History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

18 September 2009

Saloons in the Old West

The saloon, evolving from the pub or tavern, is simply a neighborhood bar. It moved west with the pioneers and gradually earned its reputation as a den of iniquity with card tables full of gunslingers, dancing girls, and barrels of whiskey. Life in those old days was difficult, and the saloonkeeper provided a place to “let loose” or just socialize.

In some towns of the Old West there were more saloons than churches. And in some tent cities sprouting up around gold or silver mining camps, there were more saloons than wooden buildings.

Saloons were the place a cowboy or a rancher or a miner (but never a lady) could drink, gamble, and maybe even get a girl. Some were just shacks (or even tents); some were fancy. The Silver Dollar Saloon in Leadville, Colorado, had a mahogany bar, tile floor, and a real cash register. Abilene saloons featured glass doors, paintings of Renaissance-like nudes, mirrors reflecting rows of whiskey and brandy bottles, polished brass spittoons, and often a green baize gaming table. Abilene in 1871 had a population of only 800, but the city made millions on the 11 saloons that served 5,000 or more cowboys driving longhorns up from Texas to the Kansas railhead.

A glass of beer cost a nickel; two drinks (often watered down) cost a quarter. Hard liquor had some spell-binding names: Tarantula Juice, Skull Bender, and Red Eye that would “make a hummingbird spit in a rattlesnake’s eye.” Sheepherder’s Delight contained clear alcohol, plug tobacco, prune juice to add color and taste, and a bit of strychnine “to enhance the jolt.” The original Tom & Jerry originated in the Old West: whiskey, a raw egg, sugar, and milk.

The saloon stayed open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The sound of gunfire was common, as was piano music plunked out by a musician who doubled as bouncer and, in the really fancy establishments, a woman’s voice singing “Oh Suzanna.” The voice was usually attached to a “fancy” girl who waited tables, entertained the customers (often in the private back rooms), and sang for her supper

So music-starved were saloon clients that an Idaho City Irish fidler had a performing platform built, rigged it to the ceiling by pulleys, and whenever a gunfight erupted, he simply had himself hoisted aloft and played over the noise.

Prize fights were often held in saloons because they were the largest buildings in town. In Cheyenne, in 1867, one memorable prize fight went 126 rounds, each round lasting until one man knocked down the other. The purse was $1,000.

Saloons could be the core of a community. In some towns they had the only women in the area--dancers and “calico queens” as shady ladies were known. Sometimes an enterprising owner added a stage to present variety shows or short plays. Gradually some of these performances moved from amateur to professional theatrical performances; Lillie Langtry (an English courtesan) was a big hit playing Cleopatra and Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils.

One saloon owner turned his establishment into a theater featuring both local productions and professional performers from the East, including Lotta Crabtree. A serious production (Shakespeare’s “Richard III”) would be followed by a farce. The Taylor Family Troupe, performing in Dodge City, was a big hit as well, as was Eddie Foy. Foy, a wisecracking song and dance man, was riding high until he composed a ditty which poked fun at certain members of the audience: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson. The lawmen captured Foy with a rope and ducked him in the horse trough.

San Francisco was the wildest of saloon cities; during the Gold Rush, the population of the city was 90 percent men. Massive shipping through the Golden Gate brought people from China, Brazil, Russia, and points inbetween. Life was hard, work in the mines was back-breaking, and everyone wanted to “make it” one way or another. The most successful of entrepreneurs were those who “followed the money.” Such men made millions of dollars off the millions of miners trying to make their own millions: foremost among these were (1) the manufacturers of denim work pants and (2) saloon-keepers!

Long may they reign.


Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great post, Lynna! When I was growing up, I loved going to Columbia, a restored gold-mining town in Northern California. One year we went there for my birthday with two friends. We all bought garters at the gift shop and pretended we were saloon girls. They have a saloon, though we drank sasparilla.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I love it, Lynna!

Lillie Langtry became far more than a courtesan. After she married (for the yacht, not the man, as she would later admit in her memoirs), she became the mistress of the Prince of Wales (the future George VII). After he dumped her, she needed money, so she began to parlay her notoriety into a stage career, cleverly beginning in amateur theatricals (unlike some of today's movie stars who think they can automatically play Shakespeare on Broadway without any stage training). Lillie wasn't a bad actress -- though she was never really a great one. But that's how she got her "second act," so to speak, as a famous actress, not as a former royal mistress. She was especially popular in America, and particularly in the "Wild, Wild, West," as you point out. A couple of summers ago my husband and I visited some of the mining towns in Colorado, where she traveled with her own theatre company. She also bought property in California!

I think it would be great fun to be a saloon girl -- or a "hall dancer" as a three-year-old I once knew referred to Dance Hall girls from the saloons.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Wonderful post, Lynna. I'm reminded of the saloon scenes from one of my favorite early-childhood movies, "Calamity Jane," with Doris Day as the girl in pants. (Don't laugh, she's wonderful in it -- the youtube videos attest to it, as does Oscar Levant's famous comment that he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin).

It also made me think of Lawrence Levine's book High Culture, Low Culture, about how popular Shakespeare was in 19th century America, playing for audiences that drew on a wide spectrum of social class.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Pam, I love that movie Calamity Jane, particularly the contrast between the real woman, and the fictional character created for the musical.

I find it amazing that Shakespeare was so popular in the 19th century, given how some people feel like reading him today is like having to eat vegetables they hate.

1:07 PM  

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