What with its bone-boiling facilities, tanneries, towering manure heaps, and roaming packs of aggressive hogs, 19th-century Manhattan was an affront to the nose and eyeballs. Luckily one didn’t need to go far to dull the senses, as there seemed to be a bar crammed into every square inch of the city.
The utter dominance of booze slingers is on display in this 1883 map sketched by one Robert Graham and featured in the archives of the New York Public Library. A 32-block section of what’s now the Lower East Side was reportedly packed with 242 "lager-beer saloons" (marked with circles) and 61 “liquor saloons” (rectangles), enough to fatally poison a 300-pound souse doing a bar crawl in about two blocks.
Here’s the scene a little farther south, with 181 beer bars and 76 liquor establishments:
The fact “lager” is singled out in these maps is due to the diligent work of German immigrants, who arrived early in the century and brewed so much of their favorite beer it inspired an entire culture of bustling beer gardens and halls. This was a wonderful time in general to be a beer drinker in America: The number of breweries hit a peak of 4,131 just a decade prior, a record that stood until 2015, when craft fanatics drove it up to 4,144.
All these suds required a vast cooling operation. Since this beery era preceded electric refrigeration, saloons relied upon the seasonally frozen Rockland Lake. “New York breweries—particularly those producing German-style lagers that require cold fermentation—were a major consumer of ice,” writes Time Out in a delightful history piece, “which, prior to the advent of the mechanical refrigerator, had to be cut from lakes in massive sheets and transported down the Hudson River.” Here’s a depiction of that ice-chopping action circa 1890 from American painter Andrew Fisher Bunner:
As sometimes happens with historical maps, there’s some easy-to-miss context. Robert Graham was a visiting member of the Church of England Temperance Society who arrived in Canada in 1890 to stir up anti-alcohol sentiments. A year later he trekked to New York to preach teetotalism but, to the city’s vast credit, was “much discouraged by his want of success,” according to 1891’s The Temperance Movement and Its Workers.
Graham persisted, however, and after asking for a police escort embarked on an expedition through “some of the slums in the lower part of the city.” This fact-finding mission informed his pamphlet Liquordom in New York City, from which these maps originate, and later helped him organize a modest New York temperance society. Here’s more on his “laborious investigation into the state of the liquor traffic in New York” from The Temperance Movement:
In this pamphlet it was shown that on an average there was one saloon to every twenty five families in the city; that 63 percent of all the criminal arrests were for intoxication and disorderly conduct; and that while the total number of food sellers—butchers, bakers, and grocers—was 7,197, the number of liquor sellers was 10,075…. Mr Graham further stated that twelve of the twenty four aldermen of the city were liquor dealers….
Mr. Graham proceeds to show the evil effects of the saloon in municipal government, and having proved, in an elaborate schedule, that election meetings were held to a large extent in or near liquor saloons, goes on to say: “The inferences to be drawn from the schedule are plainly that the saloon is master of the position; that the saloon-keepers are the political wire-pullers; that politicians, in the best sense of the term, do not care to submit to the thraldom involved in hobnobbing with keepers of corner groggeries; and that we have, therefore, the worst and not the best stratum from which to draw our municipal councillors and state legislators.”