Saloons: Rise and Fall of the “Ladies’ Entrance”

Shackamaxon Street and E. Girard Avenue, April 15, 1901 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Sloughing against the bar with one foot on the rail would have been unthinkable behavior for most ‘decent’ women, let along spitting into the cuspidors or allowing their skirts to trail in the beer-soaked sawdust,” wrote Madelon Powers.

“For some women even entering a bar is a fearful prospect,” agreed Mary Jane Lupton in Feminist Studies. “They might get bothered or insulted or embarrassed. Part of this apprehension is based on a realistic appraisal of male behavior. Part has to do with the rather intimidating architecture of the neighborhood barroom, with its L-shaped front bar and its lineup of stools . . . The L provides a defensive line; to break into that, to disrupt the pattern, is to place oneself in a vulnerable position.”

Yet, Powers claimed, “saloongoers were not totally anti-woman . . .  Many bar songs and stories portrayed females as merciful and decent and were surprisingly sentimental about mothers, wives, and women friends. Moreover, male customers accepted and indeed welcomed a female presence in certain areas of the saloon under well-defined circumstances. Though bargoers jealously guarded their male prerogatives and commiserated over male-female conflicts, there is no indication that these men as a group reviled or hated the women in their lives. Sexists and chauvinists they were, but not complete misogynists.”

“The only circumstance in which respectable women might legitimately linger unescorted” in saloons would be “in order to consume the saloon’s famous free lunch.” To access to this lunch, “free with the purchase of a five-cent drink,” women would bypass “the male-dominated ‘barroom proper’” by entering a side door marked “ladies’ entrance.”

Shackamaxon Street and E. Girard Avenue, April 15, 1901 – Detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

This entrance, according to Powers, served a threefold purpose. “First, it permitted women to enter inconspicuously and minimize public scrutiny of their comings and goings… Second, women’s entry through the side door eliminated the necessity of their running the gauntlet through the establishment front room . . . undisputed male territory.  . . .  Finally, the side door afforded women quick and convenient access both to the far end of the bar, where they could purchase carry-out alcohol and to a second chamber known as the ‘back room,’ where they could feast on free lunches or attend social events hosted there.”

And so the “ladies’ entrance” to bars and saloons became universal protocol. Except for one notable case, the most traditional of saloons: McSorley’s Old Ale House in lower Manhattan. Philadelphia artist John Sloan, who moved to New York in 1904, famously and repeatedly painted scenes of its interior.

John McSorley “believed it impossible for men to drink with tranquility in the presence of women” though drinkers tolerated, and were even amused by, young boys running in and out of the back room, snatching “handfuls of cheese and slices of onion, before dashing out, “slamming the door.”  Where many saloons welcomed women, albeit with conditions and limitations, McSorley’s made its message clear with a sign: “NOTICE. NO BACK ROOM IN HERE FOR LADIES.”

McSorley’s motto? “Good ale, raw onions, and no ladies.” When a female entered, Joseph Mitchell told in The New Yorker, “Old John would hurry forward, make a bow, and say, ‘Madam, I’m sorry, but we don’t serve ladies.’ If a woman insisted, Old John would take her by the elbow, head her toward the door, and say, ‘Madam, please don’t provoke me. Make haste and get yourself off the premises, or I’ll be obliged to forget you’re a lady.’”

Sloan considered McSorley’s back room “like a sacristy,” a place where “old John McSorley would sit greeting old friends and philosophizing. Women were never served,” added Sloan, “indeed the dingy walls and woodwork looked as if women had set neither hand nor foot in the place.”

Shackamaxon Street and E. Girard Avenue, April 15, 1901 – Detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

Until June 25, 1970, that is, when, by court order, McSorley’s opened its doors to women. Shortly after Mayor John Lindsay signed the order, Lucy Komisar, a vice president of the National Organization for Women, approached “the old‐fashioned wooden doors” wearing, The New York Times felt compelled to inform its readers, “a purple jumpsuit, sandals and sunglasses.”

A waiter demanded Komisar produce her birth certificate.” The 28-year old Komisar offered her driver’s license. The waiter refused to accept the license as proof she was at least 18 (then the legal drinking age). Komisar attempted to push her way in. The two engaged in “a short wrestling match” before the manager allowed Komisar inside, “to a chorus of boos from some of the regular patrons.”

“Shortly afterward,” observed the Times reporter, “Miss Komisar was involved in an argument with “some young men who were drinking ale in their undershirts.” When “one tall, unidentified man showed her an obscene poem he had scrawled on a piece of paper, [Komisar] tried to snatch it out of his hand.”

“Why, you little ——–,” he shouted, dumping a stein of ale over her head.”

“’You can’t do that!’ she shrieked, lunging at him.” Again the manager intervened, escorting the protesting, undershirted poet to the sidewalk.

They’re really boorish, horrible men” commented Komisar, “drenched but smiling . . . as she sipped an ale at the bar.” They “have a lot of problems with their masculinity.”

Taking it all in nearby, “an old-timer in an open collar shirt shook his head sorrowfully. ‘That woman is trouble. All women are trouble. This is what happens when you let them in here.’”

Apparently, everyone had more work to do.

[Sources: Madelon Powers, Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon, 1870-1920 (The University of Chicago Press, 1998); Mary Jane Lupton, “Ladies’ Entrance: Women and Bars,” Feminist Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3, (Autumn, 1979); Joseph Mitchell, “The Old House at Home,” The New Yorker, April 13, 1940; John Sloan, The Gist of Art (New York, American Artists Group, Inc. 1939); Grace Lichtenstein, “McSorley’s Admits. Women Under a New City Law, The New York Times, August 11, 1970.]

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