I've metal-detected for Civil War relics for many years and recently have started inventorying some of my finds that I hadn't earlier cleaned. I came across this token for McCormick's Wine & Billiard Palace and wonder if you could shine any light on it?
— Kevin Sweeney, Manassas, Va.
On Dec. 15, 1880, the District of Columbia granted a liquor license to Michael G. McCormick.
On March 20, 1940, McCormick died, age 87.
A lot had happened to McCormick in the 60 intervening years. As a boy, the Irish-born McCormick sold newspapers. As a young man, he worked as a tailor. When he died, McCormick's obituary made the front page of the Washington Evening Star, a fitting spot given his final job: president of Security Savings Bank.
So, an immigrant success story — and one involving booze and billiards. McCormick's establishment — at 216 Sixth St. NW, a block off Pennsylvania Avenue — was one of dozens of drinking dens that dotted downtown in the late 19th century. As a newspaper headline nostalgically noted in 1933: "Man Could Drink His Way From Capitol to White House Along the Avenue."
An 1884 city directory listed 10 billiard saloons in the District. A photo from 1889 shows McCormick's, across C Street from another billiard parlor and around the corner from the National Hotel, which also boasted a billiard room.
What would McCormick's have been like? The baize-topped tables would have sat within open rectangles of carpet, said billiards historian Michael Shamos . The rugs were for the players' feet. The table legs would have rested directly on the floor so they wouldn't settle and go out of true in the squishy carpet. Each table would have been lit from above by gas fixtures.
In the 1880s, gentlemen played billiards on a table with no pockets — a carom table. "The game is played with three balls," Shamos said. "You make points by making your ball hit the other two. That was believed to be the more refined game."
More refined than pool, though patrons could play both at McCormick's. An ad from 1881 read: "A $20 gold piece to the gentleman putting in the largest number of balls from the break … Come on you pool players and see how many balls you can pocket."
Tokens like the quarter-sized one unearthed by Answer Man's reader were common. It has McCormick's address on one side and "2½ ." on the other. That's the value: two-and-a-half cents.
Billiard hall owners sold tokens at a discount. "So you might buy $20 worth for $18," Shamos said. "Then you could use them to pay for whatever you used in the room: drinks or time or whatever."
McCormick seems to have gotten in early on the billiard-boom wave. Between 1880 and 1900, the number of billiard halls in the District rose by a factor of 10.
And don't forget the wine. In ads for his saloon, McCormick noted that he sold Champagne — "the oldest and best wine" — and was a distributor of Green River Whiskey, — "the whiskey without a headache."
While McCormick ran his saloon, he did all the things a striving businessman should do to enlarge his network. He was a charter founder of the first Elks chapter in Washington, Lodge 15, formed in 1882. (Both his Biltmore Street NW home and his downtown office were decorated with antlers.) In 1888, he served on a committee organizing an event to honor Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, former governor of the District.
McCormick was a member of the Jolly Fat Men's Club, a fraternal group that celebrated avoirdupois. He helped plan a 1902 Jolly Fat Men's trip to an area amusement park that drew nearly 1,000 attendees. It made news for an embarrassing, though not unexpected, incident: A log flume boat capsized. As The Post recounted:
"The swamping of one of the boats of the 'Shoot the chutes' furnished considerable excitement during the evening. The passengers were three heavyweights of the club and four ladies, the combined weight of the seven persons aggregating about 1,200 or 1,500 pounds. The boat slid down the chute without accident, but when it struck the water the unusual weight swamped it and the occupants were left floating in the water. The party was quickly rescued and no one was hurt."
McCormick was a savvy real estate investor, buying and selling property throughout the city. He started to identify himself in census records as a broker. He joined the board of the Security Bank, rising to become its president before retiring from active business in 1915.
When McCormick died, he left a wife, Mary, but no children. He is buried at Congressional Cemetery. The next time you chalk your cue, give a thought to the billiard palace king.
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