About the year 1900, New York City had many saloons. The board of aldermen then existed (now called the city council), and many of these aldermen used the saloons in their political organizations. Legend has it that someone entered the board of aldermen with a simple message: “Alderman, your saloon is on fire!” The board was quickly emptied of its aldermen.
Lincoln Steffens, writing about St. Louis politics, used the line “Mister, your saloon is on fire!” in The Shame of the Cities (1904).
Wikipedia: Lincoln Steffens
Joseph Lincoln Steffens (April 6, 1866 – August 9, 1936) was an American journalist and one of the most famous and influential practitioners of the journalistic style called muckraking. He is also known for his 1921 statement, upon his return from the Soviet Union: “I have been over into the future, and it works.” In fact, according to historian Richard Pipes, Steffen wrote those words on a train in Sweden before he had even arrived in the USSR. His more famous quote “I’ve seen the future, and it works” can be found on the titlepage of his wife’s, Ella Winter, 1933 edition of Red Virtue.
Steffens was born in San Francisco, California, grew up in San Francisco, and studied in France and Germany after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was first exposed to what were known then as “radical” political views. He is the allegory for the character of Mr. Whymper in the novel Animal Farm.
At McClure’s magazine, Steffens became part of the celebrated muckraking trio of himself, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker. He specialized in investigating government and political corruption, and two collections of his articles were published as The Shame of the Cities (1904) and The Struggle for Self-Government (1906), he also wrote The Traitor State, which criticized New Jersey for patronizing incorporation. In 1906, he left McClure’s, along with Tarbell and Baker, to form American Magazine.
In The Shame of the Cities, Steffens sought to bring about political reform in urban America by appealing to the emotions of Americans. He tried to make them feel very outraged and “shamed” by showing examples of corrupt governments throughout urban America.
Lincoln Steffens Exposes “Tweed Days in St. Louis”
Many of the legislators were saloon-keepers—it was in St. Louis that a practical joker nearly emptied the House of Delegates by tipping a boy to rush into a session and call out, “Mister, your saloon is on fire,”—but even the saloon-keepers of a neighborhood had to pay to keep in their inconvenient locality a market which public interest would have moved.
Source: Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities, American Century Series (New York: McClure, Philips & Co., 1904; Hill and Wang, 1957), 19–41.
American State Trials
John D. Lawson, editor
St. Louis, MO: F. H. Thomas Law Book Co.
Pg. vii (Preface to Volume Nine):
Many of the legislators were saloon keepers—it was in St. Louis that a practical joker nearly emptied the House of Delegates by getting a boy to rush into a session and call out, “Mister, your saloon is on fire,”—but even the saloons of a neighborhood had to pay to keep in their inconvenient locality a market which public interest would have moved.
17 May 1925, Davenport (Iowa) Democrat and Leader, pg. 24, col. 2:
New York City furnishes a graphic example of the result of the uplift, even in municipal politics. A day or two ago, the League of Women Voters invited the aldermen of greater New York to a tea, and most of them attended, altho with many qualms and misgivings. A great advance, that, from the day when a waggish citizen of the metropolis is reported to have appeared suddenly in the door of the council chamber and shouted,” Alderman, your saloon is on fire,” with the result that the entire aldermanic body rushed for the exits and paused only when its various members found the barkeep’ in his place, doing “business as usual.”
Government of the People:
A Study in the American Political System
by Denis William Brogan
New York, NY: Harper & Brothers
There is a story that a Tammany meeting was emptied by a wag who shouted through the door, “Alderman, your saloon’s on fire.”
5 October 1934, News-Palladium (Benton Harbor, MI), pg. 12, col. 7:
“The story is told that at one meeting an urchin stuck his head in the door and cried ‘your saloon is on fire.’ When the rush for the door was over, there wasn’t even a quorum left.”
(Cincinnati city council—ed.)
22 August 1976, New York (NY) Times, “Jimmy Walker’s City Hall” by Warren Moscow, pg. 179:
The public accepted as true the probably apocryphal story told by Al Smith, who had served a year as the Board’s president on his way to becoming Governor: (...) So, on Smith’s orders, a page stuck his head into the Aldermanic Chambers and shouted: “Alderman, your saloon is on fire!” The hall emptied, the quorum was lost and the city was saved.
The Next American Nation:
The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution
by Michael Lind
As Lincoln Steffens remarked, in The Shame of the Cities (1904), the fastest way to empty a city council chamber was to shout, “Your saloon’s on fire.”
The Man Who Rode the Tiger:
The Life and Times of Judge Samuel Seabury
by Herbert Mitgang
New York, NY: Fordham University Press
His Tammany successor, between 1924 and 1929, was George W. Olvany, who came in, wit ha comparatively clean reputation, at the strong suggestion of former Governor Smith. After all ,it was said of Olvany that he was the only member of the board of aldermen in the early 1900’s who had remained seated when a youngster poked his head into a meeting and shouted, “Alderman, you saloon is on fire!”
Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880-1920
by Perry Duis
Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press
After the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens repeated the story in The Shame of the Cities, it became a famous joke: the fastest way to empty the City Council chambers was to stand at the rear and shout, “Your saloon’s on fire!” In reality barkeeps were not that numerous in municipal legislative chambers, but the men behind the bar came to symbolize an era of American city politics. Their power was nothing grafted on the city by design, but instead political power grew naturally out of the barroom’s social functions in the working-class neighborhoods that became their constituencies.
New York (NY) Sun
It’s P.R. Time Again
By HENRY STERN
August 17, 2006
Until 1938, it was called as the Board of Aldermen, informally referred to as “the forty thieves,” a reference to Ali Baba. Another jest derided the lawmakers’ occupations: A man near the door of the Chamber shouted, “Alderman, your saloon’s on fire.” The room emptied immediately. In 1965, I wrote: “The City Council is less than a rubber stamp, because a rubber stamp leaves an impression.”
New York City • Government/Law/Politics/Military • (0) Comments • Saturday, April 19, 2008 • Permalink