- Historic Sites
America’s most impressive historic survivors just may be our taverns—because they’ve had to do it all on their own, by offering you exactly the same kind of comfort they did your great-grandfather
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
While the direct link between the prosperity of the nation’s brewing industry and its taverns seems obvious today, that relationship has historically been the source of one of America’s most enduring double standards. On the one hand, our traditional Puritan ethic requires us to eschew wasting time in barrooms; on the other, tavern-going is in our genes, and a large part of tavern culture was handed down from our God-fearing but beer-loving forebears, both the English, who brought their pub traditions to the new land, and the Dutch, with their custom of using drinking parlors as semipublic living rooms, an appealing convention known as uit en thuis (“out and at home”). In eighteenth-century America, a time when large families living in small spaces made home life cramped, taverns served as communal living rooms. Records show that in 1755, of the seven or eight houses in the town of Salisbury, North Carolina, four were taverns or inns. One Rowan County clergyman summed up the situation succinctly when he lamented that the tavern seemed to be faring far better than the church in the competition for men’s souls.
In sentimental memory, these colonial gathering spots should have been exemplars of America’s democratic ideal, offering creature comforts and companionship to all who passed through their doors. In practice, of course, they reflected the social and political order of their time, especially where class and separation of the races were concerned. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Massachusetts law prohibited servants, slaves, and apprentices from even entering taverns unless given permission by their masters.
Inequality persisted in taverns even into the second half of the twentieth century. As remarkable as it may seem today, when Janet was pursuing a graduate degree in film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, a bar not far from the school’s front door, the famous McSorley’s, was still off-limits to women. The times being what they were, a lawsuit was filed, and in 1970 the restrictive policy of the legendary nineteenth-century bar tumbled. The conquerors’ first glimpse of the generations-old initials etched deeply into the tables was tantalizing, evoking visions of the striped pants, collar stays, and derbies of previous habitués. Still, students are a particularly fickle breed, and despite their sociopolitical triumph, many of the pioneers eventually drifted away, seeking hipper bars.
It’s no surprise that few American taverns have lasted as long as McSorley’s. The owners of every surviving hundred-year-old bar once needed the business acumen of a Rockefeller and the daring of a Leonardo to stay in business. During Prohibition they transformed their establishments into everything from grocery stores to bordellos.
At Chicago’s Southport Lanes, bowling alleys—and possibly a brothel—were installed to make up for lost alcohol sales. The lanes remain today, along with the classic Midwestern terra cotta Schlitz ball on the side of the building—a reminder of the pre-eminence the brand enjoyed in the mid-twentieth century, even though craftbrewed beer now dominates the bar top. These days, although Southport has become a gathering spot for a youthful crowd that likely promises little in the way of long-term loyalty, it remains an authentic American gem, plastered with relics of an age that hawked the virtues of Camels—“What a cigarette—20 for 10 cents!”—and celebrated the sleek lines of a 1960 Olds that could be owned by any hardworking mom and pop for $777. And while the Depression-era frieze of nymphets dancing above the bar suggests the days the tavern may also have served as a brothel, it’s in the lively backroom that we find a scene closest to the 1930s. There the bar’s billiard tables look as though they haven’t been idle in decades, and in an age of electronic scoring and smooth mechanical pin-setters, groups of young people still crowd the last four hand-set bowling lanes in Chicago, filling the wait between balls with conversation and observing the establishment’s most crucial dictum: “If you see feet—don’t bowl.”
The story of Baumgartner’s Cheese Shop, in Monroe, Wisconsin, where bikers share space with elderly ladies and gents in the lively backroom bar, is also intriguing. Its legacy sprawls across a wall-sized mural, Battle of the Spirits , an early-twentieth-century cross between Hieronymus Bosch and The Night Watch , in which beer steins and wineglasses wearing the faces of local denizens engage in pitched battle. During Prohibition, the Joseph Huber Brewery, which owned Baumgartner’s, adopted the prosaic moniker Blumer Products, Inc., and its employees climbed the town’s courthouse tower to watch for incoming hooch trucks. A menu staple is the Limburger sandwich, served with or without onion and mustard, though always with a mint. This, we were told, is for the benefit not of the sandwich eaters but of the next person they talk to.