- 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 exact place of the saloon in the life of the West has been so stereotyped in the familiar art form of the “Western” that it is difficult to part the curtains and see it clearly. When a wagon train met an army train, a bar was improvised. There were saloons in tents, floating saloons on the western rivers. Perhaps the first prefabricated construction was employed in building saloons in sections that could be moved out to the railheads on flatcars. When Forsyth, Montana, was the end of the line on the Northern Pacific, twelve saloons arrived in sections, each with the conventional bar, beer cooler, table, and piano. The bartender in one joint was setting out the drinks before the roof was on, the professor was spanking the ivories, and in a matter of hours a man had already been shot in an argument over a dance-hall girl. Capacities were prodigious. Big vices went with big heroisms. Lonely men went to the whiskey mill where they found cultural empathy and emotional outlets. The frequent shootings suggest that the cowboys and prospectors were drinking not Kentucky’s best but some mixture that had been worked over in the cellar with red pepper, fusel oil, a touch of lye, and a plug of tobacco to add authority. San Francisco had 1,200 murders between 1849 and 1851. The mortality rate in eastern saloons was much lower, owing either to an effete population, or better whiskey, or poor marksmanship, or, according to one hypothesis, because easterners did not keep their guns oiled.
But “shootouts” were increasingly discouraged. When the Masterson brothers, Jim and Bat, plugged the bartender of the Lady Gay Saloon in Dodge City, they were arrested and fined $10 and costs. They felt the weight of social disapproval in other ways too. The Ford County Globe headed its account of the altercation: THE FESTIVE REVOLVER. AGAIN ITS MUSICAL VOICE IS HEARD IN THE LAND.
But the fiery distillate which caused the trouble also extended mercy. When a miner in town for a whingding had seen the bottom of a tumblerful of Nebraska Needle-Gun a few times, his marksmanship was apt to be erratic. Mostly, and despite the myths perpetrated on the television screen, the guests of the evening reached the point where they could stick to the floor without holding on, and without committing homicide were quietly carted off to the cooler.
Changes in this century—the automobile, the movies, the quickened pace of life generally, providing more places to go and more things to do—all helped weaken the saloon at the same time that competition grew sharper. There was always a brewer or distiller ready to put up the cost of the license fee if he could only get another outlet operating. Thus developed the abuses of the “tied house.” Pushed by promissory notes, mortgages, the need for ever greater volume, the saloonkeepers in this unhappy condition could survive only by breaking the law. They purchased votes, stuffed ballot boxes, rigged elections, shielded criminals, sold liquor to minors and hopeless winos. On those rare occasions when a publican was hauled off in the meat wagon, an alderman would very often appear in police court and say, “Your Honor, I’ve known this boy for years. He’s a good boy an’ works hard an’ takes care of his ole mother.” Since the alderman would very possibly have helped to seat the magistrate on the bench, the beetle-browed “boy” would be quickly released.
The landlord, the licensing authorities, the brewer and the distiller, the bonding companies, the patrolman on the block, the girls who had reached the end of the line, the workingman, all were caught up in the corruption which had become associated with perpendicular drinking. The showdown came in the political arena. The saloonists stole the municipal elections, while the Anti-Saloon League described all major crimes as “whiskey murders” and the women of the W.C.T.U. focussed the full and awful power of middle-class American morality on a single issue: “The only solution of the saloon problem is No Saloon.”
On January 16, 1920, the United States became dry by constitutional amendment. The next day the “alky” cookers were in business. Liquor of a sort remained abundant. But the environment and flavor of the oldtime saloon, the niceties of communal drinking, were swallowed up in the raucous, co-educational speakeasy.
Don Marquis, who like many another regretted the passing of the old days and old ways, agreed for once with the Hearst philosopher Arthur Brisbane, who predicted that Prohibition would pass but that the saloon would never return. As a man of religious feeling, Marquis hoped to enter the New Jerusalem. Before his death he expressed the wish that, if the hereafter took the hoped-for form, he might be permitted to run a saloon there along the old lines.
“Kit Marlowe will be there,” he wrote, “and Kit Morley, too, and Shakespeare and John L. Sullivan and Frank O’Malley, and Benjamin De Casseres, and Benvenuto Cellini. There will be a good deal of talk. And if they make me let women in, I’ll take my saloon to hell. If they invade those precincts, I suppose I’ll have to move to Hoboken.
“P.S. There will be a Back Room.”