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, claimed the author. Society was better served (felt he) by the new tenants: upstanding, respectable people, vs. the gin mill keepers of yore. The only bleak spot was those saloons which retained the form and aspect of a bar but served non-alcohol drinks.

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

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

The “temperance” saloon of America in fact had a mostly short or straitened existence. But the fact that even such simulacrum of a bar could annoy the Corradinis showed their unrelenting zeal.

Putting things another way, they couldn’t take yes for an answer. Now, maybe they were worried the near beer would be “needled” with illicit alcohol. This did occur actually, but the illicit drinking phenomenon went much deeper.

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

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

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

I know Manhattan pretty well, and can see that many corner restaurants and grocery shops in sandstone and brick buildings were once old-time 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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