- 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
When Edward S. Stokes emerged in 1877 from Sing Sing, where he had been sent for killing Jim Fisk for love of Josie Mansfield, he bought a controlling interest in the Hoffman House at Broadway and 25111 Street in New York and purchased the famous twelve-foothigh nude painting Nymphs and Satyr , by Adolphe William Bouguereau. The picture was installed in the Hoffman House on the wall opposite the famous square bar (see illustration), and there it remained until Stokes’ death in 1901. Democratic politicians gathered beneath this moving scene. John W. Gates, U. S. Grant, and William Randolph Hearst often dropped in; also William F. (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody, no enemy to the red essence, who in accepting an invitation to Iibate invariably replied, “Sir, you speak the language of my tribe.” His favorite drink was called a Stone Fence and consisted—steady, reader—of a shot of rye in a glass of sweet cider, with lemon peel. A picturesque habitué was Congressman John Mills Allien of Tupelo, Lee County, Mississippi, who called for “Ole Green Rivah,” and referred to himself as “Private John Allen” because he found the South so overrun with colonels that he concluded he was the only private in the armies of the Confederate States of America who had survived the war.
Carry Nation, at her hatchet-wielding “spilling parties,” gave special attention to ripping apart the luscious barroom nudes who had been caught by the artist entering or leaving their ablutions. These pictures were known, collectively, by their familiars as “Saturday Nights.” In his novel, Jeremy Bell , Clyde Brion Davis has two village boys, making their first venture into a saloon, gaze with astonishment at such a vision in pink and white. One asks the other if he has ever seen anything like that before.
“Nope,” was the reply, “not since I was weaned.”
The old Waldorf-Astoria bar hung a salon-size copy of Paolo Veronese’s Marriage at Cana for those in whom a chalice of good old prewar stuff inspired a taste for the classics, with some religious overtones. In sharp contrast, the Buckhorn Saloon in San Antonio was garnished with a collection of antlers, steer horns, rattlesnake skins, and a parrot in a cage near the entrance, which announced to all comers, until finally shot for blasphemy, “ Ora pro nobis —gad-damn it!”
New Orleans claims the honor of having invented the saloon free lunch. There has been much nostalgic and ethnocentric writing in praise of the largesse of the free lunch provided in one city or another. Certainly the old Waldorf-Astoria bar was a place of gastronomic magnificence. Yet a man who bought two schooners at the bar in any good place in Milwaukee could make out very well on the soup, bologna, onions, pickles, Sardellen , wurst, and rye bread. The free lunch was not a gesture of pure philanthropy, nor was it always elegant. The whole set-out—soiled table cloth, the bowl of baked beans, the forks standing in the glass of water as a gesture toward sanitation, the peppery hot franks, were there because salty food provoked thirst. There was a code about the free lunch. The lunchers were supposed to give the house some trade first. In the cheap joints where the waiters wore tattoos and could bend a horseshoe with their bare hands, it was dangerous for a ringer to sidle up to the crackers and cheese without doing his devoirs across the way first.
The preferred spirits were rye whiskey in the eastern parts of the United States and bourbon in the South and West. Cocktails were drunk sparingly. Many had a temporary vogue, based on some topical interest. The theatre, of course, inspired the Merry Widow. McKinley’s Delight pleased the G.O.P. September Morn was a Clover Club in which Bacardi replaced the gin. The Cornell complimented an institution of learning located on the shores of Cayuga’s waters. The Old-fashioned was introduced to the East by Colonel James E. Pepper, who knew it at the Pendennis Club in Louisville. A succulent confection of the 1890’s was the Baby Titty—equal parts of anisette, crème yvette , whipped cream, topped with a red cherry.
But the serious drinker, the man of wide experience who naturally headed left as he entered a new saloon, scorned the novelties. “The veterans,” says James Leslie Marshall in his unique monograph, Swinging Doors , “stuck to straight Bourbon and rye,” both of which were believed effective in warding off effeminacy. In the sawdust spots, for instance Tom Moran’s on Randolph Street in Chicago, those who had the temerity to call for a Gin Daisy were simply requested to leave the premises quietly.
It should not be supposed that the saloon atmosphere was given over wholly to the concerns of dullwitted lowbrows. There was, of course, lavatory humor and the series about the Travelling Salesman and the Farmer’s Daughter. In general, things were called by their right, or at least their vernacular, names. But often thought soared, and sentiment was unabashed. Traditions were honored, holidays observed, the dead eulogized. The mantle of charity was draped. Plans for the social betterment of man were warmly approved, providing they did not involve sumptuary legislation.