America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops
© 2014 Christine Sismondo
Welcome, friend. Pull up a stool. You’ve come in at the tail end of a story, but it’s one worth hearing again. It’s the history of America, as told from the bar. That doesn’t mean it’s a history of drunkenness in the United States, though that would certainly be worth reading. Instead, Christine Sismondo demonstrates how foundational taverns were to colonial and revolutionary history, and how they’ve continued to sit at the crossroads of American history until the mid-late 20th century. The story peaks with the 1930s, soldiers through until the 1970s, and fade out shortly thereafter. Sismondo combines amusing anecdotes and genuinely interesting history, albeit with some gaps.
In contemporary America, a bar is merely one option among a multitude that you might go on the weekend – -whether your purpose is having a drink with the boys, looking for a date, or watching a game on the now-ubiquitous televisions. In colonial America, though, it was the only place. Taverns weren’t just places for spirits and food: they were meeting halls and courthouses in the early years, and were often the first building erected in a given community. News collected there, and debates were had: this function proved especially important during the years of the Revolution and the war for independence, hosting political debates that sharpened colonial arguments about the tyranny of Parliament, and allowing for direct action and other strikes to be planned. Still later, the taverns were recruiting centers to enlist American men to fight for their liberty against the crown — and the spaces themselves were used to store supplies during the war effort. After the revolution, taverns were also the center of patriotic rebellions against the new tax tyrants, the likes of Hamilton and company, but these (alas) met more effective reaction than Parliament could muster.
After an abrupt jump past the southern war for independence, Sismondo covers the role of taverns in creating political machines, something that would increase their profile as the 19th century wore on – and not in a good way. Ardent spirits were cheap to come by in agricultural America, especially corn whiskey and gin, leading to increasing rates of abuse – and a growing alliance of wives and factory owners wanted to dry out the men of America, preferably at the source. Not only were sober workers more productive (or, at least, less likely to stick their limbs in moving machinery to see if it tickled), but closing down taverns and the like would deny union organizers and other dissident voices a place to gather and plan. Another strong component of the prohibition movement was the widespread unease with America’s surging immigrant population, as well as the mass arrival of blacks from the agricultural south to the industrial north – unease caused both by the usual human fear of those who are different, but also of the influence immigrants had on local politics, ballooning political machines and pushing disruptive ideas like anarchism. The Ku Klux Klan, the most ardent of prohibitionists, were emblematic of many of prohibition’s motives. The book loses steam after this, in part because taverns played an increasingly smaller role in moving American society. They often became instead the platform to demonstrate change that was already happening, as when women began invading men’s space and imposing sit-ins in some pastel imitation of the Civil Rights sit-ins. The bar came less of a place for men to gather, drink, and debate, and more of a casual recreation spot, increasingly populated by strollers and dominated by the racket of televisions. Post 1960s the only interesting politicized bar activity were the Stonewall riots, linked to Stonewall Inn that served as a gay bar, and the resultant push for more toleration and rights for homosexuals.
America Walks into a Bar was great fun, a deft mix of social and more ‘serious’ history — focusing on the connection between them, and hinting at the importance of the built environment for civic and social health. The drift of the tavern from an encompassing community center to a dingy spot on the highway inviting drunk driving, or a loud, hypercommercialized sports bar, is a sad one, but this is nonetheless a fun introduction to the importance of bars to early American history — an a celebration of the places they once were.
Possibly to follow…Madelon Powers’ Faces along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon, 1870-1920. I have it waiting but have been distracted by nuclear wessels.
The Great Good Places: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bars, and the Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, Ray Oldenberg
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent
Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, Ian Gately