Message in a Bottle

Before he settled down with his wife, Lillian, and enjoyed a career at the Forest Products Lab, Al Higgins tended bar. It was the late 1930s, and Madisonians were readjusting to legal alcohol sales and consumption. Higgins’ photo was likely taken as an advertisement for Camels Tavern.

Before the buildings along the 600 block of University (now the Fluno Center) were demolished in the late ’60s/early ’70s, historian Jim Draeger says Camels was likely a reputable neighborhood bar frequented by Greenbush residents. The elegant, quarter-sawn oak bar, Higgins’ formal attire and the geometrically precise arrangement of liquor bottles along the back wall are all signs that times were changing.

After Prohibition was repealed, there was a conscious effort to adopt new attitudes toward drinking. “There were a lot of social and moral issues surrounding alcohol that they wanted to try and avoid,” says Draeger. For one, many saloons had doubled as brothels. With women patronizing bars in greater numbers thanks to suffrage and speak-easies, that perception would have to change.

As for the dramatic tier of bottles in the photo, Draeger calls it a gutsy message to thirsty patrons: “They’re saying, ‘Your long drought is over. Liquor is finally back. Come and get it.’”

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.

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