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10 Juicy Facts About 19th Century New York City Dive Bars

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Back in the day, your local dive might serve a whiskey punch made with camphor and cocaine sweepings.

Unlicensed basement bar in what is now Soho, 1890
Unlicensed basement bar in what is now Soho, 1890
photo by Jacob Riis

We modern New Yorkers are proud of our dive bars, rough-hewn places where the alcohol is cheap, the décor decrepit, and where, every decade or so, there might be a knifing or shoot-out, where the occasional coke line may be snorted, and where you look furtively over your shoulder as you abscond to make sure you're not being followed. But come with me, friends, to the creepier world of 19th-century New York saloons, places that would make your hair stand on end. The following facts were gleaned from Low Life (1991), Luc Sante's epic study of our hardscrabble city in centuries gone by.

  1. In 1826, there were 600 taverns in New York City; by 1870 the number of places licensed to sell alcohol by the glass had risen to nearly 7100.
  2. This tally, according to Sante, "fails to include the proportionately vast number of illegal dives, blind tigers, needled-beer cellars, and the like, which flourished mostly in the slums."
  3. Before the Civil War, the Bowery was lined with German beer gardens, sprawling places seating more than a thousand, where the mainly male patrons could also play cards, listen to oompah bands, and engage in target practice with real guns. Beers were a nickel apiece, and the barmaids dressed in short skirts and red boots that had bells on them.
  4. Some of the most abject 19th-century drinking establishments were located on Water Street and catered to sailors. One such institution, Kit Burn's Sportsmen's Hall, was famous for its amphitheater on the first floor, in which contests to the death were held pitting terriers against giant rats. One champion terrier of the era slew 100 rats in 11½ minutes.
  5. The earliest Bowery dives had no glasses, only barrels of booze connected to rubber tubes. For three cents you were allowed to drink till you ran out of breath. Many patrons practiced the art of circular breathing to maximize their intake.
  6. As a come-on during the 19th century, many bars offered a free lunch, "or, as unwritten law had it, free after two nickel beers: cold meats, salted and pickled fish, cheese, pickles, rye bread. Everybody used the same fork, but then everybody also used the same towel to wipe beer foam from his moustache."
  7. Many places doctored their beer and liquor with adulterants, either to make it cheaper or to accentuate the high. "There were places that sold liquor mixed with liquid camphor, and those that sold a punch composed of whiskey, hot rum, camphor, benzene, and cocaine sweepings, for six cents a glass. Customers most assuredly knew what they were getting into; sometimes the attraction was the low price, more often it was oblivion."
  8. In 1896 a new regulation called the Raines Hotel Law made it illegal to serve drinks on Sunday, except to accompany meals in hotels. Needless to say, those bars that could manage it scrambled to annex 10 very tiny rooms (the legal minimum), and to offer some semblance of a meal, no matter how small or ridiculous. "A meal might consist of a these joints would make inedible sandwiches, sometimes consisting of a rock or a brick between two slices of bread, and leave one on each table, where, as weeks went by, the bread would develop a mold."
  9. Worst New York City bar of the 19th century: Billy McGlory's Armory Hall - "The place was all menace...its double doors opened into a long, pitch-black hallway. Customers had to make their way through in utter darkness to the opaque door that led to the bar, beyond which was a dance hall. Murder was an everyday occurrence at the Armory, if we are to believe contemporary descriptions."
  10. Best 19th-century New York City bar names in Low Life: Hole In The Wall, The Slide, The Morgue, House of Lords, Bunch of Grapes, Paddy the Pig's, The Burnt Rag, The Tuxedo, The Heart of Maryland, Milligan's Hell, The Tombs, McGurk's Suicide Hall, Chick Tricker's Flea Bag, Inferno, Cripples' Den, Workingman's Friend, Old Tree House, The Mug, The Chain and Locker, The Billy Goat.