Last year I had a short article published in Pennsylvania Heritage on the history of saloons in Pennsylvania. I was inspired by this fascinating 1906 photograph of a Williamsport saloon that I found in the Charles Ross Photograph Collection at the Pennsylvania State Archives.
I was only allowed to use one photo in the article, which was a major bummer because there were nearly 20 others that I found equally fascinating! In the course of my article research, I also came across a lot of great sources, most of which didn’t make it into the final draft. Such are the perils of writing a single page article I suppose. Thankfully I have this blog where I can share all that other good stuff with you all.
Go pour yourself a drink and take a minute to read this excerpt from The Pittsburgh Survey (1909) and its description of saloons in steel neighborhoods and saloon photographs from the PA State Archives’ Manuscript Group 280: Charles Ross Photograph Collection. And let me know which picture is your favorite! I think you’ll agree its hard to pick just one.
Citizenship in the Mill Towns
…The saloon and the lodge remain as the social centers for the steel workers.
There are other reasons, to be sure, than the desire to mingle with one’s fellows, for the popularity of the saloon’ drinking is traditional among iron and steel workers. But there is no doubt that the craving for companionship is one of the strongest reasons for its hold upon a community of workingmen. The nature of mill work is such as to make the saloon habit one of the most natural ones in the world. Practically every man is affected by the heat even if he does not have a “hot job.” The whole atmosphere is such as to induce perspiration and enhance thirst. All the workers drink water in great quantities as long as they are in the mill. Sometimes a man drinks too much, that he leaves at the end of a day’s work feeling half nauseated. Such a man steps into a saloon for a glass of something to set his stomach right. Or if a man does not overdrink during the day, he is still chronically thirsty, and it is to satisfy a real longing for drink that he stops for his beer. The dust of the mills, too, that the men have been breathing for twelve hours, sends another quota to their beer or whiskey to clear out their throats. Then comes the largest contingent of all, the men wearied with the heat and the work, some almost overcome and dragging their feet. These feel the necessity of a stimulant, and they get it day after day, regardless of the waste of physical and nervous energy involved in keeping themselves keyed up to their work by an artificial aid. I do not think I am far wrong when I say that a large majority of steel workers sincerely believe that the regular use of alcoholic drinks is essential to keep them from breaking down. It is seldom a pleasure-seeking crowd that fills the saloons after the whistle has blown at the end of a turn. The men line up at the bar, each one taking one drink and paying for it himself. The first line of men put down their glasses and leave, and the bar is filled again with a second group. There are very few who take more than one drink on coming from the mill.
There is more conviviality on Saturday nights and after pay days than on an ordinary midweek night. Then is the time the men relax; and the treating is done. The saloon becomes a social center and the men find the fellowship that they crave. It is a following of the line of least resistance that makes the saloon supplant all better forms of social life. A man does not need to change his clothing and get a shave before he is made welcome here. He may come covered with the grime of the mill and not feel out of place. In slack times, when the mills are not running, the saloon becomes a regular meeting place, and men go there primarily for companionship, the drinking becoming secondary. Ordinarily one does not see very much drunkenness. The men want to be fit for work the next day. On the eve of a holiday some will go too far, but these are most likely to be the unskilled workmen. The only men whom I found in a state of intoxication when I looked for them at their homes were blast furnace men- men who had been working for months without a holiday or a Sunday. The men I refer to had had a brief holiday and the spent it in the only way they knew. The better class of steel workers, who view their fellows with a sympathetic eye, explain the holiday intoxication as a certain element in the industry as a logical result of steady work and the long day. After weeks and months of work, twelve hours a day, and no holidays, a man gets far behind in his accumulation of the pleasure that he feels to be his due. When a holiday comes it is all to short to collect the overdue bill; pleasure of a concentrated sort must be sought in order to make up for lost time.
As a result of all these cumulative promptings, the saloons take more of the steelworker’s money than do many of the legitimate business interests of the mill town. During 1907 there were 30 saloons in Duquesne, a mill town of 10,000 or 12,000 population. I was told in 1908, by one who was in a position to know, that the leading saloonkeeper in his borough drew from the bank, regularly, every two weeks, just before pay day, between $200 and $300 to be used as change in anticipation of the bills of large denomination that would be handed over the bar. Braddock, where the Edgar Thomson steel works are located, had in 1907, 65 saloons. Braddock and North Braddock together had a population of 25,000. I was told that a considerably larger sum was required to change on pay days here than in Duquesne, the average to each saloon being $500, making over $30,000 in all. I cannot vouch for the truth of this statement- it was in a report which reached me indirectly and may be only an expression of some one’s opinion and not based on facts. But information in regard to the situation at McKeesport in 1906 came to be through such channels and there can be little doubt as to its accuracy. McKeesport had about 40,000 people in 1906, and 69 saloons. On the Thursdays preceeding the semi-monthly pay days, which fall on Fridays and Saturdays, the three leading saloonkeepers of the city were accustomed to draw from their bank accounts $1200 and $1500 each in dollar bills and small denominations, to be used as change. Other saloonkeepers drew varying amounts, and the totals thus drawn each fortnight footed up to $60,000. On the Mondays after pay days the saloonkeepers usually deposited double the amount drawn. These periodic leaps in deposits never failed to coincide with pay days, and the inevitable conclusion is that about $60,000 of the steel workers’ wages were regularly expended in the saloons within two days. If this seems overdrawn, let me cite the case of George Holloway, who was blacklisted in 1901 after leading a strike in the Woof plant of the American Sheet and Tin Plate Company in McKeesport. With what was generally understood to be borrowed funds- for Holloway was left almost penniless by the strike- he started a saloon in McKeesport. I saw and talked with him in the fall of 1907 and he told me that in 1905, four years from the time of entering business, he sold out. He has established a son in a saloon in the west, and with the rest of his family he is now living in McKeesport on the income of his investments, a retired capitalist.
The liquor situation in an American town bears very direct relation to the political life. This is true in these boroughs… It is commonly understood that the United States Steel Corporation is the dominant force in politics in the mill towns, except McKeesport, where authority seems to be divided with the brewing interests.