Members Only: The History (and Legal Niche) of the Private Club

Last year a private club near me, part of a local fraternal organization, was hit with a whole bunch of citations from the New York Liquor Authority. Drug sales, unauthorized gambling, overserving, the whole nine. Their liquor license was canceled, but eight months later they got it back after a bunch of local leaders wrote letters of support to the Authority. It’s been most of a year since that happened, and the place has stayed out of the paper, so maybe it’s calmed down a bit. Really though, how would I know? I’m not a member, it’s not like I can walk in and check it out. The saga, as it played out in the local news, had me thinking about this murky world of private clubs: how they began, how they’ve evolved, and how they fit into this whole complicated liquor law system.


Private clubs are an import. In their modern form they started popping up in England back in the 17th century, and when the second sons of Lord Whoever came across the Atlantic, they started their own. The clubs helped build social capital among higher class men, providing an exclusive space to politic, make business deals — and, of course, misbehave. From the beginning these clubs were valued for their ability to skirt the rules of your standard tavern. Gambling, in particular, was generally outlawed in public houses but often permitted in a private club.

As the nation expanded and grew wealthier, exclusive clubs became a focal point of national business and politics. The decades after the Civil War, in particular, saw the founding of clubs that would serve as the axes of power for generations: the University Club (1865), the Cosmos Club (1878), the Alibi Club (1884), the Army and Navy Club (1885), the Metropolitan Club (1891), and many more.[1]

Even as elite clubs’ role increased, however, a new, more egalitarian trend was emerging. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to a middle class of people without the clout to get into the Metropolitan, but with enough time and pocket money for some recreation and some reasonable club dues. The Industrial Revolution’s corollary, the Progressive Movement, also gave this group a healthy sense of moralistic civic duty. And so, from the 1860s to the 1910s, most of the major Fraternal and Service Organizations are formed: the Elks in 1868, Shriners in 1870, The Knights of Columbus in 1882, the Loyal Order of Moose (a name I just can’t take seriously) in 1888, the Rotary in 1905, Kiwanis in 1915, and the Lions Club in 1917. This is when veterans get involved, as well, with the VFW forming in 1899 and the American Legion in 1919. (The Legion, uniquely, was actually chartered by Congress.)

A private club in the 20th century thus came to mean two very different things: elegant wood paneled walls and martinis in the one sense, and barbecued chicken and charity fundraisers in the other. Each was a hallmark of that century in its own way, a center of power or of community. Yet as the 20th century has tipped into the 21st, both types of club have seen that status diminish. While there are some specific reasons (in political circles, tougher ethics rules and the optics of being seen as “elite” play a role), the main culprit is just the changing reality of socializing, doing businesses, and volunteering — everything these places exist for.[2] Clubs that revel in tradition have not adapted well to the Internet age. Some of the exclusive ones are bringing in celebrity chefs and toning down the dress code to attract the youths (by which I mean under 60). Others have already closed their doors. For the service clubs it’s more complicated — a combination of limited resources, national or international governance structures, and general obstinacy have kept them from changing, and most are in trouble. At the same time, in a few places, new clubs are popping up, offering a 21st century version of fraternity. It’s certainly a time of transition.


Whether the club is for the elite or Joe Citizen, what the law usually cares about is your tax status. New York’s definition of “club” is over 500 words long, but the key bit is clear enough: a club “does not traffic in alcoholic beverages for profit and is operated solely for a recreational, social, patriotic, political, benevolent or athletic purpose.” You’ll find similar language in states across the country. A “club” can look like a lot of different things so long as you’re not in it for the money.

A notable exception to this rule is Utah, where for decades club membership and its dues were used as a tool to restrict the number of bars. Every bar was a “private club;” anyone could join, but you had to be a dues-paying member to get in. This was particularly problematic for visitors to the Beehive State, and in 2009 the tourism lobby, together with the bars, was able to get the law changed in a compromise that also birthed the short-lived Zion Curtain.


I had my first bartending job right as Pennsylvania was deciding to ban smoking indoors. I remember one chain-smoking regular declaring that, if the new law went through, he’d start going to the nearby VFW. Just as it did for 18th century gamblers, the private club would let him skirt the rules. Over a decade later, most VFW posts are non-smoking, but of their own choosing – another adaptation as they try to attract the next generation. As long as people are looking for exclusivity, community, or a little legal flexibility, there will be a place for private clubs.


[1] A second wave of this kind of club popped up in the 60s, during the Kennedy/Sinatra/Mad Men/etc. era of economic boom, global power, and the accompanying post-Prohibition return of drinking culture.

[2] Fathers actually taking a role in child-rearing probably hasn’t helped, either: how are social clubs supposed to survive if men insist on spending time with their families??


Charles, Jeffrey A. “Service Clubs in American Society.” University of Illinois Press, Urbana: 1993

Kendall, Diana. “Members Only: Elite Clubs and the Process of Exclusion.” Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham: 2008

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