Charles Muth –  The Honey King of Cincinnati: Inventor of the Honey Jar

A lineup of square Muth honey jars.

Honey bees are in a precarious position these days.   Pesticide, fungus, mite infestations, natural disasters and global warming have caused their populations to dwindle.   Man – they just can’t get a break!  But they are the most important pollinators for flowers, fruits and veggies, and without them, many of our food sources would be gone.    There’s a local organization whose mission it is to increase the bee population and raise awareness of their plight.   It’s called SWOBA – the Southwest Ohio Beekeepers Association.   It brings together beekeepers from Hamilton, Butler, Clermont and Warren Counties to share best practices for sustainable beekeeping.    It’s gotta be the cheapest club to join at just $5 a year.

Mr and Mrs Charles F. Muth, the Honey King and Queen of Cincinnati.

What’s unknown to many is that Cincinnati was home to the man who took beekeeping from a small cottage industry to a larger more commercial one nationally.    Charles F. Muth (1834-1898), an immigrant from Hessen, Germany, was given the title Honey King of Cincinnati.   He was a resident of the Brighton neighborhood northwest of Over-the-Rhine.     He earned the title for his prominence in the field for over 30 years, during which he invented the first set of square jars made specifically for honey and other beekeeping products.   His family continued the honey business he started into the third generation, making it one that lived 92 years.

Charles F Muth was born in Felsberg, Hessen, Germany, on April 23, 1834, to Charles F and Carolina Schmith Muth.   He was educated in Hessen and came to Cincinnati in 1853 at the age of 19.  He began his career as apprentice dyer to his father, who was connected to the grocery of Henry Frank & Co., on the corner of Vine and Canal Streets.   But the dying trade wasn’t in his stars.   Charles F. Jr.  clerked at the grocery for three years, but that wasn’t how he wanted to roll.   Then he moved west, spending a few years in Minnesota and Kansas, working in land speculation and cattle raising.  That didn’t fulfill him so he returned to Cincinnati in 1860, spending a few years at the grocery of Joseph Taylor.   Then in 1862, he bought a grocery on the corner of Western Row and Freeman where he operated until 1883. It was here that he found his calling – in the honey bee trade.    It’s not known where or how he picked up this interest, but he began adding honey, beeswax and beekeeping supplies to his grocery, many of which he improved upon and branded under his name.

The Muth Honey extractor

By 1857, Charles had found his Honey Queen, marrying Carolina Muth, daughter of August Muth. She was from a different Muth family that were bakers and also lived in Cincinnati.   He drug her out west with him and maybe it was she who motivated their move back to Cincy.  Charles and Carolina were the parents of ten children, six of whom lived to adulthood: August J., Henry E., and Fred W. were all part of the “& Sons” associated with their father’s business,  and then they had three daughters, Carolina, Stella, and Nellie.   

 As Cincinnati’s lone Honey Baron, Charles developed at least five beekeeping products that he supplied to beekeepers all over the U.S.      Only one, the Muth Honey extractor was patented.  It was a two frame extractor with a tapered basket, granted as patent 208,327 on September 24, 1878 and featured a crank high above the top of the extractor, a honey reservoir and a honey gate.

There was the Muth Honey Knife, which looked very much like the standard cold Bingham uncapping knife used at the time.     He also sold a Muth Cold Blast Smoker, model “Perfection, which was all tin including the bellows.    It also had a valve in the bent air-tube, to prevent the smoke from being drawn back into the bellows. Another addition was a muzzle feeder, somewhat like the style on the standard Bingham’s and the extra covering on the fire pot to prevent burned fingers.    

There was the Muth Wax Extractor, especially useful to makers of beeswax candles and other products.

