The Saloon


Treating was an important feature of barroom camaraderie—especially because saloon etiquette required all who were gentlemen to buy a round in turn until everyone was in orbit. The practice was disapproved of by Governor Winthrop, legislated against in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639, dialectically destroyed to the author’s satisfaction in 1687 when Increase Mather published his A Testimony Against several Prophane and Superstitious Customs Now Practised by some in New-England (London, 1687). But intractable revellers persisted in raising the glass or scuttle to Liberty, to the Grand Old Flag, or, jocularly, to the Hardware Trade—“Although they profess honesty, they sell iron and steel for a living.”

Sometimes there was lawing about the issue of treating. In City of Tacoma v. Keisel , appellant argued in vain that treating is an act of hospitality which has always been exercised by a free people. The supreme court of Washington rejected the argument, ruling that regulation of all aspects of alcoholic consumption comes under the police power and violates no inherent right of United States citizens. However, men persisted to the end in quaffing one more round when Junior made a grade of one hundred in geography, or when Myrtle graduated from high school. If a patron lingered too long, he could ease his sense of guilt by suggesting one last tribute, in absentia , “To the wife, the best little housekeeper in the world.”

Robert Burns was the favorite barroom poet—“A man’s a man for a’ that.” In the “Mike” bars, the lineup liked to hear the recitation of “Shamus O’Brien” and were always ready to raise a cheer for free Ireland. Lucille Kohler, in Bock Beer Days in St. Louis , has left a delightful memoir of the German saloon as she recounts how bock-beer time came one Easter in her childhood at Herman Klein’s very proper and behaglich—cosy—stube . On Easter Monday, after the girls brought home the foaming bucket of suds from Herr Klein’s, they went to a play, an event even more exciting than a concert at Liederkranz Hall. The play was about Little Eva, which was very educational; and it had much to do with the Civil War, which Lucille and her sister knew had been won for the North by brave General Carl Schurz.

The choral work encountered in the old-time saloon usually emphasized a repertoire of songs about mother—“Just a little band from my dear old mother’s hand”; or weepers about poor working girls being tempted and falling (or not falling): “Just tell them that you saw me/ And they will know the rest.”

The barroom choristers also belted out the antisongs with gusto, like “The Drunkard’s Doom” and “Oh, Mr. Bartender, Has Father Been Here?” Or, in San Francisco, it was “What Was Your Name in the States?” Sometimes, when he wasn’t splashing out the drinks, the barkeep down by the beer cooler joined in, helping to bring out the color harmony and the dynamics of the ballad, hitting the minor notes hard and holding the high ones.

The social services rendered by the saloon have been overlaid with later and more somber memories and a thick layer of hostile propaganda, but these doors swung for all. At the bar all men were equal. From the Old Ship Saloon in Eastport, Maine, to the Fountain in San Francisco, men in work clothes, with dinner pails on their arms and mourning bands under their fingernails, could meet with their peers, to joke, talk, and think without inhibitions. There was a place on ioth Street in New York which maintained letter boxes where good customers could receive mail. In El Paso, civic meetings were held in “Uncle Ben” Dowell’s saloon: he was the mayor. The Wells Fargo in Junction City, Kansas, kept files of New York, Chicago, and St. Louis newspapers. Before legitimate employment agencies existed, the saloon was a labor exchange, the place to go to look for work. In Butte, Montana, when Molly Demurska, queen of the underworld, took the town marshal to have and to hold, the knot was tied in the Clipper Shades Saloon, after which the happy pair were drawn through the streets on the town fire engine.

In many saloons a customer could get a bath as well as a cigar, a game, the consolations of female companionship, or a shot of Kentucky sour-mash whiskey. Since there were in this country few public comfort stations, the saloon substituted for that facility also. There was, in short, a need for certain practical services and for social expression. The saloon provided the sense, in current jargon, of belonging to an ingroup. It was warm and personal and clubby. The need was met, with no time limit, because the clock carried a sign which said: “This clock is always out of order.”

Social critics of the saloon system devoted little thought to the needs it served or the development of adequate substitutes. Perhaps that is why Alvin HuIteen, of Evanston, Illinois, when sentenced to attend Salvation Army services for three successive Sundays or go to jail, chose jail. And why a patient at St. Ann’s Hospital in Butte, Montana, slid down a sheet from the second story and made his way in the dead of winter to the geniality of a Main Street joint, clad only in his nightshirt.