Pretzels and Prohibition: The Tangled Fate of the “German Biscuit”

“The Trap,” postcard, 1908.
“The Trap,” postcard, 1908. Pretzels and beer feature prominently in this image that portrays the negative views held by many people regarding patrons attracted to the saloon “free lunch.” Courtesy of a private collection.

Some foods just go well with beer. Of all the bar treats linked to the rise and fall of the American saloon, none played so public a role as the pretzel. In honor of National Pretzel Day, here’s a look back at how the pretzel became a player in the drama that led to Prohibition.

The Origin of the Pretzel

The pretzel’s real origins are as tangled as its shape. Legend traces it to medieval Europe, where Italian monks reportedly created treats to reward schoolchildren by baking dough with arms shaped in prayer. The tradition spread through Europe, and pretzels became associated with good luck and eternal love. By the 1600s, countries such as Switzerland reportedly used pretzels in wedding ceremonies to symbolize the matrimonial bond, or “tying the knot.” Rumor has it that the Pilgrims brought pretzels with them on the Mayflower. (They needed something to go with the beer they carried as well.)

No ethnic group was more associated with pretzels than the Germans. This connection entered Pennsylvania history when German immigrants brought pretzels with them to the colony in the 1700s. While most early pretzels were of the soft variety, a German baker in Lititz, Pa., Julius Sturgis, reportedly started the first commercial pretzel bakery in 1861 and claimed credit as the creator of the first true hard pretzels.

“Here’s Thinking of You,” postcard, c. 1930s.
“Here’s Thinking of You,” postcard, c. 1930s. The standard pairing of a mug of beer and a pretzel symbolize the German idea of “Gemuetlichkeit,” or a state of good cheer. Courtesy of a private collection.

Whatever their origin, hard pretzels arrived just in time for the rise of the saloon after the Civil War. In contrast to taverns, the male-only saloon focused on drinking rather than eating. As large brewery cooperatives began sending their beer beyond local neighborhoods, the saloon proved to be the perfect sales outlet. Large breweries supplied potential saloon operators with everything they needed to go into business, with one catch: they could only sell that brewery’s beer. By the 1870s, the number of saloons exploded as breweries competed to saturate the market with their own products. Who dominated this world of American brewing? German immigrants and their families.

The Perfect Bar Snack

While most saloons did not offer a full menu, proprietors recognized that customers would stay and drink if they could eat something, especially something salty that inspired a greater thirst for the “golden suds.” The German hard pretzel—economical, salty, easy to pack, ship, store, and serve—was the perfect bar food. In some cities, a majority of the pretzel trade was sold directly to saloons, which could go through as many as two or three barrels of pretzels a week.

So completely intertwined were the images of the German brewer and the German pretzel—sometimes referred to as the “German biscuit”—that the two were often pictured together. By the early 1900s, the Pittsburgh Daily Post regularly ran humorous illustrations that combined the distinctive form of the pretzel and the traditional costume of ethnic Pennsylvania Germans.

Pretzel head figure depicted in the costume of a Pennsylvania Dutchman of German descent, 1909. Pittsburgh Daily Post, January 26, 1909.
Pretzel head figure depicted in the costume of a Pennsylvania Dutchman of German descent, 1909. Pittsburgh Daily Post, January 26, 1909.
Carton depicting a pretzel being kicked out of a saloon during the “Free Lunch” debate, 1909. Pittsburgh Daily Post, March 17, 1909.
Carton depicting a pretzel being kicked out of a saloon during the “Free Lunch” debate, 1909. Pittsburgh Daily Post, March 17, 1909.
Cartoon depicting a German at the bar with his pretzel and beer, 1920. Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 8, 1910.
Cartoon depicting a German at the bar with his pretzel and beer, 1920. Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 8, 1910.
Cartoon showing a “pretzle plant” growing from a mug of beer, 1912. Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 23, 1912.
Cartoon showing a “pretzle plant” growing from a mug of beer, 1912. Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 23, 1912.
Eberhardt & Ober Brewing Co. letterhead, 1908.
Eberhardt & Ober Brewing Co. letterhead, 1908. Like most of the region’s breweries before Prohibition, Eberhardt & Ober’s proprietors were of German descent. Gerald Fuchs Collection, 1902-1927, MFF 4891, Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.

