train. Although the business that he sought to master was eliminated by the passage of the Pure Food Law of 1906, Mersman, like most rectifiers, was a reputable wholesaler. Merchants like him played an important role in distributing liquor in nineteenth-century America.

Mersman confronted serious disease, both as a sufferer from syphilis and as a witness to two devastating cholera epidemics. Unlike other residents of St. Louis, who fled the relative safety of the countryside, he remained in the city and saw the impact of the epidemics on the community.

Linda A. Fisher's extensive, insightful, and highly readable annotations add a wealth of background information to Mersman's story. Her professional training and career as a physician give her a particularly valuable perspective on the public health aspects of Mersman's life and times.

The late Linda A. Fisher was a public health physician, a trained documentary editor, and the author of a biography of Joseph Mersman's sister, Agnes Lake Hickok: Queen of the Circus, Wife of a Legend.

Order a print copy

Paperback · $23.96 · Add to Cart

Retail price: $29.95 · Save 20% ($23.96)

Hardcover · $39.96 · Add to Cart

Retail price: $49.95 · Save 20% ($39.96)

Find at a local bookstore


Download an electronic copy

Amazon Kindle Store Barnes & Noble NOOK Google Play iBooks Store

Availability and price vary according to vendor.

Share    Facebook icon  Email icon


Desk Copy Examination Copy Review Copy

Permission to reprint
Permission to photocopy or include in a course pack via Copyright Clearance Center

Downloads & Links



Related Subjects

American History · History · Ohio and Regional



Retail price: $29.95, S.
Release date: May 2007
432 pages
Rights: World


Retail price: $49.95, S.
Release date: May 2007
432 pages · 6 × 9¼ in.
Rights: World


Release date: May 2007
≅ 432 pages

Additional Praise for The Whiskey Merchant’s Diary

“Business during the Week was very dull. The great Plague of the Year Cholera is driving every Country [person] and Merchants from Surrounding Cities away. The City looks like a desert Compared to its usual animated appearance. Last week ending the 6th there were 78 deaths from it, altogether 173. This week ending yesterday 278 deaths 189 from Cholera. People parting for a day or so, bid farewell to each other. My Partners family are fortunately in the Country. I and Clemens sleep in the Same bed, in Case of a Sudden attack to be within groaning distance…”

Diary entry for Sunday, May 13th, 1849