Technology that Changed Chicago: 1855 Lager Beer Riots

Previous: Beer 1830-1855

1855 brought to a head years of strife over the question of Sunday drinking. Sunday drinking had been forbidden by several widely ignored laws. Whiskey drinkers, usually American born, could buy their tipple on another day and drink in the privacy of their homes. Immigrants, Germans-in particular, favored beer and often didn’t see the harm in Sunday drinking. At the time bottled beer was a specialty item. Almost all beer was served out of wooden kegs, necessitating rapid consumption on or near the premises.

Various 19th Century mayors hemmed and hawed and failed to enforce the Sunday closing laws against the various saloons known as “groceries.”  In 1855, Dr. Levi Boone was elected mayor on the anti-immigrant platform of the Know Nothing Party. In his inaugural speech he vitriolically denounced immigrants, the Pope and Sunday drinking.  He promptly raised licensing fees and arrested hundreds of immigrant saloon keepers who remained open on Sundays. The grog houses and hotels operated by native-born Americans were largely untouched.

Wooden Building with people standin in and on it
North Wells St. Lager Beer Hall. 1854 Source: Chicago and Its Makers

To Serve and Collect tells what happened next. On April 21, 1855 a large group of Germans marched from their Near North neighborhood over the Clark Street Bridge to downtown in an attempt to free the prisoners. They were met by police and volunteers.    A number of injuries and possibly several deaths resulted.  Over the course of the next several days, the militia was called out, several prisoners were released and Sunday drinking resumed. More detailed accounts of the riot are found in Flinn's History of the Chicago Police, Andreas's History of Chicago and A Souvenir of the Liquor Interest.



Although often a matter of contention, Sunday drinking laws would not be enforced for another 60 years. 1872 was particularly acrimonious.  According to Flinn, there was a group of people who maintained that the Great Fire of 1871 was divine retribution for Chicago’s wickedness. Reformers with religious and political motives claimed eliminating Sunday drinking would keep Chicago from further harm. Chicago has continued to drink on Sundays, albeit fewer hours than the rest of the week, and has yet to suffer total destruction.

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