The old Saloon During Prohibition

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

In this vein, 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 accompany the text to point up the message.

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

The tone of his somewhat grisly study is ostensibly sunny, upbeat: landlords were obtaining higher returns, he said. Society was better served by the new tenants, upstanding, respectable people, vs. the gin mill keepers of yore. The only bleak spot was the premises that retained the form and aspect of a bar but served non-alcohol drinks.

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

In fact, that near beer never got too close to the real thing. Will Rogers’ famous quip, that the person who gave near beer its name was a poor judge of distance, proved its worth.

Despite or because of its limitations, the “temperance” saloon of America mostly had a short or straitened existence. But the fact that even a simulacrum could nonpluss a Corradini showed the unrelenting zeal of temperance campaigners.

Putting it another way they couldn’t take yes for an answer. Now, maybe some were worried near beer would be “needled” with illicit alcohol. This did occur sometimes, but illicit drinking went much deeper, and you didn’t need the temperance bar to needle a drink. Anyone with a bottle of near beer and some ethanol could do it, at home or anywhere not under watch.

A few books of this type were published, some with sophisticated photo-illustration. They stand as curios of the Volstead period. One wonders if the anti-drink campaigners also tried to expose “blind pigs”, the true illicit drinking dens. Maybe hefty bouncers and Thompson guns dissuaded such exposes.

Either way, sub rosa drinking was widespread, and put the lie to the decorous world the Prohibition marchers wished for America.

In the image below from Corradini’s book, we see on the site of a former saloon, in 1924, a spaghetti restaurant. The location 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 shut its door on drinking America.

I know Manhattan pretty well, and can see that many corner restaurants and grocery shops in the sandstone and red brick buildings were old-time saloons, in old New York.

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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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