Van Olinda on the American Tavern. Part IV.

[Continuing from Part III].

The old American Saloon and Christmas

Another column of Edgar S. Van Olinda, the Albany Times-Union‘s long-serving scribe (via Fulton History), chronicled Christmases of old in Albany, New York, which meant before National Prohibition (1920-1933).

The time of writing was 1963, late in Van Olinda’s career. He had written similar columns for other Christmases, reworking the earlier material.

Notable in the extracts below, but it is characteristic of his writing in any period, is the absence of censure in regard to the saloon. He does not even acknowledge that a proportion of public opinion was against the saloon and plumped for National Prohibition.

If anything, he posits an opposite notion: saloons were regarded by society as respectable, just as the “clubs” of Albany were in 1963. And while on this occasion he calls the saloon (see below) the “poor man’s club”, as we saw earlier a professional and business class patronized some Albany saloons, or at least an aspirant class did, as described by Van Olinda himself.

Some Van Olinda columns make clear that many saloons were resorts of ethnic groups, Irish and German as I discussed earlier but also a British coterie – I’ll address the latter in time. The saloon also attracted other groups, e.g. the Mendelssohn choir, which counted Van Olinda among its members.

I would argue such sub-groups so to speak were not primarily class-driven in their attachment to the pub; cultural and social factors trumped in other words the purely economic, or so I have concluded from years of studying pub history.

Some readers will recall my examination of the British-style tavern or “inn” in America. Contrary to the popular image of a saloon, these often attracted an upscale clientele. “Musty ale” with its British associations was served in Ivy League taverns with mullioned windows, or big city lobster houses.

Manhattan chop houses might feature India Pale and the mutton chop. These places were not typically the workman’s home away from home.

These are extracts from van Olinda’s article:

One of the manifestations of the holiday season which is missing from the local scene is the great number of “sample rooms” which nestled so sweet in a little side street: “Saloons,” I think they used to be called, but they were as respectable in their generation as the clubs of the city are today. The Christmas season was always a gay time , a half-century ago , and somehow, the cordial relations which existed between the white-coated gentlemen who conducted these “poor men’ s clubs” and the regular customers were quite heart-warming. One thing missing is the great mirror which stood behind the mahogany on which some budding Michelangelo had decorated with loving care . A paste composed of old ale and rochelle salts was spread on the surface, lending the effect of a frosted window. With more or less skill, the words : “Merry Christmas “ were evolved, creating the proper Yuletide spirit….

A few days before Christmas, all these cozy places were busy, catering to the anticipated holiday rush. There were boxes of Van Slyke and Horton cigars, pints of rye for the regular customers, and a generous tureen of eggnog or a goodly supply of Tom and Jerry, with a kettle of hot water on the nearby stove to mix up hot toddies against the cold on the outside . Some of the establishments had raffles for suckling pigs, turkeys, chickens and geese. It was not an uncommon sight to see one of the lucky drawers, weaving his way homeward with a bottle under one arm and a live fowl gasping for breath as the winner dragged the victim through the streets by a convenient grip around the Christmas dinner treat’s stretched neck.

A happy, if at times graphic picture, one that seems quite foreign to the mentality that foisted Prohibition on the country for 14 long years.



It seems in this light quite remarkable that the 18th Amendment to the American Constitution got passed.

Sometimes a popular cause gets momentum while not enjoying the favour of the majority. This can result from a well-motivated and organized lobby group, or network of them: the American Prohibition movement certainly was that.

An example when I was younger was the death penalty for murder. For years a clear majority in Canada supported it (perhaps even today, I don’t know), but the death penalty still was abolished and has remained so to this day.

No doubt many issues of our time could be cited as examples, depending where you stand on the political spectrum. The liquor question in early 20th century America was perhaps singular in that many persons known to support or at least not oppose Prohibition were privately still drinking and patronizing the speakeasy or bootleggers.

There was a Janus-face about the issue in other words, a public-private morality that resulted in a public policy being adopted quite at odds with the benign popular history detailed by Van Olinda.

N.B. Van Slyke & Horton was an Albany cigar manufacturer, a local hero just as the city’s breweries were. A sample ad is shown, from a 1903 issue of the newspaper mentioned.

See our Final Part.

Note re image: source of image above is identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property in source belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.



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