The Spirited History of Pennsylvania Saloons

Picturing PA highlights moments in Pennsylvania history through photographs in the extensive collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

In 1905 and 1906 Charles and Linnie Ross of Stroudsburg traveled throughout Pennsylvania, photographing residents and buildings in communities they passed. Hoping to sell their prints for a handsome profit, they made sure to shoot the most popular spots in each town. Unsurprisingly, the Rosses photographed dozens of saloons in their travels, including this one in Williamsport.

By 1851 saloons were so commonplace in Pennsylvania a Philadelphia judge complained the city was “one vast groggery.” In coal and steel towns, saloons were even more concentrated. Schuylkill County, typical of anthracite region locations, had one saloon for every 169 residents in 1900. The popularity of saloons also prompted debates in Pennsylvania over alcohol, reform and changing social norms.

Many saloons were run by entrepreneurial immigrants from central and eastern Europe. Making their establishments friendly havens for fellow migrants, saloonkeepers held savings of customers who were suspicious of banks, cashed paychecks, translated English documents, and helped newcomers find jobs.

In industrial communities, saloons were a welcome respite from dangerous workplaces. When the only place to get a drink in Pittsburgh’s hot steel mills was a “pail of dirty water” on the shop floor, as one Pittsburgh sociologist put it in 1909, many workers flocked to nearby saloons instead. “A man does not need to change his clothing and get a shave before he is made welcome here. . . . He may come covered with the grime of the mill and not feel out of place.”

But saloons had opponents too. Temperance advocates felt the establishments represented the worst in American society: drunkenness, poverty and vice. In 1904 a sociologist studying Pennsylvania coal communities summed up the temperance perspective: “The saloon has devoured the substance of our people . . . debauching their bodies and debasing their souls.”

Temperance societies formed across Pennsylvania in the late 19th century to “protect” neighborhoods from the saloon’s influences. Some groups publicly denounced saloons and encouraged listeners to sign abstinence pledges; others lobbied politicians to deny saloonkeepers liquor licenses or pass “blue laws” to make alcohol illegal outright.

Lancaster County abolitionist William Whipple considered the “ardent spirits” in saloons an evil equal to slavery. Another Allegheny County temperance advocate even founded a town called “Temperanceville” in 1870, where residents were forbidden to sell or drink alcohol.

When a “local option” law was passed in 1873 giving counties the ability to decide whether alcohol sales were legal or not, 40 Pennsylvania counties voted dry. The following year, however, skittish legislators repealed the law after realizing just how many saloons in the state were closing.

In 1889 reformers proposed a prohibition amendment to the state constitution but it was soundly defeated at the polls. Predictably, the counties that voted most overwhelmingly against prohibition were home to the most saloons.

When the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919, Prohibition finally came to Pennsylvania, and before long many saloons closed for good. Pennsylvania had been one of the last states to ratify the amendment.

Materials pertaining to the history of Pennsylvania saloons and temperance reform can be found in the collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives, MG-101, Pennsylvania State Temperance Union Papers; and MG-280, Charles Ross Photographs.


Tyler Stump is an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives.