Alcohol

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

Killing barroom social networks kills innovation.

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Just days before the signing of the Constitution, George Washington, not yet America's first president, took his pals out for a night on the town to celebrate the Constitutional Convention's end. They went to Philadelphia's City Tavern, where, if a surviving receipt is to be believed, he and his men consumed more than 100 bottles of wine, more than 30 bottles of beer, eight bottles of whiskey, eight bottles of cider, and seven bowls of punch, for an inflation-adjusted tab of somewhere between $15,000 and $17,000.

This was a big celebration, but it wasn't entirely out of the ordinary. The Founders were drinkers and distillers. Washington produced his own brandy and whiskey at Mount Vernon, and he and his fellow revolutionaries imbibed vast quantities of spirits as they plotted independence and developed the machinery of American governance. Saloons were so heavily associated with revolutionary ideas, in fact, that they became known as "nurseries of freedom."

Saloons were where the ideas that would define America were first hashed out, presumably via the kind of rowdy, unstructured conversation that tends to happen in bars. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that America was imagined, organized, and eventually built over booze consumed in 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 was the greatest disruption to America's bar scene since Prohibition. Some 110,000 eating and drinking establishments, affecting an estimated 2.5 million jobs, closed either temporarily or permanently during the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association. This too represented a great cultural and economic loss.

It wasn't just the bars that went away, and with them the jobs and economic activity directly associated with the business of slinging drinks. There was a dramatic reduction in the casual conversations and fateful meetings these bars hosted, and the potentially valuable ideas those interactions could have generated.

This sort of thing is hard to quantify. How much is any given bar conversation worth? In most cases, probably not all that much. A better question is: How much are all of them worth, in aggregate? That 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.

The cost to innovation was just one of many associated with Prohibition, and it took nearly a century, and some unusually clever data gathering, to pin it down. That in turn provides a strong hint that the costs and consequences of the current pandemic are broader and deeper than we can currently measure or see. They may well take years to fully discover. To begin to understand them, we first have to understand America's long love affair with saloons.

What were saloons? In a sense, America's pre-Prohibition drinking dens were bars, much like we know them today, serving alcohol and food. While they were more likely to offer early morning booze than today's pubs are, and while many offered free lunches to lure in the working class, they truly came alive at night.

Some were glitzy establishments for the rich and well-to-do, with fancy cocktails and marble surfaces. But for the most part, saloons were small gathering places, often musty and dusty, built around long wooden counters with brass rails for resting your feet. They were fixtures of the community, often found on corners, as the playwright and journalist George Ade wrote in his Prohibition-era book The Old-Time Saloon, "so as to have two street entrances and wave a gilded beer sign at pedestrians drifting along from any point of the compass." The floors were drenched in sawdust meant to absorb spills, and the walls were covered in an eclectic assortment of photos and doodads, often involving boxing or other sports. "When you had visited one of the old-time saloons," Ade wrote, "you had seen a thousand." The decor changed from establishment to establishment, and the character of the place was tailored to the demographic preferences of the staff and clientele, but the 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. Yes, there were table games and drinks, but there were also informal or semiformal social functions: Saloonkeepers cashed checks and made loans, and many saloons catered to particular occupations.

As the historian Jon M. Kingsdale noted in a 1973 article for the American Quarterly, "The 'Poor Man's Club': Social Functions of the Working-Class Saloon," some, like The Milkman's Exchange and The Mechanic's Exchange in Chicago, were named for the type of workers they served. Unemployed men might go there to have a drink or play a round of billiards, but they also might stop in to find work. There was no such thing as LinkedIn, so you went to the corner bar instead.

In the decades before Prohibition, saloons were also heavily associated with urban politics, especially in New York and Chicago. "Saloons fitted the needs of the machine politician perfectly," wrote Kingsdale. "Saloons could, and did, easily double as ward clubs, and the type and extent of the saloon-keeper's contact with his neighborhood was a valuable political asset."

These political machinations were sometimes associated with urban corruption, although to some extent the location was incidental. As with the American Revolution, politics happened where the people interested in politics gathered, and that frequently meant saloons.

In the decades before alcohol consumption was outlawed, bars were ubiquitous: In 1897, there were approximately 215,000 licensed saloons in the U.S., plus an estimated 50,000 unlicensed taverns, known as blind pigs or blind tigers. In Chicago alone, prior to Prohibition, the number of saloons was higher than the number of groceries, meat markets, and dry goods stores combined; the total daily attendance at the city's booze-based hangouts was equal to about half the city's population.

