The Growler

The Growler

    Before bottled beer became economical and common in the US (especially after the widespread use of pasteurization in the mid-1800's), if one wanted beer outside of the saloon, it was usually draught beer filled and carried out in a growler, aka a "can" or "bucket" of beer.

    Many different containers (including pitchers, other pottery or glass jars and jugs, etc) were used to carry beer home or to work - the most common "growler"  was a 2 quart galvanized or enameled pail as seen in these illustrations.  Pitchers/jugs, however, tho' not as nostalgically romantic, were also routinely referred to as "Growlers". See Stoneware jugs or pitchers as Growlers

    While many children were employed by parents and others to "Rush the Growler" (or "Rush the Can"), as can be seen in the photo directly above, adults also were "Bucket Boys"  or "Kesseljunges" (a German term apparently used in Milwaukee in particular).  Note the notched poles above which will be used by the "boy" to carry the growlers back to the workplace, as is also being done in the photo to left.

    The beer in a growler was often sold as a "pint" but most bartenders by tradition filled a growler with close to a quart of beer- the excess space taken up by the generous head on the beer.  During the early 20th century when the "nickel beer" was standard, a growler fill was commonly 5-15¢ (see prices below left).  

    While the origins of the "Growler" term is much in dispute on breweriana and etymology sites, some contemporary sources suggest that it was the constant conflict between the two parties - the bartender who's filling a two quart pail with a pint of beer - and the customer looking for a full pail - which caused the "growling".


 (Above and below) A  young girl buys a growler and a young "bucket boy" - illustrations from newspaper articles on children buying alcohol.  While the "growler" was generally looked upon as an evil of urban life, the use of children to buy beer was particularly reviled.

(Above) Two famous turn-of-the-century photographs, both titled  "Rushing the Growler".


A "Blue Mottled Growler"  being advertised for 10¢ and (left) a "TIN BUCKET" that "will serve as a beer growler" on sale in Texas for a nickel.


 (Above) Detail of John Sloan's 1907 painting,  

"Sixth Avenue and 30th Street, 1907" 

 (Above) An idealized view of workers drinking beer from a growler from a contemporary brewery beer tray.  Note the small glasses.  Buyers expected the "pint" growler fill to be the equivalent of at least 4 glasses of beer.

      The growler even gave it's name to urban gangs of the era, in this photo of a NYC eastside docks area "growler gang" - complete with a member hiding his face as he drinks from a can of beer.

    The "Bucket Trade" was frequently attacked during the decades leading up to Prohibition in 1920 by the same anti-alcohol "Temperance" forces that would result in the 18th Amendment.  Laws were passed in many communities to outlaw the growler entirely often with the support of saloon owners and brewers.

    Washington DC, in particular, was one such community, but similar laws were passed in many other urban areas.  Here's the language of an Arkansas law:

Sec. 564. Canning Beer Prohibited. —That it shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation owning, operating, managing or controlling, or bartender or any employee working in any dramshop, tippling house or saloon to sell, or permit the sale of, draught or keg beer deposited, or to be deposited in cans, cups, buckets, jars, bottles, jugs, crocks, pitchers, or other utensils than glasses or steins, and drunk or to be drunk on the premises; or to permit what is commonly termed and known as "canning beer," "rushing the can," or "rushing the growler," to be drunk on the premises where the sale Is made. Ord. A'o. 1768;

January 29, 1912. Little Rock (Ark.) 

Regulations pertaining to the growler trade

.—Twenty cities prohibited the growler trade and 24 other cities, reported some restrictions on it. Several restrictions were in the form of prohibition to sell in this way to women and to minors. Wilmington, Del., required an extra license of $25 from dealers who supplied the growler trade. Four cities withheld the growler privilege from saloons, permitting it only in the case of dealers other than those selling by the drink.  Eight cities limited the quantity which might be sold in a growler. One pint at a time was the limit set in Paterson, N. J. ; a quart in Allentown, Lancaster, and York, Pa.; and a gallon in Oakland, Cal., and Galveston, San Antonio, and Houston, Tex. 

--- Census Bureau, 1915

" 'There is not a liquor dealer in the State organization,' Mr. Hayes further asserted, 'but what is opposed to the sale of intoxicating drinks to minors, and all of them would be pleased to see the passing of the "growler" trade, for there is,' he claimed, 'no profit out of that sort of business'." 

 --- NJ State Liquor Dealers' Association 1905



Chasing the duck....

(Below) The concealable "duck" growler, illustration adapted from

John U. Barr's 1909 original patent.

 A engraving of a street scene in turn of the century Newark, NJ with a young boy carrying a growler in the foreground.

    Pressure was put on local law officials to enforce laws concerning minors buying beer and "exposes" of the "bucket" boys and girls were a feature of many newspapers of the era.  In the Cherry Hill section of NYC Father Curry was a well-known campaigner against  the growler being filled by children. 

    Sunday closings laws, often ignored (Sunday, often the only non-work day at the time and so a popular day for growler sales) were also being enforced better, leading to the invention of a concealable growler - a lidded, metal curved, flask-like container that came complete with a hook to allow the owner to secure it to the inside underarm of his coat, to hide the beer from public view and the police while "rushing the growler".  They eventually came to be known as "ducks" - a term that predated the unit and in some regions, had long been a synonym for a growler/pail/bucket/can of beer.

    The "Duck" term would even survive Prohibition and be used for glass "mason jar" half gallon jugs used in Baltimore, complete with breweries' logos.


"Growler Girls"

 (Above) a variety of "Graniteware" buckets of the size and design that were typically used as growlers- the same units are also referred to as "berry buckets".  (Photos from internet auction and sales sites).

"Draught Beer to go" - The Growler after Repeal


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