Great Reads, New York City History

Love and Lager

June 25, 2020


This basement is crowded with people singing along or shouting over a brass band, laughing, dancing, arguing, chasing children, crashing mugs of lager beer together and spilling the contents on the floor. We are in Schneider’s Lager Bier Saloon at 97 Orchard Street sometime in the late 19th century. Of course, at this time, the Lower East Side was filled to the brim with lager beer saloons run by German immigrants — dozens on every block along Essex, Ludlow, Forsyth, and more. 

Who are we? We are residents from an apartment upstairs, laborers, artisans, mutual aid society members waiting to call a meeting, lager dealers, local politicians, Temperance Society spies. We are moochers hoping no one will notice our repeated trips to the free lunch table. We are members of the band, veterans of the Civil War, immigrants from one of the German States, close friends of John- the proprietor- or just here to get a letter notarized. This is our first time here, or we are regulars. We are here with our family or we are here alone…hoping to meet someone.

We contain multitudes.

Stopping at the free lunch table, we notice a framed color promotion for ‘Lager Bier.’ The image and supporting text claims lager is a healthy, friendly, family and national drink. By 1879, after 15 years of business, Schneider’s Saloon seems to have become a neighborhood institution, attracting a diverse range of people. Interpreting the interactions of such a broad cross section of humanity necessitates a wide-angle lens, drawing narratives into focus from history’s smoky corners.

In this cloudy dark room, we are connected by our search for companionship. Through retelling old battle tales, playing in the band, or engaging in political discourse, we gravitate to one another in this basement. But it is the search for romantic companionship that directs our gaze back to the ‘Lager Bier’ advert. Standing under a banner of text reading, “A Family Drink” is a bearded white man dressed in a suit- one hand on the shoulder of a white woman (who we presume to be his wife), the other holding a beer. The woman offers their swaddled child a glass of beer.

At a glance the image is humorous and harmless, but something about it makes us feel left out. What if our ideas about family are different? What does it mean if we don’t conform to the heterosexual standards of family and love presented in this image? To honestly explore the fullness of humanity on display in Schneider’s saloon, to disrupt exclusionary standards, and to break the long-held silence, our interpretation must include the presence of same-sex relationships.

Until recent decades, gay history remained profoundly underrepresented- the direct result of heteronormative bias and homophobic violence. Presently, there are no primary sources regarding gay relationships in Schneider’s. But does that mean gay couples never met there? Excluding gay narratives from the saloon becomes a form of erasure, further perpetuating silence.

Fortunately, secondary sources, however rare, establish a foundation for including gay narratives; and for that we need only travel to Pfaff’s- a nearby German bier saloon.

Charles Ignatius Pfaff immigrated from Baden in the early 1850s and settled into the saloon business in the basement of the Coleman House Hotel at 647 Broadway in 1859. Lured by the promised ‘Best of everything, at moderate prices,’ radical thinkers, actors, politicos, artists, celebrities, and journalists, gathered alongside common laborers and artisans in Pfaff’s. This unfiltered combination of people was not only an inspiration to New York City’s Bohemian circle, who made Pfaff’s their headquarters, it also supported an atmosphere for free expression- including expressions of same-sex intimacy. In contemporary parlance, Pfaff’s would be considered an LGBTQ safe-space.

Walt Whitmanperhaps the most famous of the New York Bohemians, and his romantic partner Fred Vaughan found comfort in Pfaff’s saloon and were regularsDrawing off his experiences thereWhitman included a cluster of poems (known collectively as ‘Calamus’) in his third edition of The Leaves of Grass published in May of 1860As a group, these poems are wild erotic celebrations of the human form (both male and female) and their unlimited capacity for love. Calamus number 29 is outstanding for its tenderness and intimacy, as well as itfearless depiction of a gay partnership.

portrait of Walt Whitman by George Collins Cox

One flitting glimpse, caught through an interstice, 

Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room,
around the stove, late of a winter night—And
I unremarked, seated in a corner; 

Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently
approaching, and seating himself near, that he
may hold me by the hand; 

A long while, amid the noises of coming and going
—of drinking and oath and smutty jest, 

There we two, content, happy in being together,
speaking little, perhaps not a word. 

This couple shows no attempt or need to conceal their relationship. Life’s cacophony swells around them where they sit in quiet adoration. They are in a crowded noisy saloon.And quite suddenly we are right back where we started- in Schneider’s Saloon. We are at a table with the person we love, who is the same sex as we are. Our friends chase their children around, and tell us war stories. We tell the moocher to finish his plate and leave. We lift our voices to the song of the band, because this is our family and we feel a sense of belonging here.

Does this mean our friends know about our relationship and support us? Does this mean everyone in the saloon accepts us? Is our relationship only possible in this saloon? Do we have to keep this a secret? The answers to these questions connect us to a deeper understanding of love, but are possible only after the inclusion of Queer narratives in historic interpretation.

Written by Jason Eisner, Tenement Museum Education Manager for Exhibitions and Coordination

Related Reading and Sources: 
  • Rebel Souls, Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, Justin Martin, 2014Merlord Lawrence Book Group 
  • Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, 3rd Edition, 1860, 150th Anniversary Facsimie Edition, University of Iowa Press 
Photo credits:
  • Schneider’s Saloon, recreated at 97 Orchard Street for the Tenement Museum tour “Shop Life”
  • Lager Bier Chromo-lithograph, 1879, Mensing and Stecher Lithographic Company of Rochester NY, Library of Congress
  • Bohemians in Pfaff’s, Illustrated by Frank Bellew, February 6, 1864, Demorest’s New York Illustrated News
  • American poet Walt Whitman. This image was made in 1887 in New York, by photographer George C. Cox.