Saloons were everywhere, in other words. They connected communities, giving them grit and character, greasing their economies, and propping up their politics. No one planned it that way. Pre-Prohibition saloons were usually easy to open, with relatively low startup costs and few regulatory hurdles. Many opened, some failed, and some became fixtures of the neighborhood.

And because no one planned it, the precise character of saloons shifted with the times. As the late historian Perry R. Duis, author of The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1890–1920, wrote in a 1999 essay, "Saloons constantly evolved in response to the changing economic structure of their wet-goods suppliers, local licensing laws, real estate and transportation trends, legislative attacks from temperance interests, ethnic transitions, competing diversions, rival dealers, and a host of other factors. The ability of the saloons to adjust and reinvent themselves when necessary was one of their virtues." They were informal in nature, a distributed, node-based network of communal spaces where one could go to relax, meet people, and conduct the sort of business that didn't need to be confined to the workplace.

Or at least they were places where men could go. Prior to Prohibition, saloons were largely male affairs. They were, in contemporary terms, clubhouses where dudes drank, sang, and managed their affairs. At the same time, many such establishments catered to immigrants, and in particular to immigrant laborers who were viewed with suspicion by the Anglo-Protestant elites of the late 1800s and early 1900s. So it is not surprising that saloons developed reputations, at least among a certain sort of polite society figure, as dens of disreputability.

To many, saloons seemed uncouth if not dangerous, associated with all manner of sin and vice. At times, they probably were. Certainly, they consumed a tremendous amount of time for many working-class men.

But they may have been less drunken and disorderly than people imagined: Their reputation likely came, at least in part, from the fact that so many of them were located in low-income immigrant neighborhoods, where disorderly behavior was more common, whether at home or at the bar.

Meanwhile, "most saloon-keepers refused to serve drunks and tried to maintain order in their saloons," Kingsdale wrote, "out of self-interest if for no other reasons." In her 1998 book Faces Along the Bar, 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. (A better complaint was that saloons were simply so popular as hangouts that they took men away from their families for much of the day, leaving women to shoulder much of the domestic burden.)

Nonetheless, it was the saloon's reputation, even more than the alleged dangers of alcohol itself, that drove Prohibition. It wasn't until "the Prohibition Party was pushed aside and the grand drive against alcoholic beverages was taken over by The Anti-Saloon League," Ade wrote, that temperance really took off. "If the organization had called itself The Association against Scotch High-Balls or The Anti-Cocktail League, it wouldn't have turned a wheel. Not until the saloon was singled out and called by name" did prohibitionists get anywhere. Drinks, and even alcohol, weren't the problem that aroused so much public concern. Saloons, and the culture they facilitated, were.

The culture saloons facilitated was valuable in ways that temperance advocates often overlooked. The pre-Prohibition saloon was America's third place, the Starbucks of its day: a second living room for men who lived in cramped tenement quarters, a non-office meeting spot for salesmen and others in business. 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.

In an 1897 study for the American Journal of Sociology, E.C. Moore took an extensive look at the saloons in the 19th Ward of Chicago, at the time a working-class immigrant district populated by low-skill, low-education white ethnic groups. Moore would go on to become a decorated academic, teaching philosophy at Harvard and co-founding the University of California's Southern Branch (now known as UCLA). He also served as a social worker at Chicago's Hull House, a pioneering social work organization. And like many social workers of the day, he believed that barrooms were a social cancer. "It is hardly necessary to enlarge further upon the evils of the saloon," he wrote at the end of his report. "They are many and grave, and cry out to society for proper consideration."

Moore, in other words, was the opposite of a saloon booster. But his study wasn't focused on the ways that saloons caused trouble. It was about their role in social organization. He thought that those opposed to saloons needed to be aware of how they worked.

His report, titled "The Social Value of the Saloon," declared that "primarily the saloon is a social center….It is the workingman's club." Men visited them to drink, and sometimes for work or to be fed, since bars often served meals, sometimes including free food, to their patrons. But even more than that, he concluded, they went for fellowship and camaraderie, which alcohol merely helped facilitate.

It was not only the "desire to be with his fellows" in a comfortable, familiar setting that lured men into saloons; it was the way those men interacted with each other. "They are thinking, vying with each other in conversation, in storytelling, debate," Moore wrote. The saloon, in its heyday, was a "center of learning" and "lecture hall to them, the clearing house for their common intelligence, the place where their philosophy of life is worked out and from which their political and social beliefs take their beginning."

There was no such thing as Twitter or talk radio or Wikipedia. College education was a luxury for a tiny fraction of the population. Saloons were where ordinary men went to encounter and engage with ideas.

