"Blind Tiger" is Southern American
slang for an illegal drinking establishment. Its synonym, Blind Pig, is more common in California, the Northwest, and the Northern Tier states. "Blind Pig" was an obvious reference to the blind eye a bribed "pig
", or policeman, would turn toward the bar in question
. Commonly called "speakeasies
", Blind Tiger saloons
sprung up in the South during Prohibition
like mushrooms after a particularly good rainstorm. Popularized in the 1920's, the term "Blind Tiger" has actually been traced to at least 1857, while "Blind Pig" appears to have emerged a bit later, circa 1870.
South Carolina, my home state, is notorious for being a bit behind the curve on many issues. The Confederate flag was removed from atop the state courthouse only two years ago, and you don't have to look much further than Strom Thurmond to get a good sense of the Carolina mindset. On one issue, however, South Carolina led the pack - prohibition. The temperance movement achieved one of its earliest victories by pushing statewide prohibition of alcohol sales in South Carolina in 1890, a full thirty years prior to national Prohibition, which was enacted in January of 1920. South Carolina was hard hit by Reconstruction after the Civil War, and countless grassroots temperance leagues appeared in response to the rampant alcoholism and general rowdiness of carpetbaggers, out-of-work veterans, and newly freed slaves. Sermons and religious propaganda weren't doing the job, so legislation was drafted and passed in the early 1890's that prevented the sale of alcohol in South Carolina. Needless to say, the men who sold the alcohol as well as the ones who drank it were outraged. An entire industry and way of life was threatened. Something had to be done.
Enter the Blind Tiger.
Proprietors began advertising animal curiosities, sideshows of sorts, where people were invited to come view the stuffed or live caged beasts. Patrons of the establishment paid an entrance fee to see a show, which usually featured a blind tiger. The price of admittance included a "complimentary" first drink, always of a flammable nature. While waiting for the mythical creature to appear, the guests were offered alcoholic refreshments. No one seemed to mind when the fictitious tiger never made the scene. Such establishments often had a front room that served tea or snacks, and the tables were decorated with a small stuffed animal, typically a tiger. This served as a signal to any particularly dense customers that there was a back room where alcohol flowed freely and all was right with the world. Rarely were actual animals displayed, and "Blind Tiger" came into the common lexicon as a wink-wink-nudge-nudge term. It was a thin facade that law enforcement pretty much ignored, and some of the best restaurants in South Carolina began to take advantage of the laissez-faire attitude. The back rooms grew to include illegal gambling as well as bars, and by the time statewide prohibition was repealed at the turn of the twentieth century blind tigers were firmly established in the Southern consciousness. Many proprieters, rather than submitting to absurdly high licensing costs, simply continued to operate their establishments as blind tigers.
When national prohibition was enacted, blind tigers really took off. Brothels, casinos, and bars alike began to display stuffed tigers in their windows to signal their wares to passersby. For the fourteen years that alcohol was illegal in America, a rich underground world of blind tigers, blind pigs, and speakeasies flourished. When Prohibition was finally repealed, the term "Blind Tiger" soon became a quaint reminder of the days of temperance leagues and bathtub gin. Today, "Blind Tiger" is a common name for bars all around the American South, though few people are aware of its origin.