Western saloon

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File:Judge Roy Bean.jpg
The Jersey Lilly, Judge Roy Bean's saloon in Langtry, Texas, c. 1900.

A Western saloon is a kind of bar particular to the Old West. Saloons served customers such as fur trappers, cowboys, soldiers, lumberjacks, businessmen, lawmen, miners, gamblers and outlaws. The first saloon was established at Brown's Hole, Wyoming, in 1822, to serve fur trappers.[1] By the late 1850s the term saloon had begun to appear in directories and common usage as a term for an establishment that specialized in beer and liquor sales by the drink, with food and lodging as secondary concerns in some places.[2] By 1880, the growth of saloons was in full swing. In Leavenworth, Kansas, there were "about 150 saloons and four wholesale liquor houses".[3]


Saloons in America began to have a close association with breweries in the early 1880s. With a growing overcapacity, breweries began to adopt the British “tied-house” system of control where they owned saloons outright. Brewers purchased hundreds of storefronts, especially on the highly desired corner locations, which they rented to prospective saloon keepers, along with furnishings and recreational equipment such as billiard tables and bowling alleys. Schlitz Brewing Company and a few others built elaborate saloons to attract customers and advertise their beers.[2]

Legislative factors also played a factor in the growth of brewery owned saloons. The Chicago City Council increased the saloon license from $50 to $500 between 1883 and 1885 to pay for an expanded police force made necessary by the barrooms. Relatively few independent proprietors could afford to pay such amounts.[2]

Politicians also frequented local saloons because of the adaptable social nature of their business. In neighborhoods where literacy was low, the bar provided the principal place for the exchange of information about employment and housing. A savvy politician could turn his access to resources into votes. In factory districts, saloons became labor exchanges and union halls, as well as providing a place to cash paychecks.[2]

Temperance illustration of drunkard hitting his wife

Beginning in 1893, the Anti-Saloon League began protesting against American saloons. In 1895 it became a national organization and quickly rose to become the most powerful prohibition lobby in America, pushing aside its older competitors the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Prohibition Party. The League lobbied at all levels of government for legislation to prohibit the manufacture or import of spirits, beer and wine. Ministers had launched several efforts to close Arizona saloons after the 1906 creation of League chapters in Yuma, Tucson, and Phoenix. League members pressured local police to take licenses from establishments that violated closing hours or served women and minors, and they provided witnesses to testify about these violations. Its triumph was nationwide prohibition locked into the Constitution with passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920. It was decisively defeated when prohibition was repealed in 1933.

The traditional saloon was declining many years before Prohibition. The automobile took patronage away from the pedestrian institution. Nