CARRY AMELIA MOORE GLOYD NATION was six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache. Her mother believed herself to be Queen Victoria. Her first husband was a rotten drunk. Her religious passions led her to sit on her organ bench and talk to Christ, “my constant companion,” playing a musical accompaniment as the conversation proceeded. She once described herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like,” and she applauded the assassination of William O. McKinley, “a whey-faced tool of Republican thieves, rummies, and devils.” She said she published her newspaper, The Smasher’s Mail, so “the public could see by my editorials that I was not insane.”
Well, maybe. But of all the liquor haters stationed along the steep and twisting path from temperance to Prohibition, none quite hated it with Carry Nation’s vigor or attacked it with her rapturous glee. In her autobiography, a document about as lucid as a swamp, Nation nevertheless approaches coherence when she describes the methodology that made her famous in her campaign against the “jointists”—that is, the saloon operators. In early 1901, the same year her put-upon second husband divorced her on grounds of desertion, she picked up the weapon that would become her Excalibur: a hatchet.
This is how the Senate Bar, a Topeka saloon favored by state officials, fell to a Nation attack (or, using another of her neologisms, a “hatchetation”): “I ran behind the bar,” she wrote,
smashed the mirror and all the bottles under it; picked up the cash register, threw it down; then broke the faucets of the refrigerator, opened the door and cut the rubber tubes that conducted the beer. Of course it began to fly all over the house. I threw over the slot machine, breaking it up and I got from it a sharp piece of iron with which I opened the bungs of the beer kegs, and opened the faucets of the barrels, and then the beer flew in every direction and I was completely saturated. A policeman came in and very good-naturedly arrested me.
She concluded, “Mr. Cook was sheriff and I was treated very nicely by him and Mrs. Cook.”
Nation had been wielding a prosaic armamentarium of rocks, hammers, bricks, lead canes, and iron rods before the hatchet made her famous. The hatchet soon transformed itself from weapon to symbol to calling card for her new career as a platform speaker (she sold miniature replicas everywhere she went). Though the Prohibition lectures she delivered on the vaudeville circuit sometimes found surprisingly attentive audiences (“They need me,” she explained), Nation was as likely to be the object of sport, especially when she spoke to college students. At Yale a group of undergraduates tricked her into posing with a tankard of beer in her hand while they puddled into laughter behind her. She wasn’t openly ridiculed at Harvard, but was nonetheless appalled by what she encountered there and urged parents to rise up against such “slaughter, bloody anarchy, and treason.” This dithyramb had a specific provocation: “While I was at Harvard,” she wrote with grave alarm, “I saw Professors smoking cigarettes.”
It may have been easy to dismiss Nation as a sideshow, but like her nonviolent predecessors, she must have had something to do with the undeniable fact that the children and grandchildren of the Washingtonians’ generation were drinking much less hard liquor than had their forebears. All the prayer, the agitation, the indoctrination, and the political activity had to some degree worked. By the end of the nineteenth century, production and consumption of whiskey and other distilled spirits had declined substantially, to a per capita figure not radically dissimilar from what it would be a full hundred years later.
But this change in habit disguised the cold fact that something had come along to replace the rotgut, moonshine, grain alcohol, and all those other cheap elixirs, as potent as battery acid, that had been the basic stock of the down-at-heels saloon. Picture Carry Nation in that Topeka bar, hatchet in hand, her black dress saturated in the liquid bursting from the faucets she had opened and from the rubber tubing she had slashed: just as Nation was drenched in beer, so was the entire country. In 1850 Americans drank 36 million gallons of the stuff; by 1890 annual consumption had exploded to 855 million gallons. During that four-decade span, while the population tripled, that population’s capacity for beer had increased twenty-four-fold.
