How Stale Sandwiches Helped Save New York's 19th Century Drinking Establishments

Stale sandwich, anyone?
Stale sandwich, anyone? / Image by agoss, Pixabay

As the saying goes, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” In July 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the bars and restaurants of New York would not be able to sell alcohol to customers who were not also purchasing food. It was a blow to establishments already fighting an uphill battle to recover from the financial ruin of the coronavirus pandemic. But it was far from the first struggle of its kind: New York's bars have an impressive history of employing creative strategies for getting around limitations—including, in the late 1800s, serving sandwiches of dubious edibility in order to comply with restrictions on liquor service.

In 1896, the formidable force to be reckoned with was State Senator John Raines. His liquor tax law intended to reduce alcohol consumption in New York, and had the support of Theodore Roosevelt, then New York City's police commissioner, who was cracking down on vice within the city. The Raines Law prohibited liquor sales on Sundays, except in hotels. Since Sunday was the busiest day for sales for many of the city’s bars (due in part to the fact that many city residents worked six-day weeks, making Sunday the only day they could enjoy a pint), the loss promised to be substantial for the owners of alcohol-serving establishments—so they wasted no time in brainstorming ways around the law.

Legally, a hotel was defined as an establishment with a restaurant and at least 10 rooms, and over the next few months, the proprietors of more than 1000 saloons turned their businesses into saloon-hotels, a change that enabled them to serve liquor with meals seven days a week at all hours. (In many cases, the makeshift rooms in these so-called Raines Law hotels were rented out to prostitutes [PDF]. As The New York Times described in April 1896 [PDF], any guest of these establishments could procure the liquor of his choosing on Sundays, as long as a meal order was placed prior to the order for alcohol.

But what actually constituted a meal? As one Brooklyn assistant district attorney told police captains, a cracker was not “a complete meal in itself, but a sandwich is.” The New York Times article reiterated that a sandwich qualified as an acceptable meal, but also noted that, “The question of consumption of the food ordered was not seriously considered in its relation to the demands for excise refreshments; in fact the procuring of drinks was simply made subordinate to a formal order for ‘a meal,’ and this was gauged simply by the will of the patron.”

And in this, barkeeps found another loophole: The Raines legislation was focused around the ordering of food, but did not require that that food actually be eaten—so the same food could theoretically be served over and over if a patron left it unconsumed.

The resulting victuals became known as Raines sandwiches. According to playwright Eugene O’Neill, they were “old desiccated ruin[s] of dust-laden bread and mummified ham or cheese which only the drunkest yokel from the sticks” would actually eat. Also on the menu in some establishments were sandwiches that were actually made of rubber, or even brick sandwiches, which Jacob Riis wrote “[consisted] of two pieces of bread with a brick between … set out on the counter, in derision of the state law which forbids the serving of drinks without ‘meals.’”

Unfortunately for the Raines hotel proprietors, their brilliant workarounds eventually came to an end. In 1905, the Committee of Fourteen [PDF] was founded as a citizens' association to ensure the closure of the hotels, which they believed were a cause of the growth of prostitution in the city. The committee organized on-site investigations of the “hotels,” and by 1911, most of the Raines Law hotels had closed, taking their moldy sandwiches with them. The Raines Law would remain in effect until it was repealed in 1923.

New York has changed a lot in the last hundred years, but the plucky spirit of business owners has stayed the same. The historical tenacity of NYC’s businesses has shown that they are willing to do everything they possibly can to make the best of a bad situation—even if it sometimes meant serving up some rather revolting sandwiches.