What Happened To The Old Saloon During Prohibition?

Early 1900s anti-drink literature is a now-obscure area, and one of its more obscure corners was the appearance of books chronicling the passing of the saloon era.

There is an eerie quality to these works, for which the word necrology is not too strong. Authors combed over old saloon sites to see what happened to the locations. In The Passing Of The Saloons In New York City (1924), Robert Everett Corradini, Research Secretary of the World League Against Alcoholism, explained how the hundreds of saloons had transmuted to productive business units. Evocative black and white photos underpinned the text.

Given the choice locations of many former bars, e.g., street corners, some were rented by national chain stores, probably the 5 and 10 Cent and that type. Others became restaurants, grocers, furniture dealers, clothiers, professional offices like dentists – virtually everything under the sun.

The tone of this somewhat grisly study was, well, sunny, upbeat. Landlords were getting better returns than ever, said the author. Society was better served as a result of normal businesses replacing the nefarious old gin mills.

The only dim spot seemed to be ex-saloonkeepers who tried to run a modified bar. In the delightful phrase of the book, they sought an “amphibious existence” based on “near beer and ham sandwiches”. Despite the boosterism given near beer in the pages of a New York paper three years earlier as I discussed recently, it seems people didn’t want to know: the “temperance” saloon had a short existence.

I have seen a few books of this type, some photo-illustrated, they stand as curios of the Volstead era.

One wonders if the anti-drink chroniclers sought out the blind pigs, or illegal drinking places where citizens-turned-lawbreakers pursued a bibulous existence. Maybe hefty bouncers and tommy guns dissuaded them. Not to mention that continued boozing put the lie to the ordered, decorous world the reformers saw as the right and proper future for (all) Americans.

Below, you see a spaghetti house which replaced a saloon in ’24, from the book mentioned. Also below is the same site today. Despite the inevitable changes to the storefront area, the building is recognizably the same. Note the trap door on the sidewalk just behind the Do Not Enter sign, that is where the beer barrels were lowered to the basement for the bar.

I know New York well and now realize that many corner restaurants and groceries in the old sandstone or brick buildings were once saloons.




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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