There was nothing mysterious about this change. Immigration was responsible, of course, at first from Ireland and Germany. The Germans brought not only beer itself but a generation of men who knew how to make it, how to market it, and how to pretend it was something it was not. The four-year-old United States Brewers’ Association declared in 1866 that hard liquor caused “domestic misery, pauperism, disease and crime.” On the other hand, the brewers maintained, beer was “liquid bread.”*
It also was the substance that composed the ocean upon which a vast new armada of saloons was launched. As the cities filled with immigrants; as a similar settlement of the West accelerated, particularly in the predominantly male lumber camps and mining towns (the states in the Northwest, wrote historian John Higham, “were competing with each other for Europeans to people their vacant lands and develop their economies”); and as a clever and worldly young brewer named Adolphus Busch figured out that pasteurization kept beer fresh enough to ship across the country on the newly completed transcontinental railroad, it became the national beverage.
That the proliferation of saloons was abetted by immigrants (usually German or Bohemian), largely for immigrants (members of those nationalities, but also Irish, Slavs, Scandinavians, and many, many others), was not lost on the moralists of the WCTU and other temperance organizations. As early as 1876 Frances Willard had referred in a speech to “the infidel foreign population of our country.” Near the end of her career, Willard called on Congress to pass immigration restrictions to keep out “the scum of the Old World.” In the Mesabi and Vermilion ranges of northern Minnesota, congressional investigators counted 256 saloons in fifteen mining towns, their owners representing eighteen distinct immigrant nationalities. “If a new colony of foreigners appears” in Chicago, the muckraker George Kibbe Turner wrote in 1909, “some compatriot is set at once to selling them liquor. Italians, Greeks, Lithuanians, Poles—all the rough and hairy tribes which have been drawn to Chicago—have their trade exploited to the utmost.” U.S. census figures indicated that 80 percent of licensed saloons were owned by first-generation Americans. Among the rapidly proliferating unlicensed operations, the percentage could only have been higher.
There was no typical saloon. In Portland, Oregon, for instance, you could take your beer at August Erickson’s polished mahogany bar, a wonder of marketing and craftsmanship wrapping around all four sides of a grand room nearly the size of a city block. But farther down Burnside Street, you were likely to find a dark, fetid place whose most notable feature was the metal trough that ran below the bar on the patrons’ side, stinking of spilled beer and, according to historian Madelon Powers, the urine of customers whose bladders were temporary holding tanks for the beer they gulped by the gallon.* Lucy Adams, a schoolteacher who arrived in Portland in 1902, described a scene that could have existed outside both Erickson’s and the rougher places: “The stench of stale beer and whiskey often mixed with the nauseating smell of vomit on the sidewalks, and drunken staggering men blocking my way almost turned my stomach.” From some saloons, she added, “I saw men and women and even children emerging onto the sidewalk carrying pails of beer to take to their homes.” Jacob Riis noted the same phenomenon in New York: “I doubt if one child in a thousand, who brings his growler to be filled at the average New York bar, is sent away empty-handed.” A growler was a metal pail, its inside often smeared with lard. This may have corrupted the flavor, but it had an economic benefit: it kept down the foam, leaving room for more beer.
In all, the best estimates indicate that the number of saloons in the United States increased from 100,000 in 1870 to nearly 300,000 by 1900. In Leadville, South Dakota, population 20,000, there was one saloon for every 100 inhabitants—women, children, and abstainers included. San Francisco in 1890 might have seemed barely more saloon-sodden than that, reporting one for every 96 residents—but this was a measure only of the city’s 3,000 licensed establishments, while less restrictive estimates threw in an additional 2,000 unlicensed places. Visiting Cincinnati at the peak of her renown, Carry Nation was asked why she had not taken to the local streets with her hatchet. Her answer would have been just as apt in dozens of American cities: “I would have dropped from exhaustion before I had gone a block.”
