In the 1890s, the temperance movement, already making progress nationally, was bearing down hard on New York City.
Progressive reformers and groups like the Anti-Saloon League lobbied city leaders to curb, if not end, the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the city.
The result was the Raines Law, passed in 1896, “which raised licensing fees for saloons and prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays, except in restaurants and hotels with ten or more beds,” explains Michael A. Lerner’s Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City.
How did bar owners beat the law? They began serving “meals” of pretzels with drinks, which city magistrates ruled “were enough of a meal to excuse many saloons from the Sunday closing laws,” writes Lerner.
“The statute also encouraged the proliferation of seedy ‘Raines Law hotels,’ created by saloon owners who partitioned back rooms and upper floors of their bars into ‘bedrooms’ to meet the new licensing requirements.
“Not only did this innovation allow Sunday drinking in the city to continue unabated; it also prompted saloon owners to rent out their back ‘bedrooms’ to prostitutes to meet the higher cost of these new licensing fees.”
More than 1,000 Raines Law hotels were established, allowing drinking and prostitution to thrive in a way Progressive reformers had never imagined.
[Images of New York bars in the 1890s from the NYPL Digital Collection]