What Old-Time Saloons Tell Us About the Pandemic’s Damage

George Washington took his friends out to the city just days before the Constitutional Convention ended. For an inflation adjusted tab between $15,000 to $17,000, they went to Philadelphia’s City Tavern. They consumed over 100 bottles, 30 bottles, 8 bottles of beer and 7 bowls punch.

Although this was an extraordinary celebration, it wasn’t unusual. The founders were both drinkers and spirits distillers. Washington, along with his companion revolutionaries, produced their own brandy and whisky at Mount Vernon. They drank large amounts of spirits while they worked to establish American governance and plotted independence. The saloons had a strong association with revolutionary ideas. They became the “nurseries to freedom”.

The first place where ideas about America were formulated was in saloons. You can’t deny that America was created, organized and built on booze consumed at saloons. Without saloons, America—or at least America as we know it—might not exist.

In the century and a half after the founding, saloons continued to be a key social institution, places of business, leisure, and community for many men—until Prohibition wiped them out, destroying in one fell stroke the cultural and economic infrastructure they had long provided.

COVID-19 caused America’s most significant disruption since Prohibition. According to the National Restaurant Association, approximately 110,000 restaurants and bars were closed temporarily or permanently due to the pandemic. The pandemic also caused a huge cultural and economic disruption.

Not just bars went, but also the job opportunities and economic activity that were directly linked to the business of selling drinks. The bars that hosted casual conversation and fatal meetings saw a drastic decline in their ability to generate valuable ideas and new connections.

These kinds of things are hard to quantify. Is it worth a given conversation at a bar? It is likely that not much. Better yet, ask yourself: What is the aggregate value of all these assets? This is it Is possible to measure—not by looking at today’s pandemic-adjacent bar closures but by looking back to the closest analogue, Prohibition, and the decline in innovation that attended the shuttering of America’s saloons.

Prohibition’s cost of innovation is just one example. To find the true costs, it required nearly 100 years and some extremely clever data collection. It is clear that we cannot currently see or measure the cost and impact of the current pandemic. It may take many years for them to be fully understood. We must first understand America’s long-standing love affair to saloons in order to fully understand them.

Was this what saloons were? Pre-Prohibition America’s drinking dens were, in a way, bars that offered alcohol and food. Although they offered more alcohol in the morning than pubs today, many of them also provided lunches free for working-class people. However, their nightlife was truly alive.

Others were luxurious establishments that served lavish cocktails or had marble countertops. Most saloons were smaller gathering spots, dusty and often moldy. These places were usually built around long wooden counters with brass rails so you could rest your feet. These saloons were an integral part of the local community and could often be seen on corner corners as George Ade (playwright, journalist, Prohibition-era author) wrote. Saloon Old-Time“So that there were two streets entrances. I waved a gold-colored beer sign to pedestrians as they walked along the street. They had floors covered with sawdust to absorb any spillages and walls covered with a variety of photographs and other doodads. Many photos featured boxing and other activities. Ade stated that he had “seeded a thousand” after visiting one of the saloons in old times. While the decor varied between establishments, it was always consistent. The character of the establishment was based on clientele and staff preferences. Idea of the saloon—its vibe, its sensibility, its communal purpose—was stable, permanent, no matter which one you entered.

The central idea of the saloon was that it was a productive social space—a hangout and a refuge, but also, in the days before Prohibition, a bank and a place to make deals, find work, and organize political campaigns. While there was a lot of table games and alcohol, there were many informal and semi-formal social functions. For example, saloonkeepers made checks, cashed checks, and provided loans. There were even some saloons that catered specifically to certain occupations.

Jon M. Kingsdale, a historian noted this in an article that he wrote for The New York Times on 23 June 1973. American Quarterly “The ‘Poor Man’s Club’: Social Functions of the Working-Class Saloon,” Many, including The Milkman’s Exchange in Chicago and The Mechanic’s Exchange at Chicago, are named after workers that they serve. There are many reasons why unemployed men go to this bar. They might come for a drink, or to play billiards. But they may also visit the site to search for employment. LinkedIn was not available so we went to the corner bar.

Saloons had a strong association with politics in the years before Prohibition. Kingsdale wrote that “Saloons fit the needs of the machine politician perfect.” “Saloons were able to, and did, double as ward club members, and the extent and type of contact that the saloon-keeper maintained with his local neighborhood was a significant political asset.”

Sometimes these political machinations were linked to urban corruption. However, in many cases the place was only incidental. Like the American Revolution and the American Revolution before it, politics took place where people were interested. This often meant in saloons.

Before alcohol was banned, bars were everywhere. Chicago had more saloons than grocery stores, meat markets and dry goods shops combined. The city’s total daily alcohol-based patronage was about half of the population.

