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Token of the Month #24 -
Vincent Chicco and His Blind Tiger

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Each month there is a special South Carolina token or medal that is highlighted as the Token or Medal of the Month. This month we will showcase an interesting early 20th century trade token from the city of Charleston.

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The city of Charleston has always played a significant role in the history of the state of South Carolina. From its beginnings in 1670 as a small colonial settlement at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, through its growing importance as a seaport for the fledgling nation, to its part as the incendiary flashpoint in the sectional conflict which became the Civil War, the city has enjoyed a prominence that seemingly lifted it above similar communities in the state. It is no small wonder then, that some of its citizens thought the city to occupy a pedestal raised above its South Carolina neighbors.

It was this feeling of superiority that occasionally led some Charlestonians to consider themselves immune from the laws and social mores governing the rest of the state. And this sentiment, in turn, gave rise to the issuance of this month's token, which so publicly flaunted Charleston's opposition to the state dispensary law and the temperance movement behind it.

On its surface, the 29mm aluminum token shown above does not appear to carry any hint of its true nature. The innocuous inscription on the obverse reads GOOD FOR 5 IN TRADE AT CHICCO'S CAFE. The pictorial of the blindfolded tiger on the reverse, however, is a blatant advertisement for the "supposedly" clandestine saloon which Vincent Chicco operated in conjunction with his cafe. And, as such, the token speaks volumes on Charleston's open opposition to the state legislature's attempts to outlaw saloons and the sale of liquor by the drink in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

During the aforementioned time period hundreds of "blind tigers," as they were commonly called, sprung up in Charleston and other cities in South Carolina. The illegal drinking establishments were a logical response to Governor Ben Tillman's attempt to legislate the drinking habits of a populace which liked its liquor. Tillman had much difficulty in controlling the "blind tigers" across the state, but especially so in the city of Charleston. Several times during his tenure in office he had to send out state constables to arrest any proprietors they could catch selling alcohol illegally. Vincent Chicco was one of the first people arrested after the enactment of Tillman's dispensary bill. A scant two weeks after the bill became law, Chicco was arrested and brought before a judge for illegal liquor sales. The details of his arrest and subsequent legal proceedings were covered prominently in the Charleston newspapers and Chicco's case became infamous. Despite his brush with the law, he continued to sell alcohol to his customers in open defiance of the dispensary law and was subsequently arrested at least three times, in 1901, 1902, and 1903.

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A postcard view of Vincent Chicco's Cafe at 83-85 Market Street in Charleston. Note his portrait at the upper right of the view.

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Chicco apparently operated more than one clandestine saloon, and became known as the "King of the Blind Tigers." His main base of operations was at 83 Market Street, where he and his growing family lived in an apartment above the premises. At times Chicco's business was listed in the city directories as a grocery, a delicatessen, a cafe, and a restaurant. Prior to July 1893, when the dispensary act came into effect, Chicco was listed as a saloonkeeper. In 1894 and beyond, his business was never again described as a saloon, but his advertisements in the city directories certainly made it known that he sold wines and liquors.

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One of a number of advertisements Chicco placed in the Charleston city directory, circa 1914.

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Chicco parlayed his notoriety for opposing the dispensary law into his election to the Charleston City Council as alderman for his ward. He was elected to five consecutive terms and for his earnestness in representing the members of his district he gained the unofficial epithet "Mayor of Ward 3." Chicco died in 1928 at the age of 78. His obituary in the Charleston newspaper characterized him as "possessing a forceful personality" and a "raconteur of ability." The newspaper mentioned his emigration to this country from Italy as a teenager after a short stint as a merchant seaman. Chicco then worked on one of the local railroads for a short period, after which he was employed as a policeman for the city of Charleston. He started his saloon business in 1892. He married Miss Mary Ann Burke of Charleston and had four children, Joseph, Vincent, Jr., Natalie, and an unidentified daughter.

Incidentally, the term "blind tiger" as a synonym for an illegal drinking establishment can be traced back to the 1850s. A sister term "blind pig" dates from the 1870s. The terms derive from clandestine establishments that would advertise exotic animals on their window blinds, charging admission to see the said animals, which of course were not inside. Once admitted, patrons were then served with the illegal refreshment of their choice. The following limerick summarizes the ruse:

"See the tiger inside!" said the blind

On the store, though behind it you'd find

Neither bengal nor cat,

Just a liquor-filled vat

And the patrons who paid didn't mind.

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Copyright 2006 by Tony Chibbaro.

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Sources

The South Carolina Dispensary & Embossed S.C. Whiskey Bottles & Jugs, 1865-1915 by Harvey S. Teal and Rita Foster Wallace, Midlands Printing Company, Camden, S.C., 2005.

South Carolina Postcards, Volume I, Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester Counties by Howard Woody and Thomas L. Johnson, Arcadia Publishing Company, Charleston, S.C., 1997.

The Red Tape Cocktail: Charleston's Reaction to the South Carolina Dispensary System by Helen Glenn Smith, published in Chrestomathy: Annual Review of Undergraduate Research, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Charleston, Volume 4, 2005: pp 195-217, College of Charleston, 2005.

Chicco Funeral This Afternoon in News & Courier, October 26, 1928.

OEDILF: The Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form online at http://www.oedilf.com.

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If you collect or have a casual interest in South Carolina tokens or tokens issued by cotton mills, lumber companies, or other types of businesses, you may want to purchase my book, South Carolina Tokens and its three supplements. To read a description of these standard references, please click on this link: Books.

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Email: chibbaro@mindspring.com