The old Saloon During Prohibition

Early-1900s temperance literature is now obscure, not least the 1920s studies that investigated the shuttered saloons. Researchers would comb former bar locations to see how the sites had changed under Prohibition. The writing has an eerie quality, for which the term necrology is not too strong.

In 1924 Robert Everett Corradini, the Research Secretary of the World League Against Alcoholism, wrote The Passing of The Saloons in New York City. The book explains how hundreds of saloons were transformed into more productive business units, as he saw it. Evocative black and white photos accompanied the text to point up the message.

Many saloons had occupied choice locations such as street corners. The abandoned locations were ideal for the emerging national chain stores such as the 5 and 10 Cent. Some ex-saloons became restaurants, others grocery stores, or furniture outlets, clothiers, and professional offices.

The tone of this somewhat grisly study is ostensibly sunny, upbeat: landlords were obtaining higher returns than ever, said the author. Society was better served (felt he) by new tenants who were upstanding, respectable –  vs. sordid gin mills of yore. The only bleak spot was the saloons that retained the form and aspect of a bar but served non-alcohol drinks.

Even just the physical reminder of the old bar life bothered Corradini, in other words. He wrote dismissively that these dry bars sought an “amphibious existence”, one based on “near beer and ham sandwiches”.

In fact, near beer never approached the popularity of real beer. The “temperance” saloon of America by and large had a short or straitened existence. But the fact that near beer saloons drew the ire of temperance campaigners showed their unrelenting zeal.

Putting it another way, they couldn’t take no for an answer. Now, maybe they were worried near beer would be “needled” with illicit alcohol. This did occur in fact, but the illicit drinking phenomenon went much deeper than that.

A few books of this type were published, some photo-illustrated. They stand as curios of the Volstead era. One wonders if anti-drink campaigners sought to expose the “blind pigs” – the true drinking dens. Maybe hefty bouncers and Tommy guns dissuaded them.

Either way, widespread sub rosa drinking during Prohibition put the lie to the decorous world the militants of Prohibition had wished on America.

In the image below from Corradini’s book, we see in 1924 on the site of a former saloon a spaghetti restaurant. The site as it appears today is also shown for contrast. Despite changes to the facade the building is recognizably the same. Note the trap door on the sidewalk, just behind the “Do Not Enter” notice. That is where beer barrels were lowered to the basement before Prohibition clanged down on America harder than any trap-door did on a Manhattan sidewalk.

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

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