The saloon was everywhere. They were the link between people, and gave them strength and character. Nobody planned it this way. Pre-Prohibition saloons could be opened quickly and had low startup costs. There were also few regulatory hurdles. Some were successful, others failed and became a fixture in the area.

Because no one had planned it, saloons’ character changed with the times. Perry R. Duis (the late historian) is the author of The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1890–1920In a 1999 essay, he wrote that “Saloons continually evolved in response to changing economic structures of their wet goods suppliers, local licencing laws, real estate trends, legislative attacks by temperance interests and ethnic transitions. One of their strengths was the ability to adapt and reinvent themselves as needed. It was informal and distributed.

At least, they existed in places. Men You could. Saloons used to be dominated by men before Prohibition. These were clubs where men could drink, sing, manage their affairs, and they are still called clubhouses. These establishments were also popular with immigrants. In particular, they attracted immigrant workers who were often viewed as suspicious by Anglo Protestant elites in the early 1800s. It is therefore not surprising saloons have been regarded as places of low reputation, at the very least by certain members of polite society.

Many people associate saloons with sinful and evil, and they feel uncouth, if not even dangerous. Sometimes they were probably. They consumed an inordinate amount of time, for many men from the working class.

However, they might have been more disorderly and drunken than many people imagine. This is likely due to the fact that most of their victims were in low-income areas, in which disorderly behavior at home was much more prevalent, as well as at bars.

Kingsdale stated that most saloonkeepers were unwilling to give drunks drinks and tried to keep their saloons orderly. This was “largely out of self-interest, if not for any other reason.” Her 1998 book The Bar Has Faces, the late historian Madelon Powers likewise argued that the supposed saloon-born horrors that temperance warriors often relied on to make their case—prostitution, neglect and abuse of family, financial ruin born of alcoholism, even public intoxication—were actually rare. The better complaint is that saloons became so common as hangouts, that men were often taken from their families and women had to take on a lot of the household work.

Prohibition was driven, however, by the saloons’ reputation. Ade stated that it wasn’t until the “Prohibition Party” fell apart and The Anti-Saloon League assumed control of the drive to ban alcoholic drinks that temperance took root. The organization could have called itself The Association against Scotch High-Balls and The Anti-Cocktail League. But it would not have been able to turn a single wheel. Prohibitionists didn’t get far until they were called out on the saloon and named by their names. Public concern was not caused by alcohol or drinks. It was saloons and the culture they supported that were problematic.

Culture saloons were valuable for many reasons that temperance supporters often overlook. America’s first saloon (pre-Prohibition) was America’s third place. This space served two purposes: it was a second living area for men in cramped tenement homes, as well as a spot to meet with salesmen. Saloons served important cultural functions, to the point where even some Prohibition-sympathetic reformers understood that eliminating America’s drinking dens would represent a real loss.

An 1897 study on the American Journal of Sociology, E.C. Moore looked into the saloons of the 19th Ward in Chicago. It was at that time an immigrant working class district with low education and skilled white residents. Moore went on to be a distinguished academic and teach philosophy at Harvard. He also co-founded the University of California’s Southern Branch, now known as UCLA. Moore was also a Hull House social worker in Chicago, which is a leading social service organization. He believed barrooms, like so many other social workers at the time, were social cancer. At the end of his report, he stated that “It is not necessary to expand further upon the evils associated with the saloon.” These are serious and numerous and call for society’s attention.

Moore was, therefore, the antithesis of a saloon booster. His study was not about the problems saloons cause. They were responsible for social organisation. He felt that anyone who was against saloons had to know how they operated.

His report, titled “The Social Value of the Saloon,” declared that “primarily the saloon is a social center….It is the workingman’s club.” They were visited by men to have a drink and to get food. He concluded that they were there for camaraderie and fellowship, which alcohol only helped to facilitate.

The “desire to share his company” was not the only thing that attracted men to saloons. But it was how those men interacted. Moore stated that “They are thinking,” and were “vying with one another in conversation, storytelling, debate.” Moore wrote that the saloon in its glory days was a “centre of learning” and a “lecture hall for them. This is the location where they developed their collective intelligence and created their personal philosophy.

Twitter, talk radio, or Wikipedia didn’t exist. A small percentage of people could afford college education. Ordinary men used saloons to meet and exchange ideas.