Jacob Riis had more energy than Nation did, perhaps because his weapons—a camera and a notebook—were less taxing to use than her hatchet. Conducting research in 1889 and 1890 for what would become his epoch-shaping exposé How the Other Half Lives, Riis set out to count Manhattan’s saloons south of Fourteenth Street. When he wrote up his findings he decided to make his point about “the saloon’s colossal shadow” over the lives of the immigrant poor by juxtaposing the number with a count of churches in the same area. Saloons won in a landslide, of course, 4,065–111. More to the point, though, was Riis’s observation that in the saloons “the congregations are larger by a good deal [than in the churches]; certainly the attendance is steadier and the contributions more liberal the week round, Sunday included.”
It may have been a rueful acknowledgment, but Riis knew the intensity with which the huddled masses yearned to drink freely. If you considered the nasty living conditions that Riis and others chronicled, it was difficult not to see that the saloon offered something very valuable: in the best cases companionship and comfort, in the worst an escape into oblivion. After a visit to some of the city’s tenements, Henry Codman Potter, Episcopal bishop of New York, expressed wonder “not that the poor creatures who live in them drink so much, but they drink so little.” In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair—an antialcohol campaigner for decades—described why his brutalized Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, habitually followed a day’s labor in the “steaming pit of hell” that was the meatpacking plant with a trip to the saloon: he was seeking “a respite, a deliverance—he could drink! He could forget the pain, he could slip off the burden, he could see clearly again, he would be master of his brain, of his thoughts, of his will.” In a word, “His dead self would stir in him.” Jack London, who knew whereof he spoke, gave saloon culture a more exalted coloration: in the saloon, he wrote, “life was different. Men talked with great voices, laughed great laughs, and there was an atmosphere of greatness.”
The typical saloon featured offerings besides drink and companionship, particularly in urban immigrant districts and in the similarly polyglot mining and lumber settlements. In these places, where a customer’s ties to a neighborhood might be new and tenuous, saloonkeepers cashed paychecks, extended credit, supplied a mailing address or a message drop for men who had not yet found a permanent home, and in some instances provided sleeping space at five cents a night. In port cities on the East Coast and the Great Lakes, the saloonkeeper was often the labor contractor for dock work. Many saloons had the only public toilets or washing facilities in the neighborhood, and by the 1890s most saloonkeepers had realized there was indeed such a thing as a free lunch—the complimentary spread they’d use to lure customers and promote the sale of beer. Jon M. Kingsdale, a historian of saloon life, described the free lunch offered by a typical working-class saloon in Chicago’s Seventeenth Ward: “a choice of frankfurters, clams, egg sandwiches, potatoes, vegetables, cheeses, bread and several varieties of hot and cold meats.” Other places may not have been quite so openhanded, but even a humble assortment of sardines, pickles, pretzels, and crackers guaranteed the one thing a hungry saloongoer could count on: the food would be so salty that only another schooner of suds could quell his thirst. The sardines “were more than fish,” wrote George Ade in The Old-Time Saloon. “They were silent partners.”
A naïf wandering into a saloon in, say, 1905 would have been struck not only by the generous buffet but also by the decorations that surrounded it. One ornament on many saloon walls was a cast-iron hatchet with a die-cut profile of Carry Nation’s face adorning the blade and the slogan “All Nations Welcome But Carrie” in bas-relief on the handle. (Although christened “Carry,” Nation used both spellings.) Even the dingiest of dives was almost certain to have on the wall above the back bar a large chromolithograph of Cassily Adams’s famous Custer’s Last Fight or some comparable heroic scene. Another standard adornment was a painted mirror, usually depicting a female nude, ample of flesh and suggestive of pose. Someone unfamiliar with saloon economics might understandably wonder how it was that a saloonkeeper could buy such relatively lush appurtenances while peddling something as cheap as beer.
In fact, the saloonkeepers didn’t buy the paintings or the mirrors, or in many cases the furniture, the brass footrails, the iron or porcelain spittoons, even the cutlery in the drawers and the glassware shelved beneath the bar. They didn’t have to pick up the tab for the food, either. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, saloonkeepers had become subsidized servants of the institutions that paid for everything: the breweries themselves.
