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 Amazon.com and Indigo.