The Early History of ‘Blind Pigs’ and ‘Blind Pig’ Saloons
From inane attraction while enjoying a free drink to underground destination for illegal alcohol
In the earliest days of alcohol enforcement, from the moment that public officials began to author legislation to control liquor flow, people looked for ways to circumvent those rules. One example of this is through the use of ‘blind pigs.’
In the United States, near the midpoint of the nineteenth century, ‘blind pigs,’ also known as ‘blind tigers’ or ‘striped pigs,’ were public functions held in some variant of exhibition space that served alcohol. Event promoters promised attendees the chance to see a genuine sightless pig. However, they often delivered little more than an ordinary sight-capable swine, a pig-like clay figurine with stripes painted on its back, or some other lesser spectacle.
The truth was that the star of the show wasn’t why people attended. Organizers gave ticket buyers free alcoholic beverages. They weren’t selling liquor to customers; they were selling access to entertainment and providing free alcohol as a benefit to attendees. Because of this, they weren’t legally required to buy a liquor license or follow alcohol-related sales laws.
As the country moved its way further into the second half of the century, a growing number of US citizens became part of the Temperance Movement to promote sobriety. The call for complete restraint wasn’t universal. Some municipalities chose abstinence, while others restricted alcohol sales to specific business districts. Liquor laws grew in force as the movement strengthened.
Legislators moved to have a tighter grip on who could sell alcohol to the public and where it could be sold. One example is the High License Law passed in the state in 1887. This bill’s implicit goal was to put lesser quality saloon owners out of business by making liquor licenses almost prohibitively expensive to purchase.
‘Blind Pigs,’ once public events that took place with little fear of reprisal, were now forced to become secret venues that remained in the shadows of society to stay in business. A likely unintended side-effect of the increasingly strict liquor regulations was the growth in the number of ‘blind pig’ locations. Illicit ‘blind pigs’ sprung up in cities and towns nationwide regardless of residents’ personal opinions either for or against alcohol consumption.
They were everywhere. Saloon owners unable to afford rising regulatory costs or financially unable to relocate into approved business districts continued to offer customers access to liquor by turning their locations into ‘blind pigs.’ Store owners, druggists, and more ran illegal saloons and rum shops from the backrooms of their establishments as well.
Despite the move into secrecy, the ‘blind pig’ changed very little from its initial inception. Location owners still provided access to entertainment and offered customers free alcoholic drinks. Both the proprietor and the customer benefited from this arrangement.
Owners paid no taxes on the money that they made from their illegal businesses. They weren’t forced to adhere to any specific industry standards and could offer customers lesser quality liquor, thereby increasing their profit. Because they did business in secret, ‘blind pigs’ offered customers a level of inclusion and privacy that the typical saloon couldn’t. Men and women drank together without the fear of being negatively judged by other members of their community.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, legislation began to be created to stifle the ‘blind pig.’ Bills were crafted to impact alcohol-related transactions specifically within the walls of these types of illicit venues. While most liquor laws to that point defined legal parameters only for instances in which money was exchanged for alcohol, these went further, affecting not only locations that sold liquor but those that kept or used alcoholic beverages outside of the rules accepted by law.
Establishments were not only punished for selling alcohol without a license but were additionally fined if it was determined that they ran a ‘blind pig.’ These laws also focused on the customers that frequented these illicit saloons.
Despite increased legal pressure to close them down, ‘blind pigs’ continued to operate. The majority of sales in these locations involved beer, and the widespread belief was that local breweries were selling it to them through wholesale channels. Many people thought that the breweries had maintained the ‘blind pigs,’ and without continued access to a beer supply, illegal saloons would have withered away long ago.
Local ordinances were created nationwide to keep breweries from selling to ‘blind pigs.’ By 1917 watchdog groups worked to ensure that breweries followed legal orders and only sold beer to lawfully licensed establishments. Lawbreaking breweries risked their business licenses by not complying.
On Saturday, January 17, 1920, National Prohibition officially took effect with the legal enforcement of the 18th Amendment, stopping the flow of alcohol higher than 0.5% ABV in the United States. However, as they had for many years prior, illicit liquor-serving establishments continued to try and do business beyond the reach of the law. While intoxicating liquors were no longer legal to manufacture, sell, or transport, thanks to underground outfits like ‘blind pig’ saloons, they were often easy to find.
Bibliography available here.