It was an obvious evolutionary step. As pasteurization, refrigeration, and an efficient network of rail lines developed, so did national brewing companies. The consequent competition was played for higher stakes than before, and the surest way a brewer could secure his piece of the local action was through the “tied house.” If a saloon operator would agree to serve only one brand of beer, the brewer would provide cash, loans, and whatever other emoluments were necessary to furnish the place, stock the lunch table, meet the license fee (which in some cities ran as high as $1,500), and when necessary line the pockets of a politician or three.
A modest personal investment could thus be leveraged into a going business. Wrote George Kibbe Turner, “No man with two hundred dollars, who was not subject to arrest on sight, need go without a saloon in Chicago.” At one point half the city’s population patronized a saloon on an average day, a flood accommodated by the competition among the breweries: if Gustave Pabst’s agents bankrolled a place on one corner, you could count on Adolphus Busch’s men showing up to finance another one across the street. By 1909 some 70 percent of American saloons—in New York and Chicago, more than 80 percent—were owned by, in debt to, or otherwise indentured to the breweries.
This was a fortress worth defending. Escalating competition within the industry did not keep the brewers from lining up shoulder to shoulder when confronted with a common enemy. When they first came together to oppose the excise tax on alcohol that had been levied to finance the Civil War, they expressed their solidarity by conducting their convention proceedings entirely in German. At the end of the war, although they couldn’t get rid of the tax, they did lobby successfully to have it reduced from a dollar a barrel to sixty cents per. Only slowly did it dawn on them that the more their industry was intertwined with the needs of the federal government, the likelier they were to acquire allies in the fight against the temperance movement. By 1875 fully one-third of federal revenues came from the beer keg and the whiskey bottle, a proportion that would increase in the years ahead and that would come to be described by a temperance leader in 1913, not inaccurately, as “a bribe on the public conscience.”
But even with a bribe securely in place, the brewers could not ignore the growing antialcohol sentiment challenging their very existence. In 1867 the United States Brewers’ Association by formal resolution characterized the temperance movement as “fanatical” and vowed to oppose any candidate “of whatever party, in any election, who is in any way disposed toward the total abstinence cause.” Soon the brewers began to create and support a string of propaganda and lobbying organizations whose names never quite said what they really were: the first was the National Protective Organization, which became the Personal Liberty League, which in time was supplanted by the National Association of Commerce and Labor. It would have been just as accurate to call any one of them Euphemists for Legal Beer.*
As the stakes increased and as the WCTU and its allies gained adherents, so did the brewers’ tactics sharpen. By 1890 the terms “wet” and “dry,” as both adjectives and nouns (the latter spawning a plural form, “drys,” that could not have survived the Age of Spell-Check), had come into general use, an indication that the country at large had begun to divide itself over the Prohibition issue. The brewers took their campaign to the public, but not always in public; by surreptitiously paying newspaper editors to run anti-prohibitionist articles, they remained to a large degree offstage. When the purchase of editorial backing was insufficient, they set their sights on politicians. In 1900 a family friend wrote to Gustave Pabst about an Idaho alfalfa rancher and former U.S. senator named Fred T. DuBois who was trying to return to Washington: “I think it could be for the interest of the brewers to secure his cooperation—he is aggressive and able—if you think well of it—send me $1000–$5000. I think it will be the best investment you ever made.” As this took place in the era when U.S. senators were chosen by state legislators and not by popular vote, one can be confident that the money wasn’t meant to underwrite the purchase of bumper stickers. DuBois was returned to the Senate for another term, and the leading historian of the Pabst company suggests he did so with some of the family’s money tucked into his wallet.
