There Are Always Ways Around Laws – The Raines Law Example.

In pre-prohibition era in late 1800’s, the City of New York was having problems with public drunkenness in the city’s over 8,000 establishments serving alcohol.

The problems were many in that some of the seedier places where people were getting drunk were dimly lit, smoked filled establishments where safety and sanitation was not a major concern. There were also concerns with drinking on Sundays, which raised the ire of churches.

To solve this issue, the City passed the so called “Raines Law,” named after John Raines. The law was also supported by a firebrand, law and order type official named Theodore Roosevelt. (Yes, THAT Teddy Roosevelt.)

The 1896 Raines Law was designed to put dreary watering holes like these out of business. It raised the cost of an annual liquor license to $800, three times what it had cost before and a tenfold increase for beer-only taverns. It stipulated that saloons could not open within 200 feet of a school or church, and raised the drinking age from 16 to 18. In addition, it banned one of the late 19th-century saloon’s most potent enticements: the free lunch. At McSorley’s, for example, cheese, soda bread, and raw onions were on the house. (The 160-year-old bar still sells a tongue-in-cheek version of this today.) Most controversial of all was the law’s renewed assault on Sunday drinking. Its author, Finger Lakes region senator John W. Raines, eliminated the “golden hour” grace period that followed the stroke of midnight on Saturday. His law also forced saloon owners to keep their curtains open on Sunday, making it considerably harder for patrolmen to turn a blind eye.

The Raines Law took effect on April 1, 1896. Progressives scored its first weekend in action a bone-dry success. Bars closed Saturday at midnight; the liquor flow on Sunday slowed to a trickle. RAINES MAKES A THIRST, a New York World headline quipped. But while the teetotalers celebrated over lemonade, plenty of booze-deprived New Yorkers were fuming.

The law carved out two exceptions, however.

The first was that as long as a drink was being served with a meal, that was fine. Instead of dank bars serving nothing but booze to patrons, restaurants would still be able to sell alcohol with a meal to the more elite class of people in the city.

The second exception was for hotels who regularly had bars in their establishments. As long as the business rented rooms, they did not have to serve a meal with the drinks.

As you can imagine, both exceptions benefited the well-to-do, leaving the common man without his beer and liquor.

Not to worry.

The common man and more specifically the people who businesses depended on the common man fought back.

The first step was what was euphemistically called “Raines Hotels.”

Owners began to put beds in attics, basements and unused spaces thereby satisfying the hotel exception. The hotel exception included another interesting part – in hotels, the bars never had to close. They could be open 24 hours, 7 days a week. This meant no last calls or operating hours. In a single year, over 1,800 new “Raines Hotels” sprang up in New York. Courts upheld the strict definition of “hotel” in the law, frustrating law enforcement and the legislators saying, “we didn’t see that coming.”

(Do they ever see the unintended consequences?)

However as ingenious the “Raines Hotels” were, the “Raines Sandwich” was even better.

As the law allowed that establishments that served meals with drinks were fine, proprietors began to serve the “Raines Sandwich.”

Near the end of the 19th century, New Yorkers out for a drink partook in one of the more unusual rituals in the annals of hospitality. When they ordered an ale or whisky, the waiter or bartender would bring it out with a sandwich. Generally speaking, the sandwich was not edible. It was “an old desiccated ruin of dust-laden bread and mummified ham or cheese,” wrote the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Other times it was made of rubber. Bar staff would commonly take the sandwich back seconds after it had arrived, pair it with the next beverage order, and whisk it over to another patron’s table. Some sandwiches were kept in circulation for a week or more.

Nothing in the law said the meal had to be edible, so there was nothing the City could do about that either.

“Here’s your drink and your meal, sir……”

“Whoooosh!” the sandwich disappears and gets served with the next drink order.

It was not to last.

The Raines Law tussle continued well into the 20th century. The New York Supreme Court ruled in 1907 that a Sunday meal must be ordered and delivered in “good faith” for the accompanying drinks to be legal. Under pressure, brewers started refusing to supply Raines hotels. A new state excise law in 1917 contained a minimum-room requirement that effectively prevented the opening of new ones.

But the Raines Law debacle was merely a prelude for what was to come. New York reformers had long allied themselves with the Anti-Saloon League, a civilian organization with Midwestern origins that would morph into one of the most powerful pressure groups in U.S. history. By 1919, the efforts of the ASL made nationwide Prohibition the law of the land, putting an end to such quaint half-measures as the Raines sandwich and replacing the Raines hotel with the speakeasy.

Some will say that the Raines Law shows the folly of trying to regulate certain vices and perhaps there is truth to that.

We see it the problem with the Raines Law is that it carved out exceptions due to the influential patrons and political contributions.

That’s a problem we still see today.

People will claim that we need to stop or limit money in politics.

We disagree.

We need to elect people who won’t accept bribes, who treat people who donate thousands to their campaigns the same as a person who does not donate, and does not think of being an elected official as some sort of stepping stone to “lifestyles with the rich and famous.”

We need people who know the Constitution says we must treat all people equally under the law.

Yet it seems increasingly difficult to find people who actually hold to their oath to uphold the Constitution. Whether it be on issues under the 14th Amendment, the First Amendment or the Second Amendment, elected officials need to adhere to the oath they freely took when taking office.

No exceptions.

One Response to “There Are Always Ways Around Laws – The Raines Law Example.”

  1. Percy says:

    Great article. The problem I have with campaign contributions is the contributions should only come from the people/businesses being represented (i.e., not from outside sources or outside PACs). I think smaller towns can be too easily misled when a big outside donor dumps money into an election. At a minimum maybe governments could do a better job of managing the contribution/expenditure data so it’s easier for the average citizen to see who is financially supporting candidates/issues without having to spend hours of time going thru each months financial reports. Would be nice to see all the data in one place. It’s even worse when looking at PACs as you can have an individual donate to PAC1 and then PAC1 donates that money to PAC2 and then PAC2 donates the money to a candidate/issue. You shouldn’t need to be a forensic accountant to see where the money is coming from. I wouldn’t have a problem with unlimited contributions if folks could easily see and understand where the funds are coming from.