Moore wanted to look at venues that might be used as alternative to saloons. These alternatives were possible given sufficient imagination by reformers. But Moore also believed obvious options, like churches or clubs, weren’t too top-down and too hierarchical in order to fulfil the same function. He wrote that “the saloon” was a result of “the organic life of this world.” Their social value lay in their ability to be self-organizing. They were founded on an ad-hoc basis and decentralized, and flexible enough to meet the ever-changing, idiosyncratic needs of local communities.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the consequences of removing them from society had profoundly negative effects. One example is a marked decline in innovation measured in patent applications.

Michael Andrews (University of Maryland) examines the data concerning propensity to limit alcohol during Prohibition. Andrews compares counties that wanted to keep wet and those with a tendency to dry. He finds that “the imposition of Prohibition caused patenting to drop by 8–18% in counties that wanted to stay wet relative to consistently dry counties in the same state.”

Andrews ruled out all possible alternatives to the fall in innovation. He used statistical analysis and data analysis to prove that Andrews was not able use statistics to explain the drop. The decline was not due to decreased alcohol consumption, according to Andrews. Drinking may or may not aid in creativity—the research on that is mixed—but it was something else that dampened innovation during Prohibition.

Andrews found that repeat inventors from counties affected by Prohibition collaborated less with people with whom they collaborated before Prohibition. Andrews points out a recent study showing that researchers lose their star collaborators to unexpected deaths can reduce their output by around 8 percent. Prohibition also disrupted all kinds of collaborations across the nation.

Andrews attributes most of the drop in patent applications to the loss of “informal interactions”—the sort of unplanned, unstructured conversations that often happen at bars over drinks. Andrews notes that America’s first patent applications were not filed by an elite of the aristocratic class, but rather from skilled craftsmen and workers, who are the exact types of people most likely to be found in their local saloon.

Pre-Prohibition saloons functioned as informal social networks. They were places for inspiration and connection. Some might argue that they helped patrons become smarter. They allowed them access to knowledge and wisdom from others in an informal setting.

This was the key. Even after Prohibition ended, informal interactions continued. But eliminating saloons eliminated a source of unplanned—and perhaps unplannable—creative spark.

Andrews found that the informal social network grew back eventually. This took anywhere from four to six years. It took between four and six years for those networks to return. And once they did, the trajectory of innovation was forever altered. Andrews notes that disruptions in informal social relationships had a lasting impact on innovation’s direction (if not its rate).

In order to file patent applications, inventors must identify a technology category. Although the system can be complicated, researchers can use it to determine which areas patents are being filed during any given time period or within particular geographical regions. Andrews observed that technology classes have changed since Prohibition. He says the change did not occur in a predetermined or characterizable manner. It was “just different”. Prohibition and the social changes that followed had silently changed American innovation.

He says that a lot of the decline in patenting came from “people who weren’t previous inventors.” Many serial inventors had professionalized and organized their inventing process, so they were less affected. There were now less first-timers. Prohibition took its biggest toll on amateurs, outsiders, what you might think of as startups—people who might have invented something useful if they’d had a little more inspiration or support.

This was a hidden cost of Prohibition—one that was difficult to see and measure in real time, one that is still difficult to fully grasp, since you can’t describe an invention that didn’t happen.

However, its economic and social ripple effects are likely to have lasted decades. This could be in the form of ideas and collaborations that did not take place or lost ones. Informal relationships are by nature difficult to analyze. For a dedicated researcher, it took over a century to gather the information necessary to determine Prohibition’s effects on patenting. However, it’s likely that innovation continues to be impacted by the disruptions caused by Prohibition. We can assume, however, that other costs were hidden from us. Some of these we might never be able to understand.

That brings us back to today. The COVID pandemic has brought about a multitude of social disruptions.

State and local authorities forced the closing of bars, restaurants, churches, schools and convention centers across the nation in March 2020. Although policies varied depending on where they were located, the majority of Americans were affected. Some restrictions became less restrictive over time, particularly in the states where Republican governors were involved. However, in some of the most populous cities across the nation, restrictions that were modified remained into 2021. The ban on indoor dining or strict limits to its capacity was in effect. Movie theaters, concert venues and conference rooms remained closed.

Most formal gathering restrictions were lifted at the turn of 2022. However, their effects remained. Due to citywide mask-mandates which make professional relationships difficult, urban office buildings often remain vacant. Many downtown streets that once were populated by office workers can seem like ghost towns. Although indoor dining is back, many businesses are soft and unpredictable, so has the business.

Clyde Common, Portland’s bar, shares the story in their January 2022 post. Clyde will be closing its doors permanently because of the length and decline of our downtown core,” Clyde’s leader stated in an Instagram message. The indirect reasons are the difficulty of finding employees, the lackluster economic support provided by both the local government and the federal governments and the stark reality that it is nearly impossible to run a fully-service restaurant in an area with high rent without the assistance of office workers and tourists. Clyde Common’s bar was renowned for its innovation. It is where barrel-aged Negronis were born, and they are now found in high-end bars all over the country. However, its popularity did not save it.

