Friday, December 16, 2016

From Saloons to Soft Drinks in Schenectady

While researching The Union Inn for a recent Daily Gazette story ( I noticed that there were many (over 100) businesses listed under the soft drink section of the 1921 Schenectady City Directory business listings. "Schenectady sure loved soft drinks" I thought to myself, not immediately realizing the implication of the term soft drink in prohibition era Schenectady. I continued my research into 1919 where there were 110 saloons and cafes in the 1919 directory, and it all fell into place.
Anheuser-Busch released soda and
malt syrup to try and profit off of
prohibition. Grape Bouquet was
released in 1922.

When prohibition put the kibosh on alcohol sales, brewers, distillers, and saloons needed alternate products if they wanted to survive. Some of the largest breweries around today were the ones that found creative solutions to the prohibition problem. Coors started a ceramics business that surprisingly makes more money than the brewing side of the company. Yuengling made ice cream until about 1985, and then started back up again last year. Others large brewers made barley or malt syrup, low alcohol near-beer, and of course, soft drinks. It was the same story with brewers in the Capital Region many began making sodas, malt vinegar and syrup, and some breweries went into the bottling business.

One of the saloons turned soft drink shop was Schreck's Hall on 1118 Albany Street.
Courtesy of the photograph collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.
With many of their main suppliers turning to soft drink production, saloons would soon follow suit and sell those products. Many of the saloon owners in 1919 Schenectady City Directory are the same selling soft drinks in the 1921 directory. Some of them were probably legitimately just selling soda such as the Schenectady Coca-Cola Bottling Company on Foster Avenue. Others, were definitely selling hard drink in addition to their soft drinks. These soft drink establishments were scattered throughout the city although the streets around lower Broadway seemed to have the most.

Schenectady City Directory advertisements for the
New York and Orange Crush Bottling Works as well as
the Saratoga Natural Carbonic Co. 
A letter to the editor in the February 18, 1925 issue of the Schenectady Gazette takes aim at these soft drink places, "If one has the inclination and the price he or she can easily obtain whiskey, alcohol, wine or beer. And this is prohibition Shades of-- somebody: "Soft drink places!" Oh yea. Please pass the salt." The writer goes on to say that "If Captain Funston or the police want to check crime, it might be well for them to look after places where crime is hatched and bred."Another letter to the editor by A Thirsty Schenectadian laments the quality of good soft drinks to be had in Schenectady, saying that he wouldn't miss alcohol or beer as much if there were better soft drinks to be had. He complains that he has gone to soda shops up and down Schenectady but has yet to "find a drink that doesn't need a cold glass of beer to destroy the awful taste." He goes on to compliment the soda shops of Richmond, Virginia where you could find a "10 ounce drink made from fresh fruit with an appetizing taste for 9 cents" where in Schenectady you get warm lime phosphate in a 5 ounce glass for 6 cents."

Soft drink shops on State Street were also popular places to quench your thirst. 
The building next to the Lorraine Block building with the "Stoll Famous Lager"
sign was the Oak Cafe. Courtesy of the photograph collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.

This photo of State Street shows O'Connor's Tavern on the left which was previously The Holland Inn.
Courtesy of the photograph collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.
By 1924, both Albany's Mayor William Hackett and Schenectady's Mayor Campbell were on to the "soft drink" game in their city's. Hackett had recently enacted a measure to close up the "undesirable saloons and so-called soft drink" places throughout the city and Campbell met with him on February 2nd to discuss the ordinance. I haven't been able to find evidence of a soft drink ordinance in Schenectady but similar ones were passed in other towns and cities in the area.

Over time, Schenectady's love of "soft drink" establishments had dwindled. The creation of the special service squad of the Schenectady Police Department helped put many these businesses. Created in 1927, they conducted 600 investigations into disorderly houses, gambling houses, and disorderly places in that year.  The end of prohibition further reduced the number of soft drink shops and only 8 of these soft drink shops were listed in the 1935 city directory

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