The Urban Saloon: Refuge of Men and Power

“I didn’t know anything about girls,” Jack London wrote, “I had been too busy being a man.”

For London, as well as millions of other American men of similar vintage, the saloon was ground zero for “being a man” where the “test of true manhood,” as Madelon Powers put it, “was peer recognition for being a reliable ally and comrade in the volatile street culture of urban America.”

Jacob Binder’s Saloon, Northeast corner Thompson Street and Germantown Avenue, June 9, 1902, Photograph by Hervey B. Harmer (PhillyHistory.org)

“Drinking was a man’s sport,” reminisced Travis Hoke a decade into prohibition. “And women not only loathed the saloon for its intrinsic evils but, quite naturally, because men often sought each others’ company there and excluded women. Safe in his saloon, a man boasted of marital independence, complained of marital injustice, gained strength to defy the dominant sex. There he could play at being devil-may-care and independent and generous and brave and debonair, at being manly—and there no woman dared invade him with drab truths. The saloon was for men only. It was their last stronghold in a world of women…”

“One breasted the bar, downed a drink, and became a man among men.”

Detail of Jacob Binder’s Saloon, Northeast corner Thompson Street and Germantown Avenue, June 9, 1902, Photograph by Hervey B. Harmer (PhillyHistory.org)

According to Powers, “men who did each other the honor of drinking together were also expected to celebrate and reinforce their special bond through the swapping of drinks, favors, small loans, or other gestures of mutual assistance and friendship. . . . .by vying with one another in friendly contests of drinking, pool-playing, wagering, storytelling and the like, their displayed their ability and stamina to one another and reaffirmed their worth as clubmates. . . . rivalries were resolved through conventional forms of barroom interaction.”

America’s saloons, were men-only affairs where alcohol “was prized as a commodity of exchange, a thing intrinsically valuable that could function like money and all manner of transactions among men. When politicians, businessman, employers, union recruiters, or others wished to curry favor or reward jobs well done, they often did so not with cash, but with drink. Cash was valuable but crass; drink was both valuable and pleasurable” in the sacred space of a saloon that, we know from the noir novels of John T. McIntyre, “glittered with clusters of electric lamps and broad, gilt-framed mirrors,” its “marble-topped bar backed by pyramids of glasses and bottles.”

“The typical workingman’s saloon was readily recognizable by its swinging shuttered doors and wrought iron windows cluttered with potted ferns, posters and bottles of colored water,” writes Jon Kingsdale. “Inside was a counter running almost the length of the room, paralleled by a brass foot- rail. The floor was covered with sawdust. Across from the bar were perhaps a few tables and chairs backed up by a piano, pool table or rear stalls. Behind the bar and over an assortment of lemons, glasses and unopened magnums of muscatel, port and champagne hung a large plate-glass mirror.”

Men would revel in shared memories of the saloon as a unique and welcoming refuge. James Stevens was impressed by “the great mirror shown gloriously” above sparkling glasses and stacked labeled bottles. “Never before have I seen such an array of glasses, or such vivid colors, or such a vast mirror, or such huge carved and polished pillars and beams, or such enormous vessels of brass as the spittoons… . . The bar-room was strange and wonderful to look at, and even the smells were curious and pleasant to breathe.” John Powers “remembered vividly the strange beer smells, the sawdust on the floor, and the big men slouching against the bar with one foot on the rail.”

By 1888, Philadelphia had 5,773 licensed saloons. If “set side by side,” calculated the Inquirer, they’d “form a line nearly twenty-two miles long…” By 1915, New York would have more than 10,000, or one for every 515 persons; Chicago had one licensed saloon for every 335 residents; …  “A survey of Chicago found that on an average day the number of saloon customers equaled half the city’s total population.”

In saloons, according to Hoke, “millions of American men spent a sixth of their time and almost as much of their wages.” Saloons “had more influence on more men than all the colleges from Harvard to Stanford.” They “affected profoundly politics, religion, the lives of families, the destiny of the nation…”

“Half the Democratic captains of Chicago’s first ward at the beginning of the 20th century were saloon proprietors,” Kingsdale tells us. “One-third of Milwaukee’s 46 city councilmen in 1902 were saloon-keepers, as were about a third of Detroit’s aldermen at the end of the 19th century. Tweed’s ‘Boodle Board’ of aldermen was composed in half of saloon-keepers or ex-saloon-keepers; in 1884 nearly two-thirds of the political conventions and primaries in New York City were held in saloons; and in 1890 eleven of New York City’s 24 aldermen were saloon-keepers.”

Unfortunately, Kingsdale didn’t delve into saloon politics in Philadelphia. We’ll have to leave that story to future research, or, if we like, our florid historical imagination.

Detail of Jacob Binder’s Saloon, Northeast corner Thompson Street and Germantown Avenue, June 9, 1902, Photograph by Hervey B. Harmer (PhillyHistory.org)

[Sources: Madelon Powers, Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon, 1870-1920 (The University of Chicago Press, 1998); Travis Hoke, Corner Saloon. The American Mercury, March 1931, pp. 311-322; Jon M. Kingsdale, “Social Functions of the Urban Working-Class Saloon,” American Quarterly, vol. 25, No. 4. (Oct., 1973); “Comparative Saloon Table,” The Inquirer, May 28, 1888, p. 4.]

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