Posts Tagged ‘Prohibition in New York City’

Manhattan’s 19th century temperance fountains

May 4, 2013

Temperancefountaintompkinssquare2Just as abortion and the death penalty are hot-button issues today, temperance divided Americans in the 19th century.

The millions of members of the American Temperance Society, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and other groups believed that banning alcohol could eliminate major social problems like poverty and crime.

These organizations were pretty powerful. But it was hard to persuade people to give up booze when alcoholic beverages were often safer to drink than water.

That’s where the temperance fountain comes in.

“The premise behind the fountains was that the availability of cool drinking water would make alcohol less tempting,” wrote Therese Loeb Kreuzer in a 2012 article in The Villager.

Temperancefountaintomkinssquare3“In the 19th century, temperance fountains could be found in cities and towns from coast to coast. Now few of them remain.”

Two still stand in Manhattan. One is in Tompkins Square Park, a strange place for a temperance fountain considering that the area was packed with beer-loving Germans at the time.

Donated by a wealthy temperance crusader who had it cast in 1888, it features a bronze figure of the Greek Goddess Hebe, cupbearer to the Gods, on top of a pedestal supported by four columns.

Blocks away on the west side of Union Square is New York’s second remaining temperance fountain. Paid for by another rich temperance convert and dating to 1881, it’s a figure of Charity that really works the innocent mother and children angle.

Temperancefountainunionsquare“Bronze dragonflies and butterflies frolic above the lions,” wrote Kreuzer in The Villager. “Then comes a richly sculpted band of acanthus leaves and birds. The ensemble is topped by a figure of a mother dressed like the Virgin Mary in a Renaissance painting. She holds a child in her right arm, while dispensing water from a jug to another child who looks at her adoringly.”

Both statues are the legacies of the movement that gave us Prohibition—and speakeasies—in the 1920s.

[Top two photos: Wikipedia]

The city law that turned corner bars into brothels

November 28, 2011

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]

A Prohibition-era ode to the lost corner bar

November 19, 2010

When Prohibition began in 1920, writer Benjamin De Casseres noticed something subtle: how the death of the corner bar altered day-to-day life:

“The corner saloon was the eye, ear, mouth of the old man.

“It was here that he saw double, listened to wisdom, spoke with boasting and Rabelaisian tongue and tickled his olfactories with the perfumes of Milwaukee and Kentucky,” he wrote in a June 1921 New York Times piece.

De Casseres noted that a rite of spring was no longer: the day when a bar owner put up the swinging “summer doors” at corner saloons.

A familiar summer scene was also gone: no more dogs putting their heads under the doors, sniffing the ground and excitedly barking at customers.

And then there were the displaced men who had no place to gather:

“On dozens of corners that I have examined I have noticed the same men standing—leaning against the wall, against the electric light pole or fire hydrant—day after day.

“There they loll, hoping for the impossible miracle . . . . They stand there dully, soberly, a little better dressed, a little worse facially for sobriety, looking blankly at the passers-by with a terrible J’accuse! on their parched lips.”

[Above left photo of Kelly Brothers Saloon at 125th Street and 8th Avenue in 1915, from the Byron Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Above right, Manny’s on Suffolk Street, from the New York Public Library digital collection]

Drinks and then some jazz on 52nd Street

March 19, 2010

Based on this vintage menu from The Hickory House, I’d guess it was a swinging little place to have cocktails and dinner and then catch a show on West 52nd Street.

That stretch of midtown used to be crowded with jazz clubs in the 1940s and 1950s.

Turns out The Hickory House, opened in 1933, was known for its steaks and jazz lineups.

But The Hickory House couldn’t have been too cool; according to the menu, they had a branch in Miami Beach. 

Still, check out these cheapo drink prices. Post-Prohibition New York City was a hard-drinking town.

A midtown luxury hotel’s slightly sordid past

May 9, 2009

The Hotel Manger proclaims itself “the wonder hotel of New York—a modern marble palace” in this late 1920s postcard. And with amenities such as “circulating ice water,” it must have been quite a luxe place to hang your hat.


It was also a luxe place to commit suicide via jumping from one of its 20 stories.

A 1927 New York Times article chronicles one suicide: “When the woman came to the hotel she was assigned to Room 1239. About 10 o’clock guests on the second floor heard a thud, and the woman’s body was seen on the top of an extension that runs over the main entrance to the hotel.”

It wasn’t just a suicide magnet; The Manger also got in trouble with the feds for reportedly serving alcohol during Prohibition. A raid resulted in the arrest of several bellboys, waiters, and two bootleggers, as well as the padlocking of the building.

Perhaps that’s why the hotel was sold in 1931 and reopened as the Hotel Taft. The Taft catered to a Broadway tourist crowd, fell on hard times in the 1970s, and shut down in 1985. It’s now the Michelangelo.