The mere mention of saloons immediately conjures images of people satisfying their carnal desires by imbibing large quantities of alcohol amongst a rowdy scene of drunkards. Similar images have been popularized through the slumming accounts of journalists such as Jacob Riis and undercover detectives. These stories delivered to a wide range of audiences first hand accounts and initial exposure to an underground world of debauchery and racial intermingling. As a result of journalistic slumming, the black-and-tan saloons became a site of exotic curiosity for distant onlookers to project their imagination, as well as fears. Although there are several accounts that speak of the violence, prostitution and racial intermingling that occur within and surrounding the black-and-tan saloons, the negative casting of these spaces overshadows the community functions saloons fulfilled for ethnic minorities and the working class.
Black-and-tan saloons, also called black-and-tan dives, is precisely what the name connotes – an intermixing of the African-Americans and Caucasians, as well as those of mixed heritage and Asian races. Regarded as a “low establishment,” the name was derived from a concert hall that featured “scantily clad African American women dancing for the entertainment of its mostly white customers.” The racially charged term “Black-and-tan” was used repeatedly in news mediums. Such is the case with Jacob Riis, a muckracker journalist and social documentary photographer who spoke of his encounters with black-and-tan saloons in the chapter “The Color Line in New York,” of his famous book How the Other Half Lives:
“The moral turpitude of Thompson Street has been notorious for years, and the mingling of the three elements does not seem to have wrought any change for the better. The border-land where the white and black races meet in common debauch, the aptly-named black-and-tan saloon, has never been debatable ground from a moral stand-point. It has always been the worst of the desperately bad. Than this commingling of the utterly depraved of both sexes, white and black, on such ground, there can be no greater abomination.”
Riis’ sketch discards journalistic standards of objectivity and instead reveals personal opinions of disgust, thereby representing as journalistic fact the morally degenerative nature of black-and-tan saloons . Other slumming accounts include undercover cops who took detailed notes and later anonymously published them. One detective wrote that saloons in the vicinity of Minetta Lane and Carmine Street were “so vicious that a policeman is on the corner for duty.” Prior to the 1920’s, the worst saloons were considered to be at this corner (Minetta and Carmine). Another detective observed: there are “nigger wenches drinking at the bar, several coons playing dice and some white men standing around. The back room is a ‘hore house in distress (simply rotten).”
These portraits aroused great panic amongst the whites and New York City municipal authorities and urban reformers. They believed that “the existence of black-and-tan saloons not only permitted racial intermixing, but actively promoted it.” In 1914, a letter from the general secretary of Committee of Fourteen, Frederick H. Whitin to Progressive reform photographer Lewis Hine, suggested that the black-and-tan saloons were “catering to not only to whites, as well as blacks, stimulating a mixing of the races.” Chad. H. Heap points to the sexual connotation imbued in the language. Latent in the interpretations of black-and-tan saloons are creations of racial binaries; white is emblematic of “purity” and black as “immoral.” Thus logic suggests racial intermixing would result in contamination of the white race. To take the metaphor further, Heap suggests that “tan” represents a hybrid of the races, an offspring produced from intermixing. Other racial characterizations of slummers and frequenters of black-and-tan saloons reflected negatively on these ethnically diverse establishments. For instance, black prostitutes were exoticized as being “Amazon-like” in physique and were often blamed for robberies reported by white men. Thus, black women were thought of as being wildly untamed in behavior and deemed as a social threat. Even more dangerous in the mind of reformers was how these saloons encouraged activity that blurred the line between civil activity and acts of indecency that could lead to moral corruption.
Despite some facts that were established in exposès of black-and-tan saloons, journalists and slummers failed to recognize the social functions that black-and-tan saloons provide. Saloons or dives in Greenwich Village, such as Thomas Wallace’s Golden Swan and Green Cup Café were hot spot for artists and bohemians alike, oftentimes a place for social exchange between races that were discouraged in other public spaces. These places also offered refuge for new ethnic immigrants to continue practicing their cultural traditions and ensure they are preserved, such as holding musical performances in the saloon. Black-and-tan saloons offered ethnic minorities a place where they could slowly adjust to American culture with others of the same ethnicity or social class. Madelon Powers describes the saloon as a space where “an emerging culture which preserves elements of the past, while simultaneously transcending longstanding regional differences.” Powers goes further to describe the significance of saloons as creating a sense of community for ethnic minorities, a primary step in building the cultural bridge to American culture. Additionally, it is the racial intermingling itself that encourages new dynamics in social relationships through cultural exchange. This in itself, was something that challenged conventional behavior and thinking, which spurred creativity and social change.
Allen, Irving Lewis. The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech. New York: Oxford University, 1993.
Heap, Chad C. Slumming: sexual and racial encounters in American nightlife, 1885-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2009.
McFarland, Gerald W. Inside Greenwich Village: a New York City Neighborhood, 1898-1918. University of Massachusetts, 2001.
Powers, Madelon. Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon, 1870 – 1920. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999.
Riis, Jacob A. and David Leviatin. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Scribner, 1890.