The city law that turned corner bars into brothels

This is the story of the spectacular failure of a law, a precursor to Prohibition, that interfered with New Yorkers’ fondness for local taverns.

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]

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10 Responses to “The city law that turned corner bars into brothels”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    The free lunch era well predated the Raines law, although that undoubtedly helped it along. As usual, your post reminded me of an old song, in this case John Philip Sousa’s Free Lunch Cadets:

    “Oh, sauerkraut and barley soup, and corn-beef by the slice,
    Red herrings sprinkled o’er with salt, we tell you they are nice.
    Limburger cheese and mushroom pie, and hot corn by the ear—
    You wouldn’t have, you couldn’t get, a better bill of fare”

    –Road to Parnassus

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Mmmm, sounds like some hearty 19th century pub grub!

  3. petey Says:

    that bartender in the lower pic has some skillz.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    They really knew how to mix drinks back in the day!

  5. wordgrl Says:

    Maybe the reason “happy hour” snacks came to be.

  6. nycedges Says:

    Oh if only politicians could learn from history….
    ps; thanks Petey, almost missed that gravity defying bartender!

  7. focusoninfinity Says:

    There are two types of law clients, and two types of lawyers for those clients; those who go to lawyers seeking how to legally, successfully obey the law; vs. those seeking how to successfully evade the law. Thus you have exhibited how historically, the Raines Act was evaded–legally.

    Tax lawyers also have similar, if not the same; two types of clients. In old France, I’m told that city buildings were taxed by their total number of stories; the top-most story supposedly ending where it’s up-side, met the downside line of the roof above. Internal levels, or floors; above the roof-line, were not taxed. Thus roof-lines, even with windows within; un-like fashionable mademoiselle’s dresses, crept lower, and lower. Thus evaded taxes, and French architects; invented the once in-fashion, Mansard Roof.

    Meanwhile in the early American colonies; windows, especially with window glass in them, were only the want of the wealthy; and so taxed; the bigger the glass pane, the bigger the tax pain. So where in France, tax policy was the mademoiselle of invention, that of the architect’s Mansard roof. Contrarily , in the American colonies; tax-policy was the stifling of invention; of the improved, ever-larger sized glass, with attending ever-higher taxes,

    • Martin B. Says:

      In the city of Bath, in England a similar window tax was introduced. Many owners simply bricked up windows to reduce the tax. They can still be seen in many of the older buildings. The upshot, of course, was that the bricked up windows decreased the amount of sunlight in the rooms, and the taxes were referred to as ‘daylight robbery’, which is where the phrase comes from.

  8. Mike Davi Says:

    Why does the sign behind the bar in the 2nd illustration say Tom & Jerry?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Not sure, but a Tom and Jerry was a popular Christmastime cocktail in the 19th century, so perhaps it’s a reference to the drink.

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