Fundamentally, a bar is a commercial establishment selling alcohol by the drink. Yet this minimal definition hardly captures the essence of an institution that has served as the chief leisure headquarters for millions of Americans for nearly four centuries. More than a mere drink dispensary, a bar also serves as a social club, a place where regular customers gather to tell stories, play games, enjoy music, and share meals in addition to "hoisting a few." Certainly alcohol is a powerful draw, but sociability is the principal goal of bar life.
Drinking establishments have been known by many names from the colonial era to the present day. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the most common term was "tavern." By 1797, citizens of the newly formed United States were using "barroom," later shortened to "bar." In the 1840s, "saloon" began to catch the public fancy, becoming the favorite term from the 1870s until the advent of nationwide prohibition in 1920. Then, after a brief period of illegal "speakeasies," the modern era of drinking establishments dawned in 1933. Bar owners at first eschewed the now besmirched term "saloon," which was even outlawed in some areas. Instead, they employed "bar," "tavern," "lounge," or the euphemistic "grill." In the late twentieth century, "saloon" began to make a comeback, ironically due in part to its nostalgic charm. By the early twenty-first century, then, "bar," "tavern," "lounge," and "saloon" had emerged as the favored terms, with "bar" probably the most common. But all of these terms (and many others not mentioned) mean essentially the same thing: a commercial enterprise offering drink and companionship in a semipublic space.
Even the straight-laced Puritans acknowledged the social benefits of taverns and alcohol, as long as enjoyed in moderation. Indeed, they valued drink not only as a social lubricant, but also as a food, as an item of barter, and as medicine in cases of fever, fatigue, and injury. Cotton Mather, the venerable seventeenth-century preacher, called alcohol the "good creature of God" and agreed with his contemporaries that well-regulated taverns were a community necessity for both townsfolk and travelers.
Colonial drinking establishments were generally called "taverns," but they were also known as "inns," "public houses," and "ordinaries," the latter named for the regular meal or "ordinary" offered midday at a fixed price. Tavern meals with alcoholic refreshments were often occasions for conviviality, with locals and transients swapping political news, regional gossip, and travel stories while eating at long tables or relaxing afterward by the fireplace. Both men and some women partook of these pleasures, the latter often being travelers seeking overnight shelter. Drinks of choice in the colonial period included rum (the favorite), hard cider, brandy, ale, beer, and wine.
Though colonial drinking establishments did cater to both male and female patrons, local men were the backbone of the tavern trade. Forming into friendship circles or "companies," they often drank communally by dipping their cups into a shared bowl of spiked punch or by passing around a container of beer or wine to become what one contemporary observer called "pot companions." When properly lubricated, some customers spontaneously sang traditional folksongs or popular broadsides, while others brought out fiddles and pipes to accompany a bit of dancing. Tavern groups played games of dice and cards, or they ventured outside to engage in bowling and handball contests or to witness the occasional turkey shoot, cockfight, or horse race. Customers often made small wagers on such contests, though colonial leaders frowned on gambling except for official revenue-raising lotteries. On special occasions such as militia musters, elections, and court days, taverns became important community focal points where the townsfolk met and mingled, and some indulged in days-long communal binges.
Tavern playfulness sometimes got out of hand in the waterfront grogshops of colonial seaport towns such as Boston, New York, and Charleston. As court records show, government officials tried but frequently failed to prevent proprietors from serving slaves, servants, minors, known drunkards, and prostitutes. Instead, these lowly folk as well as sailors and other laborers shamelessly caroused together regardless of gender, race, or social status. They drank excessively, danced wildly, gambled extravagantly, brawled frequently, arranged sexual encounters openly, and even plotted occasionally to stage a mob uprising or slave revolt. Apart from waterfront dives, however, taverns in the colonies were generally respectable gathering places for small, mostly male groups of artisans, shopkeepers, and local farmers who engaged in casual drinking and socializing.
The American Revolution brought a measure of revolution to tavern society as well. Political talk, long a popular pastime in urban bars, became more widespread and more urgent as customers swapped war news and partisan views. Revolutionary leaders sometimes held strategy meetings in taverns. But not all drinking establishments in the revolutionary era became hotbeds of political action; many merely percolated along as best they could in wartime. One thing did change in most taverns, however: rum, once the colonial favorite, now began to fall from favor (along with tea) as a symbol of British domination. Instead, freshly independent Americans who drank hard liquor increasingly turned to whiskey, which had the advantage of being both patriotic and cheap.
In the early nineteenth century, profit-minded businessmen of the rising market economy demanded a sober workforce and a sharp division between work and leisure hours. Gone were the days of "dram drinking," when colonials sipped small doses of alcohol throughout the day. Instead, many workers pursued a pattern of abstinence at work and intoxication at play, usually in taverns. In the same years, whiskey emerged as the drink of choice, and Americans drank more of it per capita than ever before or since. As a result, the communal binge, once an occasional community-wide celebration, now became a regular ritual of working-class tavern life. Meanwhile, middle- and upper-class people withdrew to their elegant hotel bars, private clubs, or homes to consume diluted drinks (called "cocktails" since at least 1806) or to not drink at all.
