The old Saloon During Prohibition

Early-1900s temperance literature is now highly obscure, not least the 1920s studies that investigated sites of shuttered saloons. Researchers combed former bar locations to see what had happened to them. There is an eerie quality to the latter, for which the term necrology is not too strong.

In The Passing of The Saloons in New York City (1924) Robert Everett Corradini, the Research Secretary of the World League Against Alcoholism, described how hundreds of saloons had been transformed into more productive business units (as he saw it). Evocative black and white photos appeared throughout the text to underscore the message.

Given that many saloons had occupied choice locations such as street corners, some properties were re-purposed 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 ostensibly sunny, upbeat: landlords were obtaining higher returns than ever, wrote Corradini, and society was better served by upstanding, lawful businesses rather than sordid gin mills. The only bleak spot for the Research Secretary was the saloons that retained the form and aspect of a bar but served non-alcohol drinks. Clearly even the physical forms of the old bar life bothered Corradini. In deft but manipulative phrasing, he stated the dry bars sought an “amphibious existence”, based on “near beer and ham sandwiches”.

Despite the boosterism accorded to near beer three years earlier by a splashy newspaper feature as I showed recently, near beer never approached the popularity of real beer. The “temperance” saloon in America by and large had a short existence. But the fact that near beer saloons offended temperance campaigners showed the zeal with which they pursued their mission. (They may have been worried that fake beer would be “needled” with alcohol, but still).

A few books appeared of this type, some photo-illustrated, and stand as true curios of the Volstead period. One wonders if anti-drink campaigners also sought out “blind pigs”, or illegal drinking dens, to expose them. Maybe hefty bouncers and round-magazined Tommy guns dissuaded them. Either way, widespread sub rosa boozing put the lie to the ordered, decorous world the reformers imagined would result from National Prohibition, aka The Great Experiment.

Below, from the Corradini book, we see a spaghetti house in 1924 that replaced a saloon, and the site as it appears today. Despite inevitable changes to the facade the building is recognizably the same. Note the trap door on the sidewalk just behind the “Do Not Enter” notice; this is where beer barrels had been lowered to the basement.

I know Manhattan well and realize now that many corner restaurants and groceries in the old sandstone and 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 intellectual property therein belongs to their lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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