The Underground Spaces Where Drinking While Female Was a Radical Act

Mark Willingham Uncategorized

The Underground Spaces Where Drinking While Female Was a Radical Act

Wine Enthusiast

By Ishay Govender

March 8, 2020

Bars, saloons and taverns hold a mirror to society. As cultures and economies evolve, so do the ways their people do or don’t drink alcohol, specially in public.

This is particularly evident for women and other marginalized communities. Leaf through historical texts and you’ll see a singular theme: public drinking spaces are always patriarchal, whether they are policed by individual families, the state, religious groups or some combination thereof.

Of course, history books rarely tell the whole story, and would-be drinkers often find ways to sidestep restrictions. Underground bars and secret spaces, like the ladies’ drinking rooms, snugs, speakeasies and tavern offshoots, have also welcomed women over the years. In doing so, they reveal a lot about both their patrons and their so-called polite societies.

Long before the speakeasy, there was the snug

British “snugs” appeared some 120 years before the advent of the U.S. Prohibition-era speakeasy. They were small, private rooms that appeared after Britain’s Beer Act of 1830 that eased regulations and open markets for the sale and on-premise consumption of alcohol. Here, women could drink shielded from the public eye.

British snugs were often more ornately decorated spaces, a place where middle- and upper-class women could drink in comfort and privacy away from the debauchery of the saloon. The drinks cost a little more, but it wasn’t just women who used them.

“Anyone who didn’t want to [be] seen drinking [would visit a snug]—the local constabulary, the clergy, politicians,” says Dr. Nicola Nice, a sociologist and founder of Pomp & Whimsy, a gin liqueur based on the women distillers and drinkers of the 1800s. “It was also a place for married men to bring their mistresses.”

To an extent, these drinking rooms were the original speakeasies, Nice suggests. Snugs were a place where activities frowned upon by society and the law happened away from judgment and scrutiny.

Temperance, suffrage and the industrial revolution

But just how did the disparity in drinking habits between Western men and women develop? One theory has its roots in the Industrial Revolution.

“Over the course of the Industrial Revolution came a change in how people worked, and consequently a division between public and private spaces,” says Nice. Before this, men and women worked and socialized together at home, in villages and communities. There was little difference between economic and social activity.

After industrialization, men were believed to be more suited to work of the public sphere, while upper- and middle-class women were steered toward private domestic work.

“At this point, men and women stopped working together, and also drinking together,” says Nice.

While men were deemed to be physically stronger, they were viewed as morally weaker. Saloon culture developed alongside the concept of leisure time. Men were drawn from their homes with the lure of inebriation, gambling and prostitution.

“In essence, it became the woman’s job to provide a counterbalance to the moral taint of the public sphere, and with it, the taint of liquor,” says Nice.

Alcohol was perceived to be one of the biggest barriers to this, as women watched their husbands squander their incomes and reputations away in the saloons from which they were excluded.

“Women began to realize their political powerlessness and the male politicians were disinclined to do anything about it,” says Nice. “And so temperance and suffrage became one movement.”

While women led the charge for temperance, it wasn’t exactly drinking they were against. “They were ultimately campaigning against the terrible things drunk men did to women,” says Hurt.

Class, gender and the impact of ladies drinking rooms

While many upper- and middle-class women were consigned to homemaker roles after the Industrial Revolution, those from poor and working-class backgrounds were expected to take care of household duties as well as work long shifts, often in labor-intensive positions in mines and factories.

Working-class women in particular began to frequent American ladies’ drinking rooms. They often bought the six-cent beer in order to partake in the “trimmins,” or free meal that came with it, often the only daily sustenance available to working-class Americans prior to 1920.

As Powers notes, the separate entrance demonstrates that women were considered a separate class of customer.

“The gender role crisis deeply affected working-class urban women,” says Knerr. “Many were immigrants with circumscribed access to domestic spaces, especially in tenements….Single-gender drinking rooms offered one solution to this problem.”

In the hotter months, women often drank on rooftops and communal spaces. Powers explains that women (and children) would arrive through the saloon’s side entrance to have buckets or growlers filled with beer.

Historical records have not devoted as much space to the role and reasons behind women’s public and private drinking during this period as it has with men. But the modern romanticizing of speakeasy cocktail bars has put a soft-focus lens on the drinking culture of previous eras. In reality, these spaces were as nuanced and complex as history itself.