Sunday, 20 March 2011

Women-Only Beer Parlours: Saskatchewan Liquor Laws in the 1930s - Part 2

Getty Images, Retrofile, George Marks photograph
When the Saskatchewan government legalized the sale of beer by the glass in 1935, the question arose as to whether or not women should be allowed in beer parlours. In the end, after much debate in the legislature, Saskatchewan women were granted the right to drink beer – in separate women-only parlours.

Despite stereotypes about women as temperance advocates in the early 1900s, Saskatchewan women from many walks of life drank wine, beer and hard liquor at formal dinners, at weddings and at other gatherings. In the years since 1924, when the only places people could legally drink were in their own homes or in a hotel room, many married couples spent some of their leisure time together at home. Some might have shared a drink or two. As Craig Heron surmises in his book, Booze: A Distilled History (Toronto, 2003), “Inadvertently, government policy may have had [the] effect of breaking down the male near-monopoly on drinking and giving their wives easier access to the bottle that their husband brought home.” (p.288) In addition, the single women of Saskatchewan's cities and towns who worked as telephone operators and salesclerks, hotel chambermaids and restaurant workers, might want to enjoy a drink in their local hotel beer parlour after a day’s work. 

Getty Images, Retrofile, George Marks photograph
The thought of women in beer parlours was frowned upon by many, however. While Saskatchewan women had won the right to vote in 1916, this had not given them real equality. The prevailing conviction was that a woman’s proper role was as a wife, mother and homemaker. Many considered beer parlours to be morally compromised places frequented by morally suspect patrons. Women might drink beer at the expense of their children. Much worse, women might be lured into illicit sexual activity if they were allowed to drink beer in parlours.  

Male bonding. Source:
The issue was further complicated by the fact that a lot of men, including many hotel operators, workers and their customers, simply did not want women in what was considered male social space. Hotelmen feared that the presence of women might curtail the consumption of beer. Male camaraderie might be inhibited. Charles Hurt of Vernon, B.C. gave voice to these qualms when he said, “Certainly there are many men who cannot be happy unless they are telling or listening to lewd stories or punctuating their conversation with a series of oaths, and such men do, no doubt, find their liberty of action circumscribed by the presence of ladies in the parlor.” (Quoted in Robert A. Campbell, Sit Down and Drink Your Beer; Vancouver’s Beer Parlours, 1925-1954, University of Toronto Press, 2001, p. 56) Many females agreed that a beer parlour was not a place for women. In the 1930s, most women were too busy running the family household to visit a beer parlour. Few could even afford it, given the hard times of the Depression. Some women, however, wanted in.

For several weeks in January 1935, members of the legislature debated the new liquor act and regulations. They received representaitons from both the Saskatchewan Moderation League and the Saskatchewan Temperance League asking for beer parlour privileges for women. According to the Regina newspaper, temperance advocates argued that since men and women voted together in the 1934 beer-by-the-glass plebiscite, they should be allowed to drink together. Premier James G. Gardiner said he was opposed to parlours for women because he believed that two thirds of the women in the province did not want beer at all. “He said he had been besieged by resolutions and letters from women’s organizations and individuals opposing beer parlors,” the paper reported, “but hadn’t received a single letter from any woman asking for them.” (Regina Leader-Post, Jan. 11, 1935, p. 3 and Jan. 19, 1935, p. 1).

Nevertheless, on January 22, 1935, the legislature approved separate, women-only beer parlours for all communities in the province. In cities, there had to be separate entrances for, and no means of communication between, the men’s and women’s parlours. In smaller centres, there could be a single entrance, but separate parlours. Omer Demers, MLA for Shellbrook, condemned the whole concept. “The very fact that we are not going to allow men and women to drink together is nothing short of an admission that the beer parlor is not going to be a decent place to go,” Demers said. (Regina Leader-Post, Jan. 22, 1935, p. 8)

Reaction to the establishment of women-only beer parlours was swift. “Fancy any real woman lowering her dignity by visiting such places,” wrote James Smith of Regina in a letter to the newspaper, “especially those who have the care and training of our future citizens.” S.G. Jamieson, on the other hand, thought that men and women should be allowed to drink together. His letter to the editor stated,“I would much sooner see my family drinking together in a public place than to … sneak off in a place where they practically have to hide to drink.” (Regina Leader-Post, Feb 7, 1935, p. 4) Perhaps the most interesting analysis of Saskatchewan’s new beer law came in an editorial by the Vancouver Province, quoted in the Leader-Post on March 21,1935:

The New York Times … hears about our new Saskatchewan beer law and doesn’t know what to make of us all. … In an age of sexual equality, the women of Saskatchewan are to have their beer-by-the-glass licensed houses, as well as the men of Saskatchewan. Even in the same house, but not in the same chaste parlor. Oh, no. No man except a beer waiter may be lawfully in a women’s beer parlor in the new Saskatchewan beer dispensation. And no woman may be lawfully in a man’s beer parlor. … separate compartments (beer-tight partitions, say), and there may not even be communicating doors… . They fought over these regulations for a whole week in the Saskatchewan House, before the beer separatists won. One member said, suppose a man and his wife dropped into a beer parlor together, wanting to have a thoughtful and connubial beer together, and then found they must go their separate ways, sundered by this harsh, estranging partition, drinking their lonely and uninspiring beer-by-the-glass, he on his side of the partition, she on hers, so that those whom God had joined together had been put asunder by the beer laws of Saskatchewan – how about it, what then? And the Saskatchewan House said, all right, what about it: it would just be too bad for them. 

All of this consternation was irrelevant, however. In March 1935, Regina hotelmen announced that they had decided not to provide separate beer parlors for women. It appears that the rest of the hotels in the province followed suit. Women would have to wait until 1960 to enter Saskatchewan’s beer parlours – or beverage rooms as they became known – through the “Ladies and Escorts” door.

© Joan Champ 2011

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