Moore's purpose was to consider venues that could serve as alternatives to saloons. He believed such alternatives might be possible, given enough imagination on the part of reformers, but also that obvious choices, such as churches and clubs, were usually too top-down, too hierarchical, to fulfill the same function. "The saloon," he wrote, "is a thing come out of the organic life of the world." Part of their social value was that they were self-organizing, founded and run on an ad hoc, decentralized basis, and thus flexible enough to adapt to the idiosyncratic, ever-changing needs of local communities.

So it is not a shock to discover that when the forces of temperance succeeded in rooting them out, there were profound negative consequences for society. Among them: a substantial decline in innovation, as measured in patent applications.

In the paper "Bar Talk: Informal Social Interactions, Alcohol Prohibition, and Invention," University of Maryland economist Michael Andrews looks at data about propensity to restrict alcohol around the time of Prohibition, comparing counties that expressed a clear desire to stay wet with counties that had shown a predisposition to go 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 rules out most plausible alternative explanations for the drop in innovation, using statistical analysis to demonstrate that the drop in new patents can't be explained by, say, the era's general economic downturn or changing patterns in migration. He also finds that the decline wasn't a result of decreased alcohol consumption. Drinking may or may not aid in creativity—the research on that is mixed—but it was something else that dampened innovation during Prohibition.

Repeat inventors in counties affected by Prohibition, Andrews finds, collaborated less often with the people they had collaborated with prior to Prohibition. Even small changes in collaboration can have significant effects: Andrews points to a modern study that found researchers who lose a star collaborator to an unexpected death reduce their output by about 8 percent. And Prohibition disrupted collaborations all across the country.

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. He notes that at the time, America's patent applications "tended to come not from an aristocratic elite, but from skilled workers and craftsmen, the same types of individuals likely to meet in their local saloon."

Pre-Prohibition saloons served as informal social networks: venues for connection and inspiration, for workshopping existing ideas and encountering new ones. You might even say they made patrons smarter, or at least more creative and productive, allowing them to harness wisdom, knowledge, and insight greater than their own simply by exposing them to other people in an unstructured manner.

That lack of structure was key. Formal interactions continued after Prohibition. But eliminating saloons eliminated a source of unplanned—and perhaps unplannable—creative spark.

Eventually, Andrews finds, the informal social networks grew back. But that took somewhere between four and six years. And when those networks did return, they were irrevocably changed in ways that altered the course of innovation going forward. As Andrews writes, "disrupting informal social interactions had permanent effects on the direction, if not the rate, of innovative activity."

When inventors file for patents, they have to list a technology class. The system is somewhat complicated, but broadly speaking, it allows researchers to see what areas people are patenting in during a given period and even within a particular geographic area. Andrews found that after Prohibition, those technology classes changed. The changes did not take a predictable or even characterizable form; they were "just different," he says. The social upheavals of Prohibition had silently altered the direction of American innovation.

A lot of the dropoff in patenting, he says, "came from people who were not previous inventors." Serial inventors, many of whom had already professionalized and systematized their inventing processes, were less affected by the dropoff. But now there were fewer 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.

Yet its social and economic ripple effects likely persisted for decades, in terms of collaborations that never took place and ideas that were forever lost. Informal interactions are, by definition, difficult to study. It took nearly a century for a diligent researcher to suss out the data necessary to measure Prohibition's effect on patenting. But it is probable that the period's disruptions to innovation continue to shape our world. It is also reasonable to assume that there were other costs that remain hidden to us, some of which we may never understand.

And that brings us to today, and the COVID pandemic, and the myriad social upheavals it has wrought.

In March 2020, state and local authorities forcibly shuttered not just bars and restaurants but churches, schools, convention centers, theaters, concert halls, office buildings, and countless other public and private gathering places all across the country. Policies varied by location, but the vast majority of Americans were affected by the initial shutdowns. Over time, some of those restrictions were lifted, especially in states with Republican governors. But in many of the country's most populous urban centers, modified restrictions persisted into 2021. Indoor dining was prohibited or subject to strict capacity limits; movie theaters and concert venues remained closed; conferences were prohibited.

By the start of 2022, most formal restrictions on gathering were gone, but their aftereffects lingered. Many urban office buildings remain empty, in part because of citywide mask -mandates that make professional interactions difficult. The downtown corridors that office workers once populated can feel like ghost towns. Indoor dining has returned, but business is soft and unpredictable, and many establishments have simply shut down.

