Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saloons in the Progressive Era

I recently read Royal Melendy's "The Saloon in Chicago" published in
Journal of Sociology in 1910. A sociologist, Melendy examined the saloon as a cultural institution. He was consciously working to disarm the arguments of the hysterical reformers -- the Carrie Nation types -- who viewed saloons as nothing more or less than dens if iniquity. To counter this powerful group, Melendy argues that these establishments served as important community centers by providing valuable services. Using a characterization of his own, he sympathetically depicts the hard working saloon patron who needed to escape his dismal, cramped tenement apartments with its chorus of crying kids, and his "unkempt wife," after a hard day at work to socialize with his peers. In addition to this purely social function, Melendy argues saloons allowed patrons to discuss politics (playing to the Progressive ideal of democracy), and do what we a century later call networking for employment. They provided newspapers and other literature a common laborer would have considered a luxury if he had to pay for them out of his own pocket. Moreover, saloons provided entertainment, unavailable in the home. Finally, Melendy argues that the 163 saloons he studied, 111 provided free food. This fact led him to argue that saloons did more good for the hungry in the Windy Cit than "all the charity organizations in Chicago combined." In his study, Melendy found that the complimentary grub was available to all comers, even those who did not consume alcohol. Having presented the saloon as force of good in the community, he does admit that it had some unpleasant features as well, such as gambling and prostitution, but he great downplays them. Regarding the former, only 3 of the 163 saloons he surveyed permitted gambling. As for the latter, he argues an occasional prostitute can slip in, but it is a rare event. Overall, he was probably much closer to the truth than were the the temperance and prohibitionists who implied that every patron of a saloon was a drunken mess who neglected his family by blowing his entire paycheck on booze, gambling, and prostitution. On the other hand, I felt Melendy overplayed the free food aspect of the saloon. It was not a soup kitchen. Then, as now, they were businesses that used salty snacks to lure in thirsty customers. In a way I felt bad for Melendy. He was a sociologist when that field felt it was at the height of its power. They believed government officials would actually use their objective and scientific studies for more effective policy planning. As we know, they were largely ignored. The great W.E.B. DuBois grew disgusted at how his work on African-Americans in Philadelphia failed to stir decisive political action. We also know that the prohibitionists triumphed in the following decade despite Melendy's best arguments that saloons provided valuable services to their local communities. Nevertheless, we historians must be thankful for their work, which has been and continues to be, an outstanding window in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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