City Life

Old “Ladies’ Entrance” Signs Blur the Lines Between Gender Bias and Bar Ephemera

January 28, 2021 | by Kiki Volkert

McKenna’s Bar at 7322 Frankford Avenue in Mayfair. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Everyone knows that when bars advertise Ladies’ Night it is less so for the ladies and more so for straight men who hope to flirt, hook up, or even find love. In bars that host such theme nights, women are treated like a separate class of people, one to coax and goad into giving men their undivided attention. 100 years ago women were also treated like a separate class of people in bars–one to be avoided, segregated, and tolerated.

Working-class bars and saloons between the late 1800s and the beginning of Prohibition were the domain of men, a place to escape the demands of both work and family. The presence of women was a potential threat to their enjoyment of male camaraderie and their sense of masculinity. This is why in many bars of this period women were required to enter through a separate door marked with a sign reading “Ladies’ Entrance” and had to drink in a room in the back of the building. In Philadelphia, as in other American cities, a handful of “Ladies’ Entrance” signs remain intact today.

According to the late historian Madelon Powers in her book, Women and Public Drinking, 1890-1920.: Women in the New World, the saloon “was still undisputed male territory with its stand-up bar, spittoons, mustache towels, brass foot rails, and other symbols of ‘masculinity emancipate.’ Adventuresome though most saloon going women were, they were not agitators; their aim was sociability, not social equality, and their stepping out did not include stepping into bar areas where they were not welcome.”

Hilltop Tavern at 795 N. 24th Street in Fairmount. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Thus, the main purpose of the saloon’s separate entrance for women was to minimize their interaction with men so as not to disturb the sacred sense of shared masculinity. It is also true that these entrances protected women from the gaze of judgmental neighbors. The separate entrances, as Powers explained, “permitted them to enter inconspicuously and minimize public scrutiny of their comings and goings” and to shield them from “the disapproving glances of their more conservative neighbors and peers.”

The presence of women in saloons during this time wasn’t just a threat to male enjoyment. It was a threat to the entire male gender identity. “As long as women did not publicly drink in female homosocial places, men could claim that they were the masters of public drinking,” noted Adam Blahut in his dissertation, Raising the Bar: Consumption, Gender, and the Birth of a New Public Drinking Culture. “A business dedicated to offering women liquor and a space to mingle and relax with other women endangered the dominance of the male-dominated saloon and, consequently, male gender identity,” wrote Blahut.

Whether it is apparent today to people that see these signs still attached to buildings understand that they represent a stringent conception of masculinity isn’t clear. The “Ladies’ Entrance” signs that remain hanging in Philadelphia and elsewhere perhaps exist for no reason other than the building owners’ decision to keep them up for history’s sake. For some that own bars that occupy buildings with these signs, they are like any other type of bar ephemera, likened to an old neon sign, a juke box, an old sports jersey, or any other token of a bygone era.

Julie’s Corner Bar at 3066 Richmond Street in Port Richmond. | Photo: Michael Bixler

“It’s more there for nostalgia than anything else,” explained Jim Savage, owner of Julie’s Corner Bar in Port Richmond, which still has a “Ladies’ Entrance” sign that was placed on the facade well before Julie’s opened in 1956.” All my patrons know they can go in the front or the back. We’ve been here 55 years and the sign was already there. That’s it, ya know?” 

When Jezabel Careaga opened Gavin’s Café in June 2010 in a Fitler Square building that was formerly an Irish bar, she realized the building’s “Ladies’ Entrance” sign was a chance to educate passersby about a past they might otherwise be unaware of. Instead of removing the sign, she restored it and installed new lights, embracing it as a symbol of progress. “I think it was this idea that it has to stay up because it is part of history. It is a reminder that we have come a long way, but there is also much more to do,” she said. “There is a school around the corner and parents I know would explain to their children that women were once required to use a separate entrance there.” Careaga’s business has since moved to West Philly, but she is still happy to drive by and see that the building’s new tenant, Rowhome Coffee, decided to keep the sign.

If these old signs can be used to educate children and remind adults about the history of progress for women, their presence in the public sphere isn’t without value, but there is much more to the story. “Ladies’ Entrance” signs and the segregated bar culture they symbolize tell us about the evolution of gender roles, the fight for women’s voting rights, the temperance movement, and the relationship between all three.

