Transcript: American Spirits – Saloons [VIDEO]

Leslie Przybylek, senior curator, Heinz History Center:

One of my favorite cases in American Spirits is the small case in the first main gallery that features a number of History Center objects that really come from Pittsburgh’s saloon and liquor dealer history.

We have some wonderful little objects in that case. There’s a stone wear jug from John McCullough who had a liquor dealership on Liberty Street, and this great little beer stein from Hammel’s German Restaurant, a tiny token from Zoglmann’s saloon on the South Side. It was good for five cents in trade, which at that time period really meant it was basically good for a five-cent beer and you could often get a really cheap or even free lunch as part of the deal.

And now these are all artifacts that really remind us, one, of the kinds of stories involved with the alcohol trade in Pittsburgh here in the years before Prohibition and they also illustrate the challenges faced by the people who were trying to enforce Prohibition.

There is also a wonderful little rye whiskey bottle. It’s a miniature bottle from Sunstein and Sons. They were a Jewish liquor distillery here in Pittsburgh and these artifacts all remind us that it really was a number of immigrant families that ran many of these businesses. Some of them had been doing this for generations, some had maybe picked it up after they got to this country, but Germans, Irish, Jewish merchants, Italians, and later Polish and Eastern European immigrants really were some of the dominant people in the liquor trade.

In fact, if you look in Pittsburgh newspapers in about 1900 and you looked at ads for someone is selling a saloon for example they would say things like “oh great business opportunity for a man who speaks Polish or wonderful business placement for someone of the German persuasion”.

You know there’s another case later in American Spirits that portrays the flip side of this story because you’re talking about immigrant groups that really lived with this. It was part of their tradition, to drink wine or beer and we have a case in the Prohibition-era section of the exhibit which shows a home wine press from Berarducci Brothers in McKeesport, a small home still that was recovered from a house in Homestead, and then this great item: a blow torch that was used by a Jewish head of household in the Hill District to repair his still during Prohibition, and then sometimes to repair neighbors’ as well.

You know on the one hand people would lambast these communities later on. There was one investigative reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who said, “oh the fumes of boiling mash could be smelled over neighborhoods like the Hill and the North Side and that there were nightly explosions in tenements and stills throughout the region”.

Now in some respects that was true. There was a lot of bootlegging and illicit liquor crime in Pittsburgh during Prohibition, but it’s just as true that a lot of people quietly simply went on their way, making what was there for their own use. In fact, wine, home wine production was somewhat legal during Prohibition. You could make, if you were the male head of household, you could make 200 gallons for your own use. Making whiskey and making beer was never truly legal.

So people did what they did anyway. They maybe shared some with their neighbors but it was really something that it was a part of their own family tradition.