Antebellum workmen, often trapped in low-paying, dead-end jobs, were turning to the realm of leisure to cultivate a sense of social identity and self-worth as men. Taverns hosted a wide variety of such male peer groups. These ranged from informal barroom cliques to more organized entities, including volunteer fire companies, fledgling unions, political clubs, and ethnic neighborhood gangs. Women sometimes joined in their revelries, but the barroom was becoming an increasingly masculine preserve.
Leisure activities varied according to tavern location and customer inclination. In smaller towns, most bars still had access to open space. Customers there participated in outdoor sporting events inherited from colonial times, such as handball or cockfights. In growing urban centers, indoor recreation became increasingly important. Billiards and cards, especially poker, were favorite pastimes by the late antebellum period. Also popular were lotteries, though they were notoriously corrupt. Perhaps the most controversial barroom sport was boxing, in which bare-fisted fighters pummeled each other in endless rounds until one man finally collapsed. Though offensive to bourgeois sensibilities, such contests were rituals of manhood for working-class bar patrons more interested in earthy camaraderie than polite respectability.
Singing and storytelling were also favorite pastimes in antebellum taverns. Touring minstrelsy shows and the beginnings of vaudeville provided new material for drinkers to try out in their midnight choirs. In the rougher frontier areas, bargoers swapped humorous tall tales and boasted of wilderness adventures. Urban tavern customers were more likely to discuss workplace woes, local political rivalries, or the supposed superiority of one ethnic group over another. When sectional conflicts eventually erupted into the Civil War, bar talk turned to the latest war news. And as happens after every war, the old soldiers told and retold their battle stories to a new generation of patrons who would soon face a world-shaking upheaval of their own: the Industrial Revolution.
Factories, tenements, saloons—these were the ubiquitous symbols of the stupendous industrial expansion that engulfed American society from 1870 to 1920. Ripples of the revolution reached even the most remote frontier towns. In the bar business, for example, large breweries refined their production and distribution methods and soon placed beer alongside whiskey as America's favorite drinks. Similarly, sizable manufacturing concerns like the Brunswick Company began to ship standardized barroom equipment throughout America, giving bars from Cheyenne to Charleston the same general appearance. In consequence, bars were better stocked and far more comfortable than their humbler antebellum counterparts. This might explain the long-lived popularity of the fanciful name "saloon," apparently derived from the French "salon," meaning an elegant social hall.
A central feature of saloon culture after 1870 was the treating ritual. Though inherited from taverns past, the practice became universally popular during the saloon period. The idea was simple: one person bought a drink for another, who was then honor-bound to reciprocate with a drink purchase or other equivalent favor. The gesture symbolized camaraderie and mutual respect, whether the participants were a drinker and his comrades, a saloonkeeper and his regulars, a sports celebrity and his fans, or a politician and his supporters. Antisaloon reformers bemoaned the overindulgence that the practice often entailed, with the politician's treat being deemed particularly odious because the recipients were expected to reciprocate in votes. For saloon goers, however, the treat, often accompanied by a friendly toast, was both a pleasurable party starter and an affirmation of brotherhood.
Another distinctive feature of the saloon was its legendary free lunch. Made possible by brewery subsidies, the lunch was "free" with the purchase of at least one five-cent beer. The fare might include ethnic and regional specialties such as German blood sausage in New York, a cowboy's repast of beef and greens in Colorado, or a plate of Mexican beans in California. Served buffet-style, the free lunch introduced customers to the cuisines of various native and immigrant cultures and permitted even the poorest men to eat heartily and well. By the 1890s, some poor women were also partaking of this attractive bargain, shocking everyone by merrily consuming their hot plates and cold beers in the back room.
Saloons were the scene of much spontaneous barside singing. The regulars embraced a broad repertoire, including indigenous folksongs such as "Frankie and Johnny," immigrant airs such as the Irish "Wearin' of the Green," labor anthems such as "Pie in the Sky When You Die," or Tin Pan Alley hits such as "Sweet Adeline." Many of these songs were first popularized in the era's ubiquitous vaudeville theaters and dance halls and then brought back to neighborhood saloons. Some contemporaries reported that sprightly band music emanated from the saloon's back room when unions, lodges, and political clubs held their seasonal parties. Other observers claimed, however, that bargoers generally preferred melancholy melodies praising beloved mothers and lost lovers, a revealing commentary on the lonely lives that many immigrants and rural migrants led in the cities of industrializing America.
Regarding barroom talk and storytelling, most customers preferred to engage in casual banter with their drinking comrades, often turning to the saloonkeeper to provide points of fact on sporting events, news stories, or neighborhood gossip.
