Through the Side Door: Women and Drinking in Early Chicago

On July 1, 1872, the Chicago Tribune published a story titled “A Man Chains His Wife in a Heavy Weight, and Burns Her Mouth With a Poker to Prevent her Drinking.” Woah, right? Discovering that led to me becoming intrigued by the topic of women and drinking in Chicago’s early history.

Eliza Martin’s husband punished her for “unfavorable activities.” She stated to police that her husband “deliberately heated up a poker red-hot and burned her with it…to prevent her from drinking liquor.”

Women and Drinking in Early Chicago History

Women generally did not patronize saloons before prohibition. But women could have patronized most drinking establishments if they’d so chosen. Of course, no respectable lady would be found there. These beer-swilling women were of the working class. During the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, saloons were mostly patronized by male wage-earners. Some saloons had a side door known as the ladies entrance. These were inconspicuous and didn’t require women to be seen by men. Plus, it gave them quick access to drinks.  Through this door passed many working-class women: alone, in groups, or with a male escort. Most of these women were either wage-earners or the wives and daughter of wage-earners. Despite the public presumption, very few were prostitutes. They were to be found in distinct slum districts.

women and drinking

Similar to the women’s societies of the upper class, the saloon provided an outlet for lower class women to socialize outside of the home. Another popular attraction at the saloon was the free lunch. Purchase a five cent drink and the lunch was free. Ladies didn’t go to the bar to get sauced – they went to have a good time and step away from doing dishes, mending the kids’ clothes, and the like.

Women and Drinking On-the-Go

Women could also get liquor to-go, making drinking a mobile affair. They brought in containers of any size, and the bar keeper would fill it to the brim with beer for five-to-ten cents, the price of a pint. With this “brew on the run,” these women could drink beer wherever they wanted: on tenement roof tops, stoops, and court-yards as well as in city parks, alleyways, and waterfront wharves. And of course, remember we are talking about the working class. Women of the higher classes wouldn’t be caught dead drinking beer out of a jug in the park.

Things changed during the period of Prohibition. As drinking became exclusive, people wanted to do it even more. This period coincided with all kinds of new freedoms for women of all classes, such as suffrage. And these women also sought the freedom to drink a little moonshine or Planter’s Punch.

women and drinking

To learn more about women in public spaces of Chicago around the turn of the century,  try our previous post, entitled “Chicago Women in History: Alone at Last.” Chicago bars have become places filled with Chicago history, and you can explore tales of drinking, jazz history, and social clubs on our Historic Chicago Walking Bar Tour. It’s more then a pub crawl – on this walking tour we get to look at very cool examples of architecture, dig into some untold stories from history, and indulge in tasty appetizers, too.

~Brian Failing: Research and Collections Intern


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


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Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


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Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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