The old Saloon During Prohibition

Early-1900s temperance literature is a now-obscure area, not least books from the 1920s that investigate the sites of now-closed saloons. There is an eerie quality to these works, for which the word necrology is not too strong. Authors combed the locations to see what had happened. In The Passing of The Saloons in New York City (1924) Robert Everett Corradini, Research Secretary of the World League Against Alcoholism, explained how hundreds of saloons had transmuted to (in his view) more productive business units. Evocative black and white photos underscored the text.

Given the choice locations many old saloons had enjoyed such as street corners, some were rented by emerging national chain stores, the 5 and 10 Cent type. Other saloons became restaurants, groceries, furniture stores, clothiers, or professional offices.

The tone of this somewhat grisly study was sunny, upbeat: landlords were obtaining higher returns than ever, and society was better served by normal businesses instead of gin mills. The only dim spot was former saloonkeepers who tried to run a new kind of no-alcohol bar. In the delightful phrase of the book they sought an “amphibious existence” based on “near beer and ham sandwiches”. Yet, despite the boosterism with which a New York newspaper greeted near beer three years earlier (as I discussed recently) it seems people didn’t want to know: the “temperance” saloon had a short existence. But even the remnants of a near beer trade offended the temperance busybodies, perhaps because they knew the near beer was often “needled” with illicit alcohol.

A few books appeared of this type, some photo-illustrated, and they stand as curios of the Volstead period. One wonders if the anti-drink campaigners also sought out the “blind pigs”, or illegal drinking dens where citizens-turned-lawbreakers pursued the bibulous life, to expose them. Perhaps hefty bouncers and Tommy guns with round magazines dissuaded them. Not to mention that widespread, sub rosa boozing put the lie to the ordered, decorous world the reformers expected to result from The Great Experiment.

Below you see a spaghetti house from 1924 that replaced a saloon, from the Corradini book, and the site as it appears today. Despite the inevitable changes to the storefront the building is recognizably the same. Note the trap door on the sidewalk, just behind the “Do Not Enter”; that is where beer barrels were lowered to the basement prior to 1920. I know Manhattan well and realize now that many corner restaurants and groceries in old sandstone or brick buildings were once saloons.

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Note re images: the first image above was sourced from the book referenced in the text (from HathiTrust). The second is from this New York real estate listing. All trade marks and other intellectual property to or in such images belong to their lawful owners or authorized users. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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