As authors we know that often times all it takes is an intriguing fact to fire our imagination and add more interest to our stories. Since saloons are synonymous with the American West, my post this month is a list of interesting facts and trivia about those old western icons.
* In 1832, the U.S. Congress passed the Pioneer Inn and Tavern Law, which allowed western establishments to serve alcohol without having the customer lease a room for the night.
* However, reportedly one of the first places actually called a “saloon” — Brown’s Saloon in Brown’s Hole, Wyoming, established in 1822 and catered to the trappers and fur traders.
* The first western saloons were nothing more than hastily thrown together tents or lean—to’s where cowpunchers, miners or soldiers would wet their whistles and while away a few hours.
* Early whiskey served in many of those saloons were made with watered down raw alcohol colored with whatever was available including tobacco, molasses, burnt sugar, or worse yet, shoe leather.
* Names for such rotgut were tanglefoot, tarantula juice, red eye, dynamite, gut warmer, snake poison, and coffin varnish.
* Most popular name for liquor served was Firewater, originated when early traders sold whiskey to the Indians.
* Majority of western saloon regulars drank straight liquor — rye or bourbon. However, saloons also served volumes of beer, never ice cold, usually at 55 or 65 degrees or room temperature.
* Not until 1880’s did Adolphus Busch introduce artificial refrigeration and pasteurization to the U.S. brewing process, launching Budweiser as a national brand.
* Although there were saloons that had the swinging style “batwing doors”, as depicted in popular western movies, most saloons had actual doors. Even those with swinging doors often had another set on the outside, to be able to lock up when closed and to protect the interior from bad weather. Then again, some crude saloons didn’t have any doors, as they were open 24 hours a day.
* A common custom among patrons was to offer the man standing next to him a drink. If he refused, it would have been considered a terrible insult, regardless of the vile liquor served. On one such instance, a man who refused the offer at a Tucson saloon, was taken from bar to bar at gunpoint until “he learned some manners.”
* Saloons being usually one of the first and biggest buildings in new towns, it was common that they would also be utilized as a public meeting place. One prime example was the infamous Judge Roy Bean and his combination saloon and courtroom. Other saloons have been offices of the Justice of the Peace and a few held church services.
* Several noted gunmen of the west owned saloons, tended bar or dealt cards at one time or another. Most notable were Wild Bill Hickok, Bill Tilghman, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Ben Thompson, and Doc Holliday.
* Almost every saloon had a long-paneled oak or mahogany bar with brass foot rail and a row of spittoons spaced along the floor next to the bar. Along the ledge, patrons could use towels hanging to wipe their mustaches. In the prairie towns and cowtowns, walls were adorned with horns, spurs and saddles. In the mountains, patrons might see taxidermized deer or elk hanging above them. And of course, most saloons included some kind of gambling, such as Faro, Three-Card-Monte or Poker.
* In the early West, men in most places outnumbered women by at least three to one — sometimes more. In California in 1850, 90% of the population was male. Saloon or dance-hall girls were hired to entertain the guests, sing for them, dance with them, keep the lonely men company and” chase away their cares.”
* Dance Halls offered customers dance tickets for sale, the proceeds split between the dance hall girls and the saloon owner. After a dance, the girls would invite the gentlemen to the bar where they would make another commission from the sale of the men’s drinks.
* Surprisingly, saloon or dance-hall girls were very rarely prostitutes. They tended to be in only the sleaziest class of saloons. Though the “respectable” ladies considered the saloon girls “fallen,” most of the girls wouldn’t be caught dead associating with an actual prostitute.
* Even though the saloon girls might have been scorned by “proper ladies,” they counted on respect from the males. Proprieties of treating the saloon girls as ladies were strictly observed, not only because most Western men tended to revere all women, but because the saloon keeper demanded it.
* Many saloon girls were from mills and farms, enticed by posters and handbills advertising high wages, easy work and fancy clothing. These women, even though of upstanding morals, were forced to earn a living in an era that offered few means for women to do so.
* Among the tales of the American West, several notable events took place in or outside saloons. Well known among them was about the legendary Wild Bill Hickock. When Hickok was marshal in Abilene, Kansas, the owner of the Bull’s Head Saloon, Phil Coe, outraged the townspeople by painting a bull, complete with an erect penis on the outside wall of his tavern. Hickok hired some men to paint over the offending animal, which angered Coe. The two became enemies and in a later altercation, Wild Bill Hickok killed Coe.
* Hickok, a professional lawman, gambler and gunfighter, was killed on August 2, 1876 by Jack Mc Call, who shot him in the back of the head in Saloon No. 10, in Deadwood, South Dakota while Wild Bill was playing cards. His hand — aces and eights, according to tradition — has become known as the “dead man’s hand.”
Thanks for stopping in and “bellying up to the bar!”
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