- 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
The bartender was an essential feature of saloon IiIe. He was a craftsman, philosopher, encyclopaedia of sporting information, a belles-lettrist, and a great humanitarian, always ready to throw out the lifeline. The barmen slicked down their hair, displayed an expanse of gold watch chain, and wore a lodge emblem on a jacket of white, or once white, duck. Jn the Irish places, a slighting reference to the Black and Tan would usually produce a drink on the house.
It was a matter of professional pride with the barmen in a fancy saloon to be able to run up on order some one hundred and filly cocktails, rickeys, fizzes, cobblers, punches, and divers “cups.” But the staples were beer and red liquor. Mostly the job consisted of turning the beer tap or slamming down the bottle of whiskey and an empty glass with a chaser. If a rube came in, the man on watch might set out what was called the “cops’ bottle”; this would be the cheapest cut stud in the house.
A gentleman poured his own, about an ounce and a half. It was unwritten etiquette that the dram never approached the rim. It it did, the bartender threw ihe patron a hard look, or a gentle but tired inquiry, “Will you need a towel, too?” (The implication was that the customer was evidently preparing to take a bath in his bourbon.) In general, the duties involved in barkeeping were to see that the walking board behind the bar was always dry, use a chamois on the woodwork, shine the brass, keep the cash straight, relieve the opposite watch promptly, and say to argumentative patrons, “Yes, sir, ain’t it th’ truth?” Professionally, the prudent barkeep avoided all clashes over religion or any suggestion of associating himself with proposals involving, say, the hanging, after torture, of congressmen and the burning of Washington. But here’s a curious thing. A cupbearer in a saloon in Memphis or East St. Louis might not have the literary polish of his colleagues in South Boston or New York’s old Ninth Ward, but he invariably took Shakespeare’s side in any display of Shakespearean-Baconian scholarship. This should be investigated by the professorate. The only clue which can be suggested here is that Shakespeare was known to be a good customer of the Mermaid Tavern. The drinking habits of Bacon remain obscure.
A good bartender did not drink while on duty. If urged, he would say, “But I will take a mild cigar.” This ultra-Colorado is known in saloon history as “the saloon cigar.” At the end of the day, it went back into the box it came from, and the barman took credit for it on the cash register. If pushed hard to take something by a very special crony, the bartender would draw a “snit” of beer in a private glass he kept on the work board under the bar. It was about the size of an eye cup. The knowledgeable barman filled it with loam and could put down a hundred if necessary and still not know that he had received a message.
Behind the bar was the back-bar mirror, decorated with mottoes, some serious, such as “Don’t Ask For Credit”; some in lighter vein: “If you spit on the door at home, spit on the floor here. We want you to feel at home.” Bartenders often bought up temperance pledge cards at an agreed price of from five to ten free drinks and displayed them as trophies. The central section of the back bar was a kind of high altar of shining glassware. Out on the flanks lay a bung-starter, assorted lemons, bottles of muscatel, port, catawba, and that sovereign remedy, rock and rye. No one called for these articles, but they were mentioned in the retail license—“wines and liquors”—and, as George Ade has said, they gave an air of aristocracy to a business venture “terribly short on social standing.”
Various snappy placards decorated the walls, e.g.: “Jf Drinking Interferes With Your Business, Cut Out the Business.” Harry Hill, who ran a quiet place in West Houston Street in New York City, stated his rules of conduct in elegant verse: “Il you wish to here remain/ Do not talk loudly or profane.” A sign in a Helena, Montana, saloon admonished the customers: “Don’t forget to write to dear old Mother. She is thinking of you. We furnish paper and envelopes free, and have the best whiskey in town.”
Colorful advertisements supplied by brewers and distillers lent a touch of vivacity to the scene. Some were quite elaborate, such as the lithograph of Cassily Adams’ Custer’s Last Fight (see illustration), which was handed out for years by the Anheuser-Busch people, or genre situations in which a somewhat overweight siren shaped like a bass viol by some accident or inadvertence displayed an expanse of leg to public view. Outright indecent pictures were not common, but the patrons’ artistic sensibilities were frequently stimulated by examples of easel art that combined the spicy with the allegedly classical, such as Venus in the Bath , or Diana Surprised .