2018 was a year that Brad Thomas Parsons travelled across the country in search of his book. Last call: The bartenders who have finished their final drink and wisdom (Ten Speed Press). This research involved a lot more than just hanging out in pre-pandemic bars as they closed for the night. I knew. Last call was going to be a dark book, physically, being shot at night, but emotionally, too,” he says. He didn’t know how it would feel.

“Three Months into 2020, every bar in the book had been closed. And sadly, many.” [were closed]”Permanently,” he says. “I wanted nothing more than to be able to casually walk into a bar—any bar—and sit courtside and order a drink.” This is what he calls “the classic situation”, where you do not know what’s there until it’s gone.

Some in-person events are back, just as bars have reopened. However, other large gatherings such as Sundance Film Festival, E3 Video Game Expo, and E3 Gaming Expo, which were once huge hubs for the industry are planning entirely online events for 2022. While K-12 schools are closing sporadic, policies vary by college. However, many colleges still enforce strict social distancing rules on students. This effectively bans normal, out-of-class social life.

This is all to say, the effects of the pandemic and its policy responses have caused major disruptions in American society that were not seen since Prohibition. COVID-19 has had a greater impact on American society than just the drinking establishments. Its impacts have reached into schools, churches, community centers and classrooms. At the outbreak of the pandemic, informal social interactions were severely reduced. Many of those same opportunities have not returned or been rearranged two years later. Consider the differences between an informal Zoom meeting and an ad-hoc office happy hour. Something has been lost even though it isn’t exactly clear.

Andrews stated that “patents” almost certainly do not capture all the creativity. He has not yet been able to provide any hard data about the extent of the pandemic. He hesitates to make too many assumptions. However, he admits that the “losing of those interactions” will result in some consequences.

Many aspects of our daily lives were disrupted over the past two years. We can expect more than a deficit in innovation to have serious consequences. Similar to Prohibition’s consequences, these could become difficult or impossible to quantify in real time. What we don’t know is what we don’t know. Andrews’ research shows that not only do informal interactions have a negative effect on innovation but that it also has unintended effects and can be hidden for many years.

One of the consequences could be already in sight: America is feeling down and people are reacting accordingly.

Numerous forms of adult antisocial behaviour have increased since the shutdowns. In most cities, murder rates have risen. Reports of abuse by passengers on airlines, restaurant patrons and bar patrons are up partly due to anger over masking expectations. Even though Americans drive less, car accidents are on the rise. According to psychiatrists and psychologists, there has been a dramatic increase in anxiety and depression among mental health professionals. This is the headline of the most popular article. New York Times website in 2021 captured the mood of the COVID era: “There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: languishing.”

The negative consequences for children are worse than those of adults, who have had their lives disrupted by the school closings and quarantine regulations. The American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry declared a nationwide emergency in child and adolescent psychological health on October 20, 2021. Communication difficulties have been created by schools that are unable to meet school requirements, particularly for students with learning disabilities.

Some of the strongest indicators of people’s mental health and well-being are the quality and consistency of their social lives—the strength of their connections to family, friends, work, and community. The policy responses and pandemic have greatly impacted these connections.

Nearly all non-pharmaceutical interventions that were intended to combat the pandemic required some type of social intervention. Disableconnection. Fewer gatherings, smaller gatherings, isolation, social distancing, even masking, which can prevent easy conversation—these are all ways of keeping people apart, of reducing casual, friendly, informal social feedback and exchange. This is why people seem to be solitary.

Like Prohibition in Prohibition’s case, social networks will likely grow over time as people adjust to the COVID-haunted environment. Andrews’ paper concludes that “while some social networks may seem fragile, individuals are resilient and can repair them or create new ones.”

However, policymakers also need to prioritize casual and social interaction. Andrews does not want to suggest drastic policy changes. However, he believes officials must be conscious of the fact that interaction is crucial and can sometimes occur in subtle ways that are impossible to anticipate.

Public health professionals believed that masking, lockdowns and distancing would not be costly. This is partly why the pandemic has taken so many lives. We heard it so many times that staying at home was an acceptable price for the sake of saving lives. That school closings did not pose a threat to students’ psyches and learning progress. And that masks are a simple, cost-effective way to show politeness.

This was based on the assumption that informal social interactions are of little value and that disruptions to them have minimal cost. The connections formed in saloons during Prohibition were not valid, nor is it now. It’s clear, two years in to the pandemic that COVID-era interruptions cost significant. We may never know what the real cost will be until many years later, just like Prohibition.