Sunday, September 22, 2013


In the history of the American West, the saloon is a singular institution. A lot of U. S. history occurred in, or was influenced by, saloon activities. Some of the worst examples of human cruelty and callousness toward others occurred behind the swinging doors or in the alleys of such places. Now and then, great acts of uncommon human kindness also took place within these establishments. Preachers were ordained, weddings and christenings were carried out, church services were performed and medical emergencies were taken care of there, too. The saloon often served as a community center for town meetings, elections, and court trials. 

In 1835, New York City residents could imbibe in any of more than 700 saloons. By 1862, there were 3,000 saloons. Bowery drinking establishments averaged a half dozen per block. Side streets housed some of the roughest and most violent dives.  Labor unions opposed saloons early on, demanding they be closed on Sunday, partly so they could organize bartenders. Towns that did not boast of at least one saloon were few and far between. The nineteenth century in America could almost be called the “alcohol millennium,” for drinking became extremely common. A shortage of alcoholic drinks would have been considered nothing less than a disaster. Even Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, had a saloon or tavern.

Using molasses from the West Indies, rummakers started about 1700. Other processes were discovered much earlier. Beer was made out of molasses and bran, persimmons, potatoes, corn stalks, pumpkins or any other vegetables that allowed for fermentation. New England farmers made sassafras, spruce or birch beer, along with hard cider.
In colonial times, the words tavern and ordinary were the common terms for a drinking house. Also, grog shop, dram shop and “ye olde public house.” In 1644, Connecticut passed a law that every community must open and maintain a tavern. Massachusetts passed a similar ordinance ten years later. Glasses and steins shelved on the backbar were often numbered to indicate their capacities. Still, a glass of beer sold for a nickel regardless of the size of the container. Rye whisky was more popular in Eastern saloons, bourbon in the West and South. Both were recommended cures for effeminacy.

Some generalizations can be made in describing the American saloon. The bar ran along the wall of the room’s longest dimension, usually on the left side as one entered through the swinging doors. Many of the best bars were made of dark hardwood and ornately carved. In the new settlements that cropped up during the gold rush years, rough boards set on top of barrels were not uncommon. Most saloons hung huge mirrors behind the bar, in back of shelves of bottles. A row of slot machines could often be found tucked into a corner. Gambling equipment occupied most of the floor space. At the back of the building, sometimes outside, private card rooms served the cowboys, bullwhackers, miners, drifters and professional gamblers forever to be found in these places.  But note the door marked “wine room” at the left side of photo 2. This was a separate room for the benefit of ladies. Sometimes they were called tea rooms, with a splash of alcohol being served with their tea.
At least one back door and several side doors were provided for hasty escapes. Adjacent to one of the rear exits was an enclosure called the “bull-pen.” Bouncers would throw unconscious drunks and particularly rowdy customers into this enclosure and leave them to sober up. Such customers rarely emerged with money in their pockets.

Saloon floors were mostly puncheon and covered with sawdust to catch the drip of liquids (including spit) and any gold dust a customer might lose. Boys were hired to sweep floors once a week and sort out the gold from the sawdust. Smart boys crawled underneath any saloon with a crawl space and gathered up gold dust that had sifted through the floor boards.

The image of the heavily pomaded bartender is more accurate than one might think. By running his hands through his hair after pinching out gold dust, the barman could recover a tidy sum merely by shampooing and panning the water afterward. On the other hand, the origins of the swinging doors considered a standard saloon fixture is uncertain. Such doors allowed easy entry and exit for unsteady patrons and provided a bit of a screen for the sensibilities of anyone who might be passing by, while at the same time, allowing glimpses inside, smells and sounds to lure in new customers.

The way west could almost be traced by the establishments that grew up along the way as pioneers traveled the Oregon Trail and other routes. The same can be said for the railroad, which set up “hell on wheel towns” along the tracks for the benefit of railroad workers. Often these were abandoned as the work crew moved on, but some remained and towns grew up around them.

Most saloons gave tokens instead of change when patrons paid for their drinks. These tokens would be good for one drink at that saloon, which helped to keep customers coming back. Tokens were often also good for a certain amount of cash, like 6-1/2 cents, five cents, even 12-1/2 cents. Other business followed these saloons’ examples, especially the dance halls and “houses of ill repute.
Of course saloons still exist today, though few are called that. Thankfully, alcoholism is less rampant now, though it might not seem that way sometimes. How many old style saloons do you know of that still exist in America?

Charlene Raddon began her fiction career in the third grade when she announced in Show & Tell that a baby sister she never had was killed by a black widow spider. She often penned stories featuring mistreated young girls whose mother accused of crimes her sister had actually committed. Her first serious attempt at writing fiction came in 1980 when she woke up from a vivid dream that compelled her to drag out a portable typewriter and begin writing. She’s been at it ever since. An early love for romance novels and the Wild West led her to choose the historical romance genre. At present, she has five books published in paperback by Kensington Books (one under the pseudonym Rachel Summers), and four eBooks published by Tirgearr Publishing.A fifth, Taming Jenna, will be released by Tirgearr this November. Charlene was an RWA Golden Heart Finalist, and received a Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award Nomination.
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  1. Hi Charlene,
    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and insight into the old west saloons. As always, you write in such a way that I can visualize every detail. I feel as though I was just there. Great job. Thanks!

  2. That was interesting on the saloons, Charlene. I've seen a few interesting ones. I guess the best was the Crystal Palace in Tombstone many many many years ago as in 1965. It was gorgeous with beautiful wood

  3. Excellent, Charlene. Saloons have always had a place in the Western novel and movie, and in some romance novels. But I'm not sure the authors have used the information correctly every time.
    I was thinking on Judge Roy Bean's saloon down on the Pecos River, the Jersey Lily, the most famous one in Texas. It held quite a reputation for a long time.
    Whatever, the saloon was always a part of every Western.
    Thanks so much for the info, and the photos.

  4. Great pics and post, Charlene. Interesting to know that the depiction of saloons and bartenders on tv were halfway accurate since so much was not.

    I don't know of any saloon-type establishments today, but I've seen some small, dark-looking bars in old parts of Denver that look like they may have been there since saloons moved out of tents.

  5. Yea, comments. Thanks, ladies. You're all fantastic. Wouldn't it be fun to spend a day in the old west (time travel-wise), just a day, then come back home?

  6. Great, fantastic post. Loved it, Charlene. You write about such interesting subjects. I would love to spend a month there and then come back. I would want to be away from outlaws and gunmen though - scaredy cat!

  7. Thanks, Susan. Glad you enjoyed it. I agonize over what to write about usually.

  8. Fascinating post, Charlene. I had no clue, and loved being educated in such a delightful way. Your posts are always fun and informative. Thank you!


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