Scranton bars provided cultural center

Published: December 4, 2015

JOE EVANS

Historian

The bar scene in Scranton is one of the most popular things for students at The University.

Every weekend massive amounts students flood to bars in downtown and the Hill section. There are so many options to go to and enjoy.

As someone who grew up in Scranton, I remember a saying.

“If you go to any corner in Scranton and you look around, there will always be either a corner or a bar.”

This saying still holds true today. The city is littered with so many bars to explore.

Sarah Piccini, assistant director at the Lackawanna Historical Society, provided a history of bars in the Scranton area and how they affected the area’s culture.

Piccini compares bars in Scranton to the churches around the city.

“Bars, like churches, served as community centers for immigrants. Just like churches, there was a bar for every ethnicity. They were Irish, Lithuanian and Italian churches, it was the same for bars,” Piccini said.

Piccini said bars served as something similar to community centers or gathering places for people of similar ethnic backgrounds.

It may be hard to imagine with how bars are today, but during this time in history bars served many more functions than just a place to eat and drink.

“They served as post offices. You could have things sent to your local bar or saloon. The bartender would often speak the same language as the patrons. You could buy steamship tickets there, you would vote there. It was how you would think of the YMCA today,” Piccini said. “You could bring your whole family. Business would be transacted there. It was more than just the bar.”

The need for these meeting places for immigrants was especially important in an area like Scranton.

“It was a very small population in the city was starting in the 1840s-1850s. When heavy industry developed, it was primarily immigrants who are coming here in droves,” Piccini said.

The population of the city peaked in the 1920s at about 150,000 people, who were mostly immigrants. These groups came together in the same city, but stuck primarily with their own ethnic groups through those separate churches and bars.

“You needed some kind of touchstone with the old country and connections that you made while in this new alien land,” Piccini said.

Piccini believes these corner bars and pubs provided a sense of comfort and familiarity to the immigrant communities they served, much like the churches. However, since people were often highly religious during that time period, the bars were a much more laid back atmosphere than the churches.

“The bars were the more casual side of that social interaction. It was familiar company,” Piccini said.

As immigrant groups started to disperse during the industrial boom cool down, people began leaving the area. Piccini believes the immigrants had established themselves as part of the community, which meant there was less need to cling so tightly to those touchdowns back to the old country.

“As immigrant groups started to thin out in the industry declined, people begin leaving the area. When you first come to a new place you need somewhere you can feel comfortable. As you get more at home with the area in general, it’s easy to move around and there is less need for only one place to go,” Piccini said.

Piccini said the development of other things the bar originally provided, such as post offices, further reduced the importance of bars and their role in the community.

“There was less need for that to be the one place you go,” Piccini said.

Prohibition had an immediate impact on the bars and breweries in the area. Many were forced to shut down. Many switched their production to soda to try and stay in business. Yeungling was one of those few breweries that managed to stay running.

“They survived by selling ice cream. Yuengling was the only local brewery to survive,” Piccini said.

During Prohibition, bootlegging and raids by the federal government were both extremely common.

“There were illegal stills and basement all over the place,” Piccini said.

In Scranton Prohibition was, as it was in many places, largely ignored by many institutions such as hotels or circumvented by bootleggers.

“It was September 1920 before the Hotel Jermyn closed its bar. Prohibition started in January, didn’t close it until September,” Piccini said.

While Piccini believes there was a large amount the speakeasies and undercover bars in operation during the time, the fact that Prohibition made everything involving alcohol illegal means there is almost no documentation of these places.

Piccini said some bars in Scranton still retain that original sense of community they had.

“If you go to South Side, all their corner bars are Irish bars. The ones downtown, not so much. They are new and lovely, but they are different kinds of bars,” Piccini said.

So the next time someone is considering going to grab a drink or bite to eat, think about the place. It might have a much richer backstory that goes back nearly 100 years, back to the foundation that formed this city and made it what it is today.

Contact the writer: joseph.evans2@scranton.edu

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