Taverns and Saloons

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TAVERNS AND SALOONS. Early New England taverns were actually private homes where the homeowner both served meals and opened rooms so travelers would have a place to stay. Taverns received travelers who came on canal boats, in stagecoaches, and by horseback. By the 1790s taverns were offering more services: if a horse needed stabling, stalls were to be had; clubs and boards of directors held meetings in their rooms; promoters of the arts used taverns for dances, stage productions, and art galleries; area residents met in taverns at the end of the day to discuss politics, transact business, or gossip. Many stagecoach stops were at taverns, which provided workers to load and unload freight. Early post offices were often in taverns.

Taverns, often the social and economic centers of communities, evolved and expanded along with the country. While always offering drink, both alcohol (licenses to serve alcohol had to be applied for and approved by the local government) and soft, they also made newspapers available to their patrons for reading, and were used as polling places during elections. Because the building was often large enough to accommodate a group, taverns were sometimes utilized as courtrooms. In times of war, taverns were used as military headquarters. In addition, many taverns served as a basic general store, selling staples such as molasses, cloth, kitchen utensils, and spices. (Some taverns, the nicer ones, had a parlor that was set apart for ladies or others who did not wish to be seated in the main room. The furnishings were usually more formal and included a fire in the colder months.)

Taverns had colorful names, the Eagle, the Star and Garter, the Bull's Eye, the Leather Bottle, the Globe, the Indian Queen, and the Mermaid Inn among them. The Mermaid opened shortly after James Simpson established Salem, Virginia, in 1802. At a time when many people were illiterate and before the practice of naming and numbering streets was common, signs were hung out to identify each tavern. Some were carved from wood and then painted; others were stone, tile, metal, and even stuffed animal heads.

Taverns were commonly absentee-owned, with the tavern keeper living in the building as a tenant, much like motel managers of the current day. The lodging was undoubtedly part of the tavern keeper's compensation.

By the end of the nineteenth century, taverns had died out as each area of their trade became specialized. Boardinghouses, restaurants, theaters, hotels, and saloons became stand-alone businesses. With the advent of the train, passengers and freight depots no longer had need of taverns for transfers.


Saloons were the western version of a tavern but did not provide lodging; entertainment, however, took on a decidedly western flair. Instead of art displays, saloons offered prizefights or boxing matches. Saloons did not host formal dances; they had dance hall girls who danced with the men for a price.

Many saloon keepers built stages on which short plays and variety shows were held. The Apollo Hall in Denver opened in 1859 with the saloon on the ground floor and a theater on the second floor. Denver was only a year old, but ready for variety in entertainment. Saloon talent, however, was not especially sophisticated or refined; for example, the strong woman act of Mrs. De Granville; the entrepreneur who installed a stereoscope with obscene pictures; and the man who was hired to walk to and fro on a platform above the bar in a Cheyenne saloon for 60 hours.

Saloons had liquor of the best, and the worst, qualities, depending on their locationa rich mining town or a hardscrabble settlement. Saloons had the most success in mining or cattle towns. In some of these settlements, saloons outnumbered stores and other establishments by two to one. Abilene, Kansas, with a year-round population of only 800, had eleven saloons. Abilene was on the trail of the cattle drives from Texas, thus the population would briefly increase by at least 5,000 cowboys. Regulations were few, so some saloons were open all day and night, seven days a week, especially in mining towns. Gunfights and other violence were common in both the cattle and mining towns.

Saloons located in farming communities were much quieter. Farmers were usually settled inhabitants, with a name to protect and consistent hard work facing them each morning. They discussed their successes and difficulties over snacks that the barkeeper supplied as they sipped their beers.

Many Americans thought that saloons and strong drink were the work of the devil (indeed, alcoholism was a major problem in the United States). Perhaps the most vociferous in that belief was Carry A. Nation, who traveled around the country preaching her temperance message, urging moderation in most things but complete abstinence of intoxicating liquor. She carried a hatchet in her underskirt, and more than once used it to destroy liquor bottles and bar equipment. Churches promoted the temperance movement, and it spread throughout the country during the last decades of the nineteenth century.


Erdoes, Richard. Saloons of the Old West. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Grace, Fran. Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Schaumann, Merri Lou Schribner. Taverns of Cumberland County 17501840. Carlisle, Pa.: Cumberland County Historical Society, 1994.

Peggy Sanders

See also Stagecoach Travel ; Temperance Movement .