“Conviviality’s Firmament”

New York’s Boîtes in the Golden Days

In a December 1934 article in the New York Sun Martin Green described the notable bars and saloons of pre-Prohibition New York.

Green was a 1930s journalist for the Sun, Herald, Jewish Post, and other newspapers. He recounts that G. Selmer Fougner, the New York food and drink writer, asked him to record pre-Prohibition New York saloons to show, we might say, “the way things were”. Hence it is a kind of guest column for The Wine Trail, Fougner’s daily chronicle in the Sun between 1933 and 1941.

Green stressed that he only offers highlights, yet still mentions 40 or 50 establishments. While essentially a catalogue and important to drinks historians, Green also includes amusing and even cautionary asides. He notes that his erstwhile cohorts, while presumed to have iron constitutions and kidneys, ended with the “iron machinery” “rusted” and “disintegrating”.

Some of the old friends “went on the water wagon”, and those who did not, were no longer present to muse on Green’s account. A few, as clearly Green himself, survived the old days quite well, probably due to observing more than absorbing…

Most or all of the old Manhattan bars we have discussed in these pages, such as McSorley’s, The Grapevine, and Billy’s Bar, are not mentioned by Green. I think the reason is, he covered more high-end resorts, alluding often to their “classy” or “very classy” nature. (Here we focus resolutely on the beer bar, a resort of the hoi polloi almost by definition).

Hoffman House is a good example, remembered to this day for its lurid wall paintings and great and good (or not so good) patrons. This 2013 post in the blog Ephemeral New York sets out the essentials well.

Green describes the great ambition of south Manhattan bar crawls: to reach Hoffman House or another storied aerie. But 14th Street proved the limit every time, even for the iron-lined bon ton.

When you read enough about American bar and liquor customs into the Prohibition period, you get a sense that there did seem to be a licentiousness at the core. A drink or two wasn’t enough, it seems, for much of the clientele. The idea of excess and a certain riotousness seemed writ into the system, and this is reflected in Green’s piece.

Another way we know this is reports of people, and post-Prohibition Ontario is no different, on the new legal beers whose strength was held to around 4% ABV. Press stories regularly reported complaints of not being able easily to “get drunk”.  Taste was remarked too as I discussed earlier in the context of Fougner’s investigations, but the main problem was to get drunk without undue cost, or to order enough beer at one sitting to get the effect faster. In Ontario in the mid-1940s waiters could only serve one beer at a time to the customer, whence a mini (?) social crisis ensued.

This atmosphere is what the Temperance people aimed to stop, and while the ambition was flawed – Green calls it a “blight” – the practical reasons impelling it were hard to gainsay. Industry self-interest could not, and cannot, disguise this.

The answer of course was reformation, not abolition, and this in fact did occur finally. Tight controls were placed on the post-Prohibition bar, including in Canada, with as well a continuation of dry policies in large parts of both countries.

Still, to have been a fly on the wall for one of Green and Co.’s sorties… “I’ll have a schooner of still ale or India Pale Ale, please, and maybe a bourbon to follow, but no more, Mr. Green. An electric cab awaits me at 5th Street”.

Obs. The Russian vodka ad in the same issue shows that the Slavic drink was gaining traction well before Russian emigre Rudolph Kunett and New Jersey’s Heublein Inc. made their mark with Smirnoff commencing c.1940. Between 1934 and 1938 Kunett produced vodka in Connecticut but did not succeed, it was too new (although probably available in tiny amounts before Prohibition, I did not check).

An exacerbating factor though was surely the presence in New York of the Russian original.  The brand shown seems clearly to be what was later known internationally as Moskovskaya.