The History of American Saloons

The Western saloons were versions of the East Coast Tavern, and it was a kind of bar that was particular to the Old West. The clientele was far different to that of a Tavern, mostly frontiersmen such as soldiers, fur trappers, cowboys, lumberjacks, gamblers, lawmen and miners. Saloons came in many forms and guises and were called all manner of names, such as cantina, grogshop, gin mill, shebang, watering trough, bughouse to name a few. The very first saloon was in Wyoming at Brown’s Hole, established in 1822 it served mostly fur trappers.

Saloons v Taverns

Saloons And Taverns in America 1930 – 1940. Silver Saloon.

These Western versions of taverns were rougher establishments than those that flourished in the East. They did not provide accommodation and the entertainment provided was a less exclusive. Saloons took the pioneers route, they offered prizefights, and had dance hall girls who provided sexual services to the patrons for money. There was a popular fashion to present short plays and sort of variety shows, unlike a tavern that would often offer theater type productions.

In 1859 the Apollo Hall in Denver opened, with a saloon on the ground floor and a theater above it. The town was barely a year old at the time, but such was the patronage. The talent playing the saloon theater was far from refined, examples of performances were: the stereoscope with obscene pictures, the strong women act of Mrs. De Granville, and a man who did a 60-hour endurance walk over a platform in the bar.

Saloon Fare

Saloons of the Old West

Saloons were renowned at the time in offering some pretty harsh liquor, most of it was homemade and little better than Moonshine. It would all depend on where the saloon was located, for instance if it was a rich mining town then the drink would be acceptable but if it was a hard-core settlement it was pretty poor stuff.

Most successful saloons were based in cattle or mining towns, and in some places, there were more saloons than any other type of business. In Abilene, Kansas there was eleven saloons for eight hundred residents, the reason for this was that Abilene was on the cattle drive trail from Texas, so often the population swelled to accept 5,000 cowboys.

This was the Wild West as most people would know it, law and order was pretty hit and miss and gunfights were the most common way of settling a dispute. The saloons kept open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the cowboys were often blind drunk spending all their money.

Prohibition

There was a large swell in America of dissent towards the saloon, and many prohibitionists thought that alcohol was the devil’s work. Indeed, at the time in America there was a big problem with alcohol abuse. There was one individual who was particularly vociferous in her dissent.

Carry A Nation, spent her days traveling around America preaching temperance, and the complete abstinence of imbibing liquor among other things. She was a hard woman with a mission, and there were rumors that she even carried a hatchet in her underskirts, which she would use to smash any bottles containing alcohol she could find.

She rallied the religious leaders of America and the churches also promoted temperance right around the country during the last twenty years of the 19th Century. There are still some establishments in America called saloons, but they are a far cry from the original.