Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Cloud Club

Today, in 1930, the Chrysler building officially opened. The Cloud Club - the "speakeasy" on the top floors - wouldn't open until July but, obviously, much of it had already been built by the time the building opened. It's a bit of a misnomer to call it a speakeasy, since it was actually a very high-end men's only private club, replete with a dining room, barber shop, stock-ticker room and humidor in addition to a well-stocked liquor cabinet for its members to use. It closed in 1979.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Mos Eisley Cantina

Today in 1977, one of the best bar scenes in the history of film appeared in theatres, the Mos Eisley Cantina scene. I'm not a massive Star Wars fan or anything but I think it should pointed out how wonderfully faithful this science fiction representation is to the history of American bars. The Cantina is a diverse meeting place for people from all walks. And, yet, they don't serve C3PO. On top of this, even in an imagined final frontier, the Mos Eisley Cantina is where a hero like Luke Skywalker hooks up with smuggler Han Solo to form a rebel alliance, this time for the purpose of blowing up the Death Star. Take a little break and watch this gem again, 34 years old today.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An ad for the Pullman car, 1894

May 11, 1894

The Pullman Strike happened today in 1894. It was a wildcat strike and wound up being one of the most influential in history—the end result was a ruling that forcing employees to live in a company town was unconstitutional. One of the many interesting things about company towns, is that in England, where they were established, they tended to be established by people with arguable progressive tendencies, who wanted to see workers live in better conditions. In America, they were adopted by robber barons, who wanted to enforce local prohibitions. Pullman, Illinois, was a place with a very high cost of living. It was also nearly bone dry—no saloons allowed. George Pullman, incidentally, was known for the Pullman car, which housed wine cellars for business travelers’ convenience. Saloons for the working classes, however, were frowned upon by industrialists like Pullman, who wanted a sober work force.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

May 10, 1849

Today in 1849, the Astor Place Riot broke out. Some will be surprised to learn that it was over an interpretation of Macbeth; nobody who follows this blog will be surprised that it can be traced to 19th century saloon politics.

The American people, especially saloon-goers, were passionate about Shakespeare in the 19th century. It was as important a topic of conversation in the bar-room as, say, sports might be today. And, it so happened that at the time in New York, there were two very different performances of Macbeth vying for the public’s attention. One was being performed by William Charles Macready, a Brit with a reputation for staid and traditional performances, the other by Edwin Forrest, a wildly popular American actor who had a little more fun with his roles. Macready was performing at the Astor House, which was frequented by the upper-classes.

So far, this may not sound like the makings of a riot—especially not one in which 25 people were killed. But Captain Isaiah Rynders, unofficial leader of the opposition in New York, was on the job and he was trying to make the mayor look bad. For days, he wound up the troops at his saloon with free drinks and tickets to the Astor House performance. By the time the saloon mob hit the theatre, it was frenzied and mad. This was the end of the Astor House (now known as DisAstor) theatre. Incidentally, it didn’t help the reputation of that Scottish play much either. For more fascinating bits of saloon history, consider buying the book America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops, available for pre-order at Amazon and Indigo.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

May 4, 1886 – Today in bar history.
Today marks yet another anniversary of the Chicago Haymarket Square Riot, which polarized Americans for many years after. Many, like Emma Goldman, who were merely sympathetic with labor and anti-establishment philosophy, became anarchists, while others, who had no sympathy for unions and labor activists, became hard-liner anti-immigrant anti-saloonists.

The connection between Haymarket and the saloons may not be immediate apparent. But it is greater than you might even imagine, since German-born American Anarchists and labour leaders organized almost entirely in saloons. And the bomb which was thrown at the Chicago riot was traced (albeit, probably erroneously) to the “Monday Night Conspiracy,” which was said to have been hatched in a saloon.

Those convicted for having taken part in the conspiracy were victims of an unfair judicial process, to be sure. And this fact made many moderate labour activists far more militant. As I mentioned before, on the other side, those concerned about “foreign-born” terrorism made the most out of the link between the bomb and the saloon and worked to have it shut down. The Anti-Saloon League was formed within a decade of the Haymarket Affair. My soon-to-be-released book, America Walks into a Bar, detailing more of this story available for pre-order here.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Pictured above "A Downtown Morgue" (photo by Jacob Riis)

It's Jacob Riis' birthday today. He's one of my heroes, even though he was no friend to the saloon. He was anti-saloon and devoted a significant portion of his pioneering polemic, How the Other Half Lives, to attacking the saloon in chapters like "The Reign of Rum," which began thusly:

WHERE God builds a church the devil builds next door—a saloon, is an old saying that has lost its point in New York. Either the devil was on the ground first, or he has been doing a good deal more in the way of building. I tried once to find out how the account stood, and counted to 111 Protestant churches, chapels, and places of worship of every kind below Fourteenth Street, 4,065 saloons. The worst half of the tenement population lives down there, and it has to this day the worst half of the saloons.

However, it's important to note that corrupt machine politics were operating almost entirely out of saloons. And Riis, at least, understood that the greater problem, which fed the saloons was poverty and inhumane tenement housing.

To their misery it (the saloon) sticketh closer than a brother, persuading them that within its doors only is refuge, relief. It has the best of the argument, too, for it is true, worse pity, that in many a tenement-house block the saloon is the one bright and cheery and humanly decent spot to be found. It is a sorry admission to make, that to bring the rest of the neighborhood up to the level of the saloon would be one way of squelching it; but it is so.

In my forthcoming book, Riis is a pretty big character, especially in the chapter that deals with how the saloon was used to consolidate political power in the late 19th century - largely for the Democrats. (Though the Republicans were hardly innocent of this technique, either.) This, incidentally, helped to fuel the Anti-Saloon League, which was largely responsible for the successful push for Prohibition. The book, America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops, is available for pre-order on and Indigo.