A January 2022 message from the Portland, Oregon, bar Clyde Common tells the tale. "The length of the Covid pandemic, along with the ongoing decline in our downtown city core, are direct reasons that Clyde is closing for good," the bar's leadership said in an Instagram post. "Indirect reasons include the extreme difficulty in finding people to work, the anemic economic support from both our local government and the federal government, and the sobering reality that it's almost impossible to make a full service restaurant and bar in a high-rent district succeed without the tourism and office worker population required." Clyde Common's bar had a national reputation for innovation; it was the birthplace of barrel-aged Negronis, which ended up on the menus of high-end cocktail joints everywhere. But its fame couldn't save it.

In 2018, Brad Thomas Parsons traveled the country to research his book Last Call: Bartenders on Their Final Drink and Wisdom (Ten Speed Press). That research included a lot of hanging out at pre-pandemic bars at last call as they wrapped up service for the night. "I knew Last Call was going to be a dark book, physically, being shot at night, but emotionally, too," he says. Yet he had no idea how dark it would eventually feel.

"Three months into 2020 every single bar in the book was now closed, and sadly, several [were closed] permanently," he explains. "I wanted nothing more than to be able to casually walk into a bar—any bar—and sit courtside and order a drink." He calls it "the classic situation" of not knowing what you have until it's gone.

Just as some bars have reopened, some in-person events have resumed. But other mass gatherings, such as the Sundance Film Festival and the E3 video game expo, once a massive hub for the industry, are planning fully online experiences for 2022. K-12 schools continue to close sporadically, and while policies differ by institution, some colleges are still imposing strict social distancing requirements on students, effectively outlawing normal out-of-class social lives.

All of which is to say that the pandemic, and the policy responses to it, have disrupted American social life in ways hardly seen since Prohibition. The effects of COVID-19 have arguably been more widespread, reaching into classrooms and churches and other community gathering centers, not just drinking establishments. Opportunities for informal interactions dwindled precipitously at the onset of the pandemic; two years later, many of those opportunities either have yet to return or have come back in altered forms. Think of the difference between a scheduled Zoom meeting and an ad hoc office happy hour: Something is lost, even if it's not precisely clear what.

"Patents," Andrews says, "almost certainly are not capturing all of creativity, much less everything else that makes life worth living." So far, he has no hard data on the toll the pandemic has taken. He hesitates to speculate too much. But he allows that "losing those interactions is going to have some consequences."

Because so many aspects of our lives have been disrupted in the last two years, we should expect consequences that go beyond a mere deficit in innovation. As with Prohibition, those consequences could prove difficult to see, or at least to measure, in real time. We don't know what we don't know. The upshot of Andrews' research is not just that reductions in informal interactions affect innovation, although they do; it's that they have effects that are both unintended and hidden from view, often for years to come.

But one of the likely consequences is already coming into view: America is in a bad mood, and people are acting out -accordingly.

Many forms of adult antisocial behavior have risen since the shutdowns began. Murder rates are up in most major cities. So are reports of abusive behavior by airline passengers, bar patrons, and restaurantgoers, partly as a result of anger around masking requirements. Car accidents have increased, even though Americans have been driving fewer miles. Psychologists and psychiatrists report dramatic upticks in mental health problems, particularly depression and anxiety. The headline on the most-read article on the New York Times website in 2021 captured the mood of the COVID era: "There's a name for the blah you're feeling: languishing."

For children, whose lives have been disrupted even more than most adults' lives thanks to school closures and quarantine requirements, the negative effects are even more acute. In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children's Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. Masking requirements in schools have created communications difficulties, especially for children 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 pandemic and the policy responses to it have drastically interfered with those connections.

Nearly every nonpharmaceutical intervention intended to address the pandemic prescribed some form of social disconnection. 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. It's no wonder people are languishing.

As with Prohibition, our social connections will probably regrow over time as we adjust and adapt to a COVID-haunted world. Among the conclusions of Andrews' paper is that, "while a given social network may be fragile, people are resilient and find ways to repair or build new networks."

But policy makers have a role to play too, by prioritizing the restoration of communal connection and casual interaction. Andrews is reluctant to propose sweeping policy changes, but he says officials should be aware that "how people interact really matters, and it matters often in subtle ways that are hard to -predict."

The pandemic's toll has been as high as it has been partly because of a sense among public health experts that the costs of lockdowns, distancing, and masking requirements would be negligible. How many times did we hear that staying home for a brief time was a small price to pay for saving some number of lives, that school closures represented no threat to student psyches or learning progress, that masks were an easy, low-cost measure, really just a form of basic politeness?

These responses were predicated on the notion that informal social interactions have little or no value, and thus that disrupting them has minimal costs. That wasn't true of the connections that happened in saloons before Prohibition, and it's not true now. Two years into the pandemic, it's already clear that the costs of COVID-era disruptions have been considerable. And as with Prohibition, we may not know the true toll for many years to come.