THE MOST FORCEFUL advocate of the brewers’ anti-Prohibition campaign was the most accomplished man in the industry, Adolphus Busch. The youngest of twenty-one children of a prosperous Rhineland merchant, Busch immigrated to the United States in 1857, went into the brewery supply business, and in 1861, at twenty-two, married Lilly Anheuser, the daughter of one of his customers. (The familial bond did not lack for further adhesive, as Adolphus’s brother Ulrich married Lilly’s sister Anna.) Adolphus soon took over the management of his father-in-law’s company and in time appended his surname to it.
Busch was a genuine visionary. Where others saw brewing as a fairly straightforward enterprise, he saw it as the core of a vertically integrated series of businesses. He built glass factories and ice plants. He acquired railway companies to ferry coal from mines he owned in Illinois to the vast Anheuser-Busch factory complex sprawled across seventy acres of St. Louis riverfront. (A local joke: St. Louis was “a large city on the [banks of the] Mississippi, located near the Anheuser-Busch plant.”) Busch got into the business of manufacturing refrigerated rail cars and truck bodies that could be used not just by breweries but also by such substantial customers as the Armour meatpacking company. He paid one million dollars for exclusive U.S. rights to a novel engine technology developed by his countryman Rudolf Diesel, and for $30,000 purchased the painting of Custer’s Last Stand that, with the Anheuser-Busch logotype prominently appended, would soon grace the walls of thousands upon thousands of saloons. In 1875 Busch produced thirty-five thousand barrels of beer; by 1901, his annual output—primarily of a light lager named for the Bohemian town of Budweis—surpassed a million barrels. His brewery became so well known that it even inspired a popular song, the deathless “Under the Anheuser Bush,” by the authors of “Wait ’Til the Sun Shines, Nellie.” (From the chorus: “Come, come, come and make eyes with me, / Under the Anheuser Bush.”)
Adolphus had a potent personal aura. He spoke five languages, built palaces for himself and his wife in St. Louis, Pasadena, Cooperstown, and Wiesbaden, and traveled in a style appropriate for the monarch he was. Whenever Adolphus and Lilly returned from a trip to their home at Number One Busch Place (situated right on company property in St. Louis), brewery employees fired a cannon. Coupled with his company’s preeminence in the industry, his grand manner enabled him to dominate industry councils. This became especially clear in 1903, when he helped craft an agreement, eventually signed by nine breweries, to fund a committee “promoting anti-prohibition matters in Texas,” one of Anheuser-Busch’s largest markets. When some brewers expressed an unwillingness to continue underwriting the committee’s activities, Busch argued, “It may cost us millions and even more,” he wrote, “but what of it if thereby we elevate our position?” He concluded his appeal by offering another $100,000 of Anheuser-Busch support for the Texas campaign, money that would help fund such “anti-prohibition matters” as paying the poll taxes of blacks and Mexican-Americans who were expected to vote for legal beer, purchasing the editorial support of newspapers (according to an internal report, “We have sent checks in advance, and the average country editor, struggling to make a living, hates to return checks”), and engaging in some rather more mysterious activities. In 1910, after the brewers’ political agent in east-central Texas was able to undo a dry victory in Robertson County, he explained that he had engineered the reversal through means that “are best not written about.”
Busch’s motives went beyond the merely pecuniary: “Besides losing our business by state-wide prohibition,” he wrote during the Texas battle, “we would lose our honor and standing of ourselves and our families, and rather than lose that, we should risk the majority of our fortunes.” It was the sort of call to arms that inspired both employees and competitors, and that led to something of a national festival in 1911, when Adolphus and Lilly’s golden anniversary was marked by celebrations in thirty-five cities. A similar nationwide outpouring of respect and love from the brewing industry occurred two years later, when Adolphus Busch died, at the age of seventy-four, from cirrhosis of the liver.