The former Gavin’s Cafe, now Rowhome Coffee, at 2536 Pine Street in Fitler Square. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Since male gender identity was once inextricable from the male presence in saloons, it is no coincidence that the two major social issues of the time, the suffrage movement and the temperance movement, were in part responses to some of the harmful effects of male gender identity: drunkenness and its resulting maltreatment of women.

In her book, Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870 – 1940, historian Catherine Gilbert Murdoch explained that, “Both woman suffrage and prohibition challenged traditional male public behavior. Supporters of the two amendments considered alcohol and politics pathologically intertwined: both male drinking and male politics required female intervention.” Suffragists and Prohibitionists were fighting to change society by changing male behavior. “The women who spoke in favor of prohibition and for suffrage were not describing simply a saloon-free America, but were arguing for the elimination of the entire masculine culture that made institutions such as the saloon possible,” wrote Murdoch.

At the time of the introduction of Prohibition in 1920, a slight dissolution in gender roles was reflected in women’s increased interest in drinking. Until this point, the home was the domain of women, and the political and social world was the domain of men. But when women won the right to vote in 1920, they entered the world of politics. Conversely, men were beginning to take a greater interest in domestic duties. “I would argue that just as male religious movements, increasing interest in fatherhood, and changing emphases in fiction indicate the decline of a separate female hegemony, so, too, does women’s public drinking represent the dissolution of the male sphere,” wrote Murdoch. “Alcohol use, like the right to vote, was no longer a uniquely masculine attribute.”

Brothers Two Z Lounge at 1428 W. Ritner Street in South Philadelphia. | Photo: Michael Bixler

By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, it was much more acceptable for women to drink in public than it was when Prohibition was introduced. A New York Times article from 1933, “From Saloon to Speakeasy–And Now?,” attributes an overall change in drinking habits during Prohibition to the participation of women in drinking culture. This happened partly because they began to be included in at-home cocktail hours during WWI and partly because a wave of German, French, and Italian immigrants brought with them to the United States drinking cultures that included women.

However, the main reason that women were more accepted in public while drinking at the time of the repeal of Prohibition is the culture that sprang out of speakeasies. Paradoxically, drinking became socially acceptable for women when it became legally impermissible for everyone. The Times article admitted that “Prohibition added the zest of the forbidden and so hastened the sharing by women of what had been man’s exclusive privilege in this country.”

Cresson Inn at 114 Gay Street in Manayunk. | Photo: Michael Bixler

During Prohibition, it seems men realized that the presence of women could make drinking more fun. The 1933 Times articles goes on to note, “Mainly the difference between the new saloon and the old will lie in the refining and restraining, if also intriguing, presence of women in most drinking places. The drinking place of the future will be co-educational.” It is possible that part of the reason that women were welcomed into public drinking spaces is because their presence could actually make men feel more masculine, not less. As Ladies’ Nights continue to attract crowds in the 21st century, the drinking place is indeed coeducational. But women might still wonder whether it is genuinely coequal, even if they walk into the bar through the front door.

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27 Comments:

  1. Rich Wagner says:

    Prior to prohibition bars had a trough with running water beneath the “brass rail.” It was common for men to relieve themselves without having to go anywhere. That combined with the language, cigars and who knows what else, the Ladies Entrance was usually to the dining room behind the bar room, with a convenient proximity to the Ladies’ Room, where patrons were served while seated.

    1. Ethan G. says:

      Urban legend. They were for chewing tobacco.

  2. Josh O says:

    There’s also a nice one tucked above the side entrance at 2658 E Clearfield St. Not sure of the current status of the interior, but a few years ago it still had the original marble faced bar with trough at the the base – described by the owner as a urinal. Though that’s dubiously debunked by Joe Sixpack here: http://www.joesixpack.net/2017/03/01/that-thing-at-your-feet-its-not-a-pee-trough/

    1. Rich Wagner says:

      By law the troughs had to be filled in after prohibition. However, on a number of “Bar Tours” in Philadelphia, a number of them survive, although none with running water.

      1. Eno Beau says:

        Interest-ing article. Sign always signified to me that I was entering restaurant area.

    2. LUV THIS WHEN I WAS YOUNG SEVERAL BARS IN PORT RICHMOND HAD THESE SIGNS WE WENT ON FRIDAYS FOR SEAFOOD DINNERS IT WAS GREAT

    3. Howard J Goldblatt says:

      Byrnes on Richmond St. above Allegheny, has a horse-sized watering trough in the middle of the bar men’s room.
      But that’s no claim to fame: it’s the awesome steamed crabs and potato logs!