Games and gambling also occupied much of the saloon goers' leisure time. Though wagering was common, the stakes were usually low, amounting to a few nickels, some cigars, or a round of drinks. Workers had little cash to spare, and their main aim was sociability, not profit. Several games of chance were popular, including craps and poker dice, roulette, and slot machines. Lotteries had been outlawed everywhere but a few southern states like Louisiana and Kentucky. Nevertheless, bargoers still clandestinely participated in the side game called "numbers" or "policy," in which a bettor "insured" a partial interest in his chosen lottery number.
Games of competition were also popular. Pocket billiards, now widely called "pool," was a barroom favorite, as were chess, checkers, and other board games. Card games of many kinds were popular, including poker, faro, euchre, casino, fan tan, and pinochle. A few sizable saloons offered indoor handball courts, bowling alleys, and exercise rooms. Some very large establishments with stages, known as "concert saloons," featured boxing matches.
The saloon period of 1870 to 1920, which H. L. Mencken dubbed "the Golden Age of American drinking" (Mencken, p. 164), was a wild and wide-open time for bars. Indeed, anti-drink crusaders so deplored the central role that saloons had come to play in workers' leisure time that they eventually succeeded in outlawing both bars and alcohol through a constitutional amendment. Many of the reformers' criticisms of the saloon were justified, but the lore of the barroom was never richer.
Officially, bars were forbidden while the Eighteenth Amendment held sway from 1920 to 1933. Actually, bars simply went underground, though they underwent a drastic change for the worse in the process. These illegal establishments were generally known as "speakeasies" or "blind pigs." The better speakeasies, supplied and sometimes owned by bootleggers with mafia connections, attracted mostly middle-class couples who could afford the exorbitant prices charged for a shot of awful and undetermined liquor in a decoy coffee cup. For working-class people, underground bars were smaller, simpler operations, often undecorated and sometimes in fact just somebody's kitchen with the curtains pulled down. These modest enterprises offered alcohol obtained from boot-leggers or made on the premises. Such "hooch" was usually of poor quality and sometimes downright dangerous. Most working-class customers did not linger long, but rather simply drank and departed, sometimes with a package of take-home alcohol in hand. Thus, bars did persist during the supposedly "dry decade," though they were hardly the popular centers of leisure that saloons had been.
When the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933, bars quickly resurfaced, but much had changed since the old saloon days. During prohibition, respectable women had begun drinking openly while entertaining at home, and many now wished to expand their drinking horizons. To accommodate the increased presence of women, proprietors added bar stools and tables and generally spruced up the joint. Prohibition had also affected drinking practices. Thirteen years of bootleg liquor had prompted many to use mixers to disguise the taste. Men who once had drunk their liquor straight were now calling for cocktails, which were popular with the women as well. Some bars shunned all such innovations, but many others rushed to capitalize on the new trends, calling themselves "cocktail lounges" and catering to women in "cocktail dresses" who sat and sipped alongside the men.
Following prohibition's repeal, barroom pastimes such as singing, gaming, and storytelling were profoundly affected by technological advancements. Regarding music, bar customers now only rarely did any singing themselves. Instead, most came to prefer professional renderings of popular tunes delivered to barrooms through radio programs since the 1930s, jukeboxes since the 1940s, and television broadcasts since the 1950s (from Ed Sullivan to MTV). In the typical neighborhood bar, drinkers might still spontaneously dance to such "canned" music, and some proprietors might provide live music on occasion. With the advent of recorded music, however, the long-standing tradition of barroom singing steadily faded from the scene.
Gaming technology is a different matter. Devices such as pinball, slot machines, and video poker invite bargoers' active participation, with small crowds sometimes gathering to monitor the players' progress. Radio and television broadcasts of sporting events such as ballgames, horse races, and boxing matches also provoke lively reactions from bargoers, especially if accompanied by friendly wagers. Indeed, when television newscasters want to capture public reaction to major contests such as the Super Bowl, they invariably show film of bar crowds shouting madly at television screens and each other. Some customers still prefer to play "low-tech" games, including cards, dice, and pool. When modern gaming technology is in play, however, customers are generally actively engaged, in contrast to the impact of music technology, which has transformed most bargoers into listeners rather than performers.
Modern media have affected the oral traditions of taverns as well. On the one hand, barrooms have faced stiff competition from the storytelling power of movies, radio, and television. On the other, bars equipped with radio and television do brisk business when major news stories break, for many people prefer witnessing such events in good drinking company. Whether during the Kennedy assassination in 1963 or the World Trade Center terrorist attack in 2001, barrooms have served as centers of communication and commiseration for their news-hungry clienteles.
The bar is the chameleon of American institutions. It appears in many incarnations over the centuries, whether as the colonial tavern, the antebellum grogshop, the industrial age saloon, the prohibition speakeasy, or the modern bar and lounge. And it is as variable as the customers who patronize it. This has been the key to its enduring success despite efforts of more sober citizens to curb it, reform it, or even destroy it down through the years. It is indeed one of America's most remarkable leisure institutions: the infinitely adaptable bar.
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