But the pretzel’s barroom popularity also put it in the middle of debates over the use and impact of these spaces. As competition increased, many saloons started offering something called the “free lunch” – a hearty communal table set with a variety of items such as soup and stew, meat, bread, crackers, pickles, relishes, cheese, and yes, pretzels, all “free” to patrons with the purchase of a drink or two (or more).  Sometimes, the cost was one “nickel beer.” Effectively underwritten by the breweries, five cents bought a drink and a meal that was cheaper than what restaurants could offer. The practice infuriated saloon critics, who saw it as one more tactic to separate workingmen from their paychecks and their families.

As Pittsburgh and other cities waged war against the free lunch, the pretzel bounced in and out of respectability. In Pittsburgh, the License Court banned pretzels on multiple occasions along with the rest of the free lunch, but each time granted them a reprieve to join cheese and crackers at the bar. “Pretzels are Permitted,” proclaimed a Pittsburgh Press article in May 1909, acknowledging that License Court officials had decided after a challenge from local attorneys that pretzels were “practically the same thing” as crackers.[1]

The Pretzel’s Fate

Adam and Caroline Randall pose in their pretzel bakery on Sarah Street, Southside, 1927. The Randall’s pretzel business boomed after Prohibition. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 25, 1927.
Adam and Caroline Randall pose in their pretzel bakery on Sarah Street, Southside, 1927. The Randall’s pretzel business boomed after Prohibition. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 25, 1927.

The biggest hurdle arrived in 1917-1918, when World War I fueled anti-German sentiment in the United States. As Prohibition’s advocates used this public antipathy to build support for the 18th Amendment, German foods also became targets. By 1918, even the Los Angeles Times declared that the pretzel was “too German to be taken seriously.”[2] Pretzels were again banished from the barroom. This time, the embargo became permanent when Prohibition was ratified in 1919 and the fate of the saloon was sealed.

For a while, the future of the pretzel was in question. “Pretzel Business on the Bum,” the Pittsburgh Press announced in September 1923, noting that the city’s “Sahara-like” dryness under the Volstead act (a reference partly in jest) created a challenging environment for the formerly “happy couple” of pretzels and beer. Eating pretzels with “near beer” the paper reported, left an undesirable taste compared to the “delicacy” of the old days.[3] At least one enterprising pharmacist in Ellwood City tried to convince people that the combination of pretzels and buttermilk was just as appealing.[4]

In the long run, the pretzel not only survived Prohibition, it thrived. One pretzel maker found that the trade from his small Sarah Street bakery increased after 1920; he surmised that people were buying pretzels to go with their home brew.[5] Pittsburgh’s largest pretzel manufacturer of the time, H. B. McNeal, also reported increased sales. The pretzel as a snack independent of beer grew so popular that some manufactures began abandoning the traditional curved shape for the pretzel stick, which was easier and faster to produce at a time when all pretzels were still made by hand. [6]

By the time the Reading (Pa.) Pretzel Machinery Company introduced the first automated pretzel maker in 1935, the tasty snack had become an indelible part of Pennsylvania’s food heritage and a symbol of the state’s German ancestry. Today, roughly 80 percent of the pretzels sold nationwide are still made in Pennsylvania.

Beer stein from Hammel’s Café, 1910s; currently on view in American Spirits.
Beer stein from Hammel’s Café, 1910s; currently on view in American Spirits. Located in Jenkins Arcade, Hammel’s Café closed with the advent of Prohibition. Some maintained the closure was also based on anti-German sentiment. Senator John Heinz History Center, Gift of Mr. & Mrs. William H. Brown.
Zoglmann’s restaurant and saloon token, c. 1910; currently on view in American Spirits.
Zoglmann’s restaurant and saloon token, c. 1910; currently on view in American Spirits. Five cents was the standard price for a cheap lunch accompanied by beer in the early 1900s. The hope was the patrons would come for the free food and stay and drink more. Senator John Heinz History Center, Gift of Ruth Ann Kapinskis.

Learn more about the history of America’s experiment with Prohibition now through June 10, 2018 in the American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition exhibition.

Leslie Przybylek is senior curator at the Heinz History Center.

[1] “Pretzels Are Permitted,” The Pittsburgh Press, May 7, 1909.
[2] “The Pretzel’s Passing,” Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1918.
[3] “Pretzel Business on the Bum, Ruined In Fact, As Sahara-Like Dryness Clamps Pittsburgh’s Former ‘Growler Rushers’ In Death Grip,” The Pittsburgh Press, September 14, 1923.
[4] “Buttermilk is Great Favor,” New Castle Herald, March 25, 1919.
[5] “New Twist to Pretzel Trade,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 25, 1927.
[6] “Curved Pretzel Threatens to Become Extinct Soon,” The Pittsburgh Press, June 16, 1927.

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