Exercise 2: The Workingman's Saloon

In the late nineteenth century, Chicago emerged as the epicenter of a national temperance movement that was dominated, in this era, by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The reform effort focused primarily on battling the male saloon and the drunkenness that this type of establishment was thought to promote. Nevertheless, saloons continued to thrive in Chicago, particularly in the working-class neighborhoods of the West, North, and South Sides.

In his classic novel The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair offered a vivid portrait of Chicago’s saloon culture. He detailed the experiences of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian packinghouse worker, along “Whiskey Row,” a commercial street where hundreds of saloons clustered in close proximity to the city’s stockyards and meat-packing plants. Sinclair’s account revealed distinctive male drinking practices, notably the custom of “treating,” or buying rounds for one’s companions.

Read Sinclair’s sketch of “Whiskey Row,” before answering the following questions.

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)

Jurgis had either to eat his dinner amid the stench in which he had worked, or else to rush, as did all his companions, to any one of the hundreds of liquor stores which stretched out their arms to him. To the west of the yards ran Ashland Avenue, and here was an unbroken line of saloons–“Whiskey Row,” they called it; to the north was Forty-seventh Street, where there were half a dozen to the block, and at the angle of the two was “Whiskey Point,” a space of fifteen or twenty acres, and containing one glue factory and about two hundred saloons.

One might walk among these and take his choice: “Hot pea-soup and boiled cabbage today.” “Sauerkraut and hot frankfurters. Walk in.” “Bean soup and stewed lamb. Welcome.” All of these things were printed in many languages, as were also the names of the resorts, which were infinite in their variety and appeal. There was the “Home Circle” and the “Cosey Corner”; there were “Firesides” and “Hearthstones” and “Pleasure Palaces” and “Wonderlands” and “Dream Castles” and “Love’s Delights.” Whatever else they were called, they were sure to be called “Union Headquarters,” and to hold out a welcome to workingmen; and there was always a warm stove, and a chair near it, and some friends to laugh and talk with. There was only one condition attached,–you must drink. If you went in not intending to drink, you would be put out in no time, and if you were slow about going, like as not you would get your head split open with a beer bottle in the bargain. But all of the men understood the convention and drank; they believed that by it they were getting something for nothing–for they did not need to take more than one drink, and upon the strength of it they might fill themselves up with a good hot dinner. This did not always work out in practice, however, for there was pretty sure to be a friend who would treat you, and then you would have to treat him. Then some one else would come in–and, anyhow, a few drinks were good for a man who worked hard. As he went back he did not shiver so, he had more courage for his task; the deadly brutalizing monotony of it did not afflict him so,–he had ideas while he worked, and took a more cheerful view of his circumstances. On the way home, however, the shivering was apt to come on him again; and so he would have to stop once or twice to warm up against the cruel cold. As there were hot things to eat in this saloon too, he might get home late to his supper, or he might not get home at all. And then his wife might set out to look for him, and she too would feel the cold; and perhaps she would have some of the children with her–and so a whole family would drift into drinking, as the current of a river drifts downstream. As if to complete the chain, the packers all paid their men in checks, refusing all requests to pay in coin; and where in Packingtown could a man go to have his check cashed but to a saloon, where he could pay for the favor by spending a part of the money?

Questions

  • Based on Sinclair’s description, what do you think the women of the WCTU would have found most objectionable about the saloon?
  • What marketing tactics do Chicago’s saloon proprietors use to entice customers? How do these tactics compare to those used by establishments that catered to lady tipplers?
  • How do the culture and practices of Sinclair’s saloon differ from those of places where ladies drank? Do you think gender or class played a more significant role in shaping these differences?
  • Do you observe any similarities or points of connection between ladies’ drinking practices and saloon culture?

Sources

  1. Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (New York, 1906), available at Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/140/140-h/140-h.htm