  3. Paula K says:

    Reading this reminded me of the mid 1990s when I (along with another woman) were forbidden to enter the bar at a Malvern country club after a Planning Board meeting. The Chairman, an architect, invited the entire board after the meeting to see his Club remodel. The club was about to close but the manager welcomed him. We all entered, reached the bar and the Chairman announced, “Oh this is men only. Sorry.” I thought he was joking-he wasn’t. My Nana marched for voting rights…and we could not cross a threshold…in the 90s!

  4. RitaKohn says:

    outstanding article; thank you for thefulsome research

  5. Commentor says:

    A very interesting article, but very over-simplified. You imply that women did not drink prior to Prohibition. So, Queen Victoria didn’t drink? Have you looked at the number of women who died from the effects of alcohol? Have you ever hear of the famous “beer gardens” and other drinking locations up and down the Schuylkill River in the late 1800s? Bars and taverns are one thing, but your article relies too heavily on assumptions and not enough of what historical research reveals about our history.

    1. Dave says:

      This isn’t implied in the article. You made up a weird strawman. And it would be absolutely goofy to include Queen Elizabeth in an article about Philly bars.

  6. joan says:

    Feminism, schmeminism! Bars served food items and could not attract female customers without having a clean and safe environment. It was a courtesy, and not a sign of “masculine hegemony” (words only uttered by gender studies grads), to have the ladies’ entrance. There are many customers today, of all genders, who would prefer a separate entrance and room to have conversation over a sandwich and beer and not have to deal with all the raucous behavior, from all genders, at the bar.

    1. Margo Kutner says:

      Jim Clark,

      I used to wonder the same thing.I was born in ’47and I remember those neighborhood bars with those signs.
      My parents were not bar people and neither was I, even today.I currently live in Southern
      California which early on became no smoking which was another reason I didn’t like bars. I loved this article and particularly the comments and discussions.

  7. Jim Clark says:

    When I was a youngster growing up in North Philly, Fairhill, I wondered why in the world there were separate entrances for ladies to go into bars! The one bar in my neighborhood, that I saw into, the two doors led to the same area the bar! I always wondered if a couple were going into the bar did they have to part company and each one go in their respective entrances! Never made any sense to me.

    1. Gloria says:

      Couples did not have to split up. The “bar” was were you sat on a stool, leaning on the bar, in a row. The Ladies’ Entrance took one directly into the room with tables and regular chairs. If a couple came in, they would usually sit at a table — at least by the 1960s.

  8. Maron Fenico says:

    The “Ladies Only” signs are not just bar ephemera, they are part of the DNA of the neighborhoods where they were posted and inscriptions from our past, not unlike cave paintings. They also make awesome ornaments.

  9. Sue says:

    I have a beautiful brass spittoon. This is all wonderful history in Philadelphia. Certainly not part of the now unnecessary cancel culture!

  10. O. Bergine says:

    Your slant is basically offensive in its inability to appreciate anything historic and different from what you want it to have been. Grow up. Learn something.

    1. Jim Clark says:

      Your ridiculous reply left me laughing, thank you, I needed that.

  11. Kathleen Murray says:

    2536 Pine Street was Killeen’s long before it was known as some yuppie place by the name of Gavin’s.

  12. Carmen D. Valentino says:

    I grew up in my parent’s taproom in Port Richmond during the 1950’s-60’s. It was a pre- Prohibition saloon which my father purchased around 1938. The Ladies Entrance on Richmond St. was not used. All customers entered the bar room by the front door facing the corner of Richmond & Cambria Sts.and women sat wherever they wanted.There was a fancy trough with running water as well as a brass foot rail which ran the length of the long bar.The men’s toilet was in a corner and had swinging saloon doors. A lady’s room/bathroom was in the back room which had earlier been a dining room.It was filled with tables and Polish bentwood chairs.My father operated the only fully integrated bar in the neighborhood. If you were Jewish or Black American you drank at Valentino’s.

  13. What bar was that?? I’m from the same neighborhood

  14. James says:

    A story to read with your brandy over the rocks!

  15. Rocco Buttofoco says:

    When I worked in the area back in the early 1980’s, Reagen’s Bar at the Blvd and Adams had one. Haven’t been down that way in years, not sure if the bar is still even there???

    1. Rocco Buttofoco says:

      ha, memory isn’t what it used to be. The bar was called Regans at Whitaker and the Blvd,

  16. Tim Graham says:

    People should just lighten up and chill. We need to get less emotional about the evolution of gender treatment in the social context.

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