- Historic Sites
American is full of cocktail lounges, and even bars, but they are nothing like that great male institution and home-away-from-home which died with Prohibition
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
Scarcely a man is now alive who has bellied up to the mahogany in an old-fashioned saloon and said to Mike or Otto, “the usual.”
For more than fifty years over half of the states have been without saloons. Indeed, half of the total area of the United States was legally dried up as long as seventy years ago. Since lew women, other than painted Jezebels, ever saw the inside of a pre-World War I saloon, only a handful of grizzled male survivors remain who can remember the gilt beer sign at the corner, the swinging door, the mouth-watering free lunch, the technique for picking up a dime from a wet bar, and the sheer intellectual pleasure of discussing with Gus the barman the progress of union labor, the statistics of baseball, the infinite variety of woman, President Taft’s definition of whiskey, or the finer points of the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy.
In the complex set of circumstances that produced constitutional Prohibition, the saloon died; indeed it went beyond mere death. Its traditions and legends died with it. For the idea of the saloon became so closely associated with evil, the very word so soiled and damaged, that after Repeal new and mellifluous euphemisms had to be invented to describe any premises devoted to the vending of alcoholic solace. But the modern cocktail lounge, done up in red leather and chromium and fluorescent lighting, is not recognizable as the plain man’s club, refuge, or palladium of liberty. There are strangers present. They scent ihe air with Nuit de Noäl. “Gone forever,” Don Marquis, creator of “The Old Soak,” mourned of the barroom as his generation knew it, and soon alter he died.
Perhaps only now, with lime running on and passion spent, it is possible to stroll back to the brass rail and recall without rancor the manners and protocol, the character and atmosphere of the American bar. Like that of most human institutions, the story of the saloon is not all black, or all white, but a nocturne in gray, the color range taking in the dives and joints of the Barbary Coast and all the skid rows, but including too the quiet neighborhood bierstube of Milwaukee or St. Louis, which had a European flavor and entertained poppa, mamma, and the kids, with even a high chair for Junior.
In colonial America the inn, or “ordinary,” dispensed malt liquors, wine, and spirits, all regarded as “the good creatures of God,” under the vigilant eye of a circumspect Ganymede who had been carefully chosen for his post by the justices of the county court or, in New England, by the board of selectmen, “as a Person of sober Life and Conversation” and therefore fit “to keep a House of Entertainment.” The system of control was strict and even paternalistic. Hours, prices, such matters as gambling, cockfighting, and loud singing, were all the subject of legislation. Details were spelled out minutely. The objective was public order, but the licensing system was quite innocent of any abstract theory of social control. The ordinary was a forum and a community center, a place for genial selfexpression, and, for the traveller, a home away from home.
From the colonial inn the hotel and the saloon emerged and went their separate ways. Successive waves of Irish and German immigration brought to our shores a population of accustomed drinkers, untouched by lhe moral arguments of native preachers and reformers. The newcomers expanded the liquor industry and staffed the bars with the full-moustached barkeeps who pulled the faucets and filled the schooners.
“The names over the saloons, beer gardens and low groggeries are mostly foreign,” wrote Daniel Dorchester, D.D., in the 1880’s, as he made his survey, The Liquor Problem in All Ages; but such indigenous names as “The Fred” and “Ed & Frank’s” and “The Democratic Headquarters of ihe Eighieentli Ward” scarcely support such an unqualified generalization. A vein of American nativism undoubtedly colored and stimulated the temperance movement. The saloon men were at least nominal members of the Roman Catholic Church. The political alignment is expressed in a remark made in 1860: “I never said all Democrats were saloonkeepers. What I said was all saloonkeepers are Democrats.”
In a dimly lighted interior, the bar of the nineteenth-century saloon ran lengthwise along the left side as one entered. It, too, was dark, heavily handcarved, often a very pretty article in the Eastlake style. The floor was covered with sawdust to absorb the drip. In the big places there was a kind of folklore about having “the longest bar in the world.” For instance, in Erickson’s saloon in Portland, Oregon, the bar measured 684 linear feet in the days of its glory, and there was a ladies’ orchestra, prudently surrounded by an electrically charged railing. In the average saloon the furnishings were not elaborate. If the license fee was low, there were more comforts, because competition was keener. If the license fee was stiff, the premises had a plainer, even an ascetic character, because there were fewer publicans vis-à-vis the thirsty customers. A onearmed bandit stood in a corner, guaranteed to pay a gratifying percentage to the house, or perhaps the “John L. Sullivan Athletic Punching Machine.” “How Hard,” it asked, “Can You Hit the Great John L.?”