The four sizes of Muth honey jars

Finally, and the product he is most known for is his Muth Honey Jar.   Muth developed in about 1879 the first square jars – in four sizes (2 #, 1#, ½ # and ¼#) – to be used specifically for honey.  There were only a few glass companies at this time that made the square “pickle and horseradish” jars. They were Illinois Glass of Alton, Illinois, K.G.B. in Steubenville, Ohio, Whitall Tatum & Co. of Millville, N.J., and a couple of unlisted manufacturers such as” Z” and “C.C.S.”

He and his sons operated the honey and seed business on Central Avenue near Freeman.  He owned the building in which the store was located, above which they made their family home.   He also owned a farm in Morristown, Indiana, which is presumably where the hives were from which his hired hands extracted the honey.   He visited the farm and supervised the extraction on a weekly basis.

Like a true industry baron, Muth was a joiner – President of the National Association of Beekeepers of the United States and Canada for many years, was a Director of the Workhouse, was President of the German Orphan Asylum, member of Hanselmann Lodge, Masons, and a trustee of St. John’s Lutheran Church.  

In his later years, Muth came into poor health as a result of two sunstrokes he succumbed to.   And it seems he was mortgaged up to his eyeballs.     Between his farm, his store, his house, and another property he was mortgaged to three banks to the tune of about $42,000 on property not worth much more than that.    So, given this situation, he decided to and unfortunately carried out his suicide by shooting himself in the head in the bedroom of the cabin on his farm.

Fred W. Muth, son of founder Charles F. Muth

After Charles Muth’s death, his business was taken over by his son, Frederick William Muth (1869-1949). He married Freda Charlotta Muth (1869 -1949)  and together, they had three children: Martha, Edna and Clifford Frederick Muth, (1897-1952).

His clerk C. H. W Weber took over the old store on Central and continued to supply honey and beekeeping supplies, including the still highly popular Golden Italian honey bees.   The Muths may have been responsible for making the Golden Italian honey bee the predominant bee used by American beekeepers.

Fred located the Muth business to 51 Walnut Street, Cincinnati, Ohio. In a 1907 advertisement, Fred mentioned that he sold a Muth Special Dove Tail beehive.    In 1912, a fire destroyed the building that Fred was using for the business and so he found a suitable building down the street that he could rent. He eventually purchased that building at 204 Walnut Street.    Fred used a 1912 Model T Ford Delivery Car to deliver his honey to wholesale customers throughout Cincinnati. Then, in the 1920s, he purchased a larger Clydesdale Motor Truck, which were made in Clyde, Ohio, from 1917 – 1939.   These trucks had a good service record with the military in Europe, and the one that Fred used had a “war transport body.”

Items sold in the 1925 Muth Catalog, were as follows: Bingham uncapping knives, the  “Novice” or Root honey extractor,  a Kelley smoker, the Root hive tool with clover insignia, the Muth “Ideal” veil (which was really a Root veil), and the only honey containers at that time were tin pails.      From the 1920s through the closing of the company they sold Gold Medal brand extracted honey in tapered jars.

In the 1906 Illinois Glass catalog, the Muth jar is listed, as a honey jar. On special orders, a screw top lid was available. In the 1926 Illinois Glass catalog, the Muth jar was not listed, but in its place was a Diamond Fluted honey jar. The Muth jar and the things that Fred’s father had invented and developed had been eliminated.

Charles’ grandson Clifford, followed in his footsteps, developing a few beekeeping products.   He was a graduate of the Walnut Hills High School and the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering, serving as a bomber pilot in World War II.   He developed the Muth Bee Brush, made from sea weeds that were light in color to prevent stinging.  Clifford also was granted the patent 1,849,331 on March 15, 1932, for a machine for making sheet foundation.     He would also become the Vice President of the Fred Muth Honey Company from 1947-1949.    The company passed leadership to Edward A. Fleckestein and closed in 1953, after Clifford’s death.

Over 140 years later, honey is still sold in the square Muth-style glass jars, which make a much more elegant package than the squeezable plastic Sue Bee type.   But then you need the honey stir bar or a spoon for dispensation.

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