IN 1915, when the formal effort to put the prohibition of alcoholic beverages into the Constitution was just beginning to accelerate, the members of the USBA found a catalog of the sins of the saloon nailed to their figurative door. As summarized by Hugh Fox, an English vicar’s son whom the brewers had hired to be their chief strategist, it sounded like an index to the most fevered of WCTU dreams: “selling in prohibited hours, gambling, selling to intoxicated men, rear rooms, unclean places, invading residential districts, the country saloon, the social evil, selling to minors, keeping open at night, brewers financing ignorant foreigners who are not citizens, the American bar, brewery-controlled saloons, cabarets, Sunday selling, treating, free lunch, sales to speakeasies, bucket trade, signs, screens, character of the men, too many saloons.”
It’s unlikely that anyone had produced so succinct a summary of the transgressions of the saloon business in the four decades since Mother Thompson had fallen to her knees in a Hillsboro joint. But this particular compilation did not come directly from the prohibitionist camp. It was assembled by William Piel, a Brooklyn brewer, to indicate the extent of the mess in which the brewers now found themselves. Despite the millions they had expended to combat the temperance forces, despite the tens of millions who enjoyed (or depended upon or were enslaved by) their product, the brewers had a serious problem.
You could tell how serious it was just from the circumstances of Hugh Fox’s presentation: he spoke at a meeting of the “joint harmony committee” of brewers and distillers. For these two to harmonize was as likely as a group of alley cats howling a major chord. Although the beer men and the liquor men had occasionally attempted to come together over the preceding decades to fight the temperance troops, each side was convinced that association with the other would be more like infection. In 1871, when both groups were still trying to reduce the federal alcohol tax that had survived the Civil War, a trade magazine called the American Brewers’ Gazette and Distillers’ Journal lopped off the second half of its title when the brewers declared that their interests and the distillers’ were “not only not identical, but, on the contrary, decidedly inimical.” In the ensuing years, even as the distillers organized themselves into a powerful trust consisting of eighty-one companies spread from Maine to California, the brewers regarded them as lepers. The distillers produced “the worst and cheapest kind of concoctions,” Adolphus Busch told a friend, while the brewers made “light, wholesome drinks.”
The distillers were equally narrow in their perceived self-interest. When they adopted a program of saloon reform under the rubric of the Model License League, whereby the number of saloon licenses would be limited by law, and bad conduct (selling to minors, ignoring closing hours, and so on) could lead to revocation of a license, they effectively put themselves in permanent opposition to the brewers—who happened to own most of the saloons the Model License League would limit. “You cannot prevent prohibition by maintaining that beer is less harmful than whiskey. The strength of the [Prohibition] movement is due to the prejudice against the saloon,” the Cincinnati distiller Morris F. Westheimer told one of the meetings ostensibly called to bring the two camps together. Westheimer pointed out that the distillers, much of whose business had largely moved from dependence on sale by the drink to sale “in the original package,” would “prosper without the saloon.” And he told the brewers that if they chose to go it alone and continue to assault the distillers in their effort to save their own necks, the distillers would agitate to close the saloons altogether. He concluded, “Your separation would force us to cooperate with the enemy.”
Westheimer delivered his speech in 1914, but for all its mighty rhetoric and persuasive logic, he might as well have been talking to a classroom of kindergartners. For by then, the enemy didn’t particularly need the cooperation of anyone who wasn’t part of the broad and highly unlikely alliance now spearheaded by a potent organization called the Anti-Saloon League. The league had been founded in 1893 by the Reverend Howard Hyde Russell, but it was not Russell’s way to claim parentage. “The Anti-Saloon League movement,” he said many years later, “was begun by Almighty God.”
* Some temperance activists did acknowledge that beer was not as dangerous as the hard stuff. Rev. Lyman Beecher (father of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe) said that beer “enables the victim to come down to his grave . . . with more of the good-natured stupidity of the idiot, and less of the demonic frenzy of the madman.”
* Although these gutters were likely designed strictly to drain away spillage, Powers reports that in her research for Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon, 1870–1920, she learned that they were commonly called “pissing troughs.”
* Distillers played this game, too. For fifty-two years, Chicago liquor dealers published a trade journal called The Champion of Fair Play.