The Underground Spaces Where Drinking While Female Was a Radical Act

Woman changing wooden kegs of beer in New York speakeasy
Changing kegs of a tap system in a speakeasy in New York City, 1932 / Getty

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.

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“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.

Woman pouring a drink from a cane
Woman pouring illicit liquor from a cane during Prohibition, 1922 / Getty

The expansion of women’s drinking rooms

Women’s drinking rooms, generally offshoots of taverns with separate entrances, increased in popularity throughout the 1800s. Many public bars, especially in England, but also in the U.S., created private entrances for women. In addition to providing a haven for activity of ill repute, they also aimed to hide women from men’s vulgarities like spittoons and lewd conduct, while also shielding men from having to see women get drunk.

Jeanette Hurt, cocktail historian and author of Drink Like a Woman, refers to the “architectural oddity” in many historic taverns in her home state of Wisconsin.

“They have a front door, a back door and a side door,” says Hurt. “This side door was the women’s entrance. Men didn’t want to drink with women, but women, especially German women, did drink.”

Though the saloon-going women were adventurous. In her book, Women and Public Drinking, 1890-1920.: Women in the New World, the late historian Madelon Powers argued that they were not agitators. They craved sociability, but not necessarily equity, and gave the main bar a wide berth.

Notably, Prohibition was also heavily supported by the Ku Klux Klan as a means to “clean up” society. Hate groups fought against drinking rooms and speakeasies in part due to their ability to draw in customers across color and gender divides.

Before drinking in public was accepted

Women’s public drinking in the 19th and early 20th centuries challenged firmly entrenched ideas on morality, piety, class structure and social standing. While drinking in public was permitted for men, women were expected to stay home during the Georgian and Victorian periods.

This prescribed role as homemaker saw household and cookery books of the time, written for women, devote entire chapters to alcoholic beverages. Homemaking tomes like Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (published in 1861) contained recipes for drinks like the Sloe Gin Cocktail, Strawberry Fizz and Silver Sour, which helped increase the popularity of mixed drinks.

However, up until the mid-19th century, tavern-keeping was considered a respectful occupation for women. The origination of the cocktail, in some circles, is attributed to Catherine “Kitty” Hustler, an innkeeper said to have created a gin-based cocktail in 1778.

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Unfortunately, as saloon culture changed, so did the public’s views on women and alcohol.

“Women who occupied the masculine world of working, drinking and debauchery were prostitutes, or viewed as such and were treated as social outcasts,” says Nice. These images endured through the Prohibition years. The rhetoric that surrounded women’s drinking was bound into class, biology, motherhood and sexuality.

“This has had a lasting cultural impact on the perceptions of women as drinkers in [the U.S.]”

Race was another factor often ignored by texts that documented drinking norms of the time.

“Drinking at this time was not just gendered,” says historian Kerry Knerr. “It was also highly classed and raced.” Bars became very desirable for elite white men in particular, Knerr says, “and very suspect for women of any class or racial background.”

Notably, Prohibition was also heavily supported by the Ku Klux Klan as a means to “clean up” society. Hate groups fought against drinking rooms and speakeasies in part due to their ability to draw in customers across color and gender divides.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Clients pictured drinking in an illegal bar of New-York, in 1932. These illegal bars, which had a lot of success during the American Prohibition, were called "speakeasy". (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Illegal bar in New York City, 1932 Getty

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.

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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.

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“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.

Published on March 8, 2020
Topics: Wine History