How New Yorkers Dodged Pre-Prohibition Drinking Laws by Inventing the World’s Worst Sandwich

Three men feast on free lunch in a draw­ing by Charles Dana Gib­son

In one of my favorite episodes of The Simp­sons, beer-swill­ing Homer falls in love with a sand­wich. He spends his days nib­bling away at the “sick­en­ing, fes­ter­ing remains of a 10-foot hoagie,” Nathan Rabin writes, “long after decen­cy, self-respect, and sur­vival would all seem to dic­tate throw­ing it out.” The sand­wich may be yet anoth­er instance of the show pulling some obscure detail from Amer­i­can his­to­ry for com­ic effect — or maybe writer David M. Stern read Eugene O’Neill’s The Ice­man Cometh, in which the play­wright describes “an old des­ic­cat­ed ruin of dust-laden bread and mum­mi­fied ham or cheese.”

O’Neill’s sand­wich is so his­tor­i­cal, it has a name, the Raines Sand­wich, named after New York State Sen­a­tor John Raines, the author of an 1896 law that raised the cost of liquor licens­es sub­stan­tial­ly, upped the drink­ing age from six­teen to eigh­teen, and banned alco­holic bev­er­ages on Sun­days except in large hotels and lodg­ing hous­es which served a com­pli­men­ta­ry meal with their drinks. The law tar­get­ed work­ing peo­ple and their one day of respite, and it hit bar own­ers hard. “After all,” writes the Irish Exam­in­er, “labour­ers most­ly worked six days a week, with Sun­day their only full day for drink­ing, and Sun­day was the most prof­itable day for saloons.”

The com­pli­men­ta­ry-meal-with-drinks man­date, as it were, was designed so that wealthy patrons at lux­u­ry hotels could drink on Sun­days, but low-rent saloon own­ers seized on the loop­hole, trans­form­ing dive bars into room­ing hous­es overnight with table­cloths and “alleged bed­rooms” made from attics and base­ments. “It was then that the loos­est pos­si­ble def­i­n­i­tion of a ‘sub­stan­tial meal’ became the Raines Sand­wich.” The sand­wich might be made of any­thing, even a brick between two slices of bread; it was rarely eat­en. Some­times, it would be served to a guest with their beer or whiskey, then whisked away and giv­en to some­one else. A sin­gle Raines Sand­wich might last the day, or even the whole week.

Some estab­lish­ments tried to get away with serv­ing crack­ers and moldy cheese alone (stal­wart New York Irish pub McSor­ley’s gave away crack­ers, cheese, and onions — a dish for which they now charge). But the courts required a sand­wich, at the very least to be served, and the city enforced the law with right­eous vig­or — thanks in large part to a young Theodore Roo­sevelt. As Dar­rell Hart­man writes at Atlas Obscu­ra, New York Repub­li­cans in Albany “spoke for a con­stituen­cy large­ly com­prised of rur­al small-town church­go­ers” wor­ried about urban vice. But Raines had a city ally in Roo­sevelt, then a “37-year-old fire­brand… push­ing a law-and-order agen­da as pres­i­dent of the city’s new­ly orga­nized police com­mis­sion.”

Roo­sevelt can­vassed the Low­er East Side with patrol­man Frank Rathge­ber, send­ing him into saloons in plain clothes to inves­ti­gate. “Rathge­ber said he saw many sand­wich­es but only one bed,” writes author Richard Zacks in Island of Vice. The sand­wich­es were moldy, and were tak­en away uneat­en. “He nev­er was asked to buy a sec­ond sand­wich” with sub­se­quent drinks, “or even to eat the first one.” Despite the reform crack­downs, the shady busi­ness of the Raines Sand­wich let saloon own­ers skirt the law until it was repealed, final­ly, in 1924. As Hart­man notes, behind the pur­port­ed good inten­tions of the Tem­per­ance move­ment lay a deter­mined cul­ture war:

Those in favor of the Sun­day ban, gen­er­al­ly mid­dle-class and Protes­tant, saw it as a cor­ner­stone of social improve­ment. For those against, includ­ing the city’s tide of Ger­man and Irish immi­grants, it was an act of repression—an espe­cial­ly spite­ful one because it lim­it­ed how the aver­age labor­er could enjoy him­self on his one day off. The Sun­day ban was not pop­u­lar, to say the least, among the city’s Jews, who’d already observed their Sab­bath the day before.

The Raines Law was as much about enforc­ing reli­gious obser­vance and cul­tur­al con­for­mi­ty on immi­grants as it was an attempt to com­bat crime, pover­ty, and vio­lence in the city. Those whose beliefs did not pre­vent them from enjoy­ing them­selves on Sun­day saw no rea­son to take the law any more seri­ous­ly than they would a rot­ting week-old sand­wich or a brick between two slices of moldy bread.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Explore Thou­sands of Free Vin­tage Cock­tail Recipes Online (1705–1951)

The First Known Pho­to­graph of Peo­ple Shar­ing a Beer (1843)

The Sci­ence of Beer: A New Free Online Course Promis­es to Enhance Your Appre­ci­a­tion of the Time­less Bev­er­age

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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