Originally published in 1931, this edition is a delightful facsimile reprint by the University of Chicago Press. Also included are an enlightening introduction and helpful end-notes by Bill Savage.
The author, George Ade, is an under-appreciated Chicago reporter, humorist, and playwright. He was especially known for his ability to reflect the vernacular of the commoners in his work, which is very much in evidence in this book. True to his journalistic background, the subtitle of this book is “Not Wet — Not Dry, Just History,” by which Ade means that it is neither pro-alcohol (“wet”) nor anti-alcohol (“dry”). And throughout the book, which focuses on the saloon culture that was lost due to Prohibition, he sticks to his promise. It’s descriptive, factual, and fascinating, but presented without judgement.
Without judgement, but with full appreciation and a definite mourning for what was lost. Since this was written during Prohibition, with no foreknowledge of its eventual repeal, the book is an interesting snapshot in time. And even though the country eventually broke free of its delusion and corrected the mistake, the corner saloon never returned in the same way.
There’s much here to like, and most of it is best read or retold over a drink, but here are a couple of things that stood out to me:
- Ade describes a culture of saloon singing, much of it fueled by the popular Delaney Song Books. Some of my best college memories involve the drinking songs of my fraternity (Ade was a Greek, too) so this really spoke to me. Alas, today, one can’t break into a rousing group sing-a-long, unless you’re in a karaoke bar, I suppose.
- Regarding the proliferation of tied houses in Chicago, the breweries were not very selective with whom they partnered. Many of their conscripted proprietors had to resort to underage peddling and other nefarious activities to stay afloat, thus fueling the anti-saloon movement that doomed their existence.
- Closing saloons led to more drinking at home, which primarily consisted of cocktails (hard liquor) and not beer. A textbook unintended consequence.
- The separation of “wet” and “dry” proponents was largely an urban vs rural divide. Echoing the political problems we still suffer with today.
- Although I had read about this before, Ade provides some new (to me) detail about Mickey Finn, the bartender on South State Street, who originated the knockout drops that allowed ladies to rob paramours while they were unconscious.
- The term “scofflaw” is a Prohibition coinage, referring to people who drank despite the Volstead Act and its enforcers.