Women and Public Drinking, 1890-1920

Madelon Powers explains how bold women carved out their own space in the saloons of America.

In urban America from 1890 to 1920, when working-class taverns were popularly known as 'saloons' (derived from the French 'salon’), most customers were men who passed through the swing-doors to join their male comrades in the bar- room proper. It is important to note, however, that many saloons also had a side door known as the 'ladies' entrance'.

Through this portal passed a great many working-class women, whether alone, in groups, or with male escorts. Some were attracted by the saloon's famous free lunch; others participated in its voluminous carry- out trade; still others drank and danced at the social events it hosted. Very few of these women were prostitutes, the latter's haunts usually being the low saloons and dives of the worst slum districts. Instead, most female customers of ordinary neighbourhood saloons were either wage- earners or the wives and daughters of wage-earners who resided in the crowded tenement districts of New York, Chicago and other. urban centres during America's industrialising era.

While information about female saloon-goers is not plentiful, there is enough evidence to be found in newspaper and magazine articles, progressive reformers' literature, autobiographies, novels, and even anti-saloon literature to sketch a portrait of women, public drinking, and working-class saloons before national prohibition became official under the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution on January 16th, 1920.

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