It started as a restaurant for workers during the Great Depression. Spittoons were its signature. Yes, brass spittoons.
Almost half of the American population was into spitting back then: working men, unemployed men, famous men, con men, funny men, curmudgeons. Pretty much all men. So, spittoons were in demand and in use. The eatery’s management at the time incorporated them — along with the 1929 Meat Loaf, hamburgers and Louisiana baby back ribs — into its signature items.
The restaurant was called The Brass Rail Restaurant & Bar. At one point, there were 39 Brass Rails in the city. Only in Downtown Pittsburgh there were three, the most popular was the one on Fifth Avenue across from the courthouse.
The restaurant chain resonated with the spirit of old Pittsburgh. The Brass Rail’s marketing campaign was quite vocal on workers’ issues. “We will not raise our prices of Food until Workers receive more wages,” a 1935 Brass Rail ad read in the Post-Gazette.
When it just opened customers could get frosty mug of root beer for 5 cents to go with their hamburger, “a price that Pittsburgh could afford,” the menu said.
It wasn’t just all about ads and marketing. Brass Rail employees were directly involved in Pittsburgh’s labor movement and in fact, in 1937 held a 27-day-long strike that included 190 employees of 11 Brass Rail restaurants demanding higher wages. In 1947, a nine-day-long strike shut down 18 restaurants of the Brass Rail chain.
The Brass Rail restaurant was into local food before it became a la mode. In 1945, the restaurant chain advertised that they were serving “beef from quality steers exhibited at the Pittsburgh Live Stock Show.” That was “to encourage boys and girls in the tri-state area ti raise quality live stock under supervision of county farm agents and to secure for Pittsburgh a supply of the best beef.”
Queue in the original hamburger, as it was called on the menu, as one of Brass Rail’s customer favorites.
References to The Brass Rail restaurants appeared in the local press in the 30s, 40s and 50s almost every week, either in a form of ads or as a mention in a story about a robbery or a fight.
In 1937, the Post-Gazette wrote a brief about how a manager of one of the Brass Rail restaurants Downtown was smacked with a glass of tomato juice. Two assailants were customers who complained to the manager about service and in response received the classic remark on how he was fixed for two hands. And then came the juice. Later, the assailants were fined.
In the 80s, the Brass Rail was one of the nicer bar-restaurants in East Liberty. “There are no fights, no cussin’. It’s nice,” one of the customers was quoted at the time in the Post-Gazette.
There are no Brass Rails left in the Pittsburgh area today… and no spittoons in use in the restaurants elsewhere. The last Brass Rail in Pleasant Hills shut down in 2010 over an alleged tax violation. Ptui! Right?!