To rush the growler (sometimes to roll the growler and other forms) was to take a container to the local bar to buy beer. The growler was the container, usually a tin can. Brander Matthews wrote about it in Harper’s Magazine in July 1893: “In New York a can brought in filled with beer at a bar-room is called a growler, and the act of sending this can from the private house to the public-house and back is called working the growler”. The job of rushing the growler was often given to children. It is said that the term ‘growler’ came from the carbonation escaping from the lid of the pail and making a growling noise.
It’s certainly older than the Prohibition era: the first reference to the expression appeared in print around 1883. Though one early example suggests it was originally low tramps’ slang, by about 1885 it had clearly become widely known around New York and had become acceptable in print. However, James Greenough and George Kittredge wrote in Words and Their Ways in English Speech in 1901 that, “A score of such references might make the reader forget that this most objectionable expression ever was slang, or had any offensive associations”. What offensive associations? A clue may be in the Atlantic Monthly for February 1899: “It sometimes seems unfortunate to break down the second standard, which holds that people who ‘rush the growler’ are not worthy of charity, and that there is a certain justice attained when they go to the poorhouse”. The Atchison Globe of 14 November 1884 has “I have heard that in New York people of the working-class, who live in tenement-houses, send out a pitcher for beer in the evening. They call it ‘working the growler.’ Here in Chicago the best people indulge in the degrading practice, I regret to say.” The magazine Puck commented in May 1885: “The old, old story. The happy home, loving parents, the growler, the fall and ruin”. So people who indulged in growler-rushing were thought by moralistic commentators to be on the slippery slope towards destitution and self-destruction.
There were several expressions of like type around at the same period, including chase the duck, roll the rock, and hurry the can. In each case, the last word referred to the container in which the beer was fetched. Gerald Cohen and Barry Popik argue on the basis of chase the duck that it and rush the growler evoke the image of a hunter sending his dog rushing to fetch downed prey, so that the growler in our expression is the dog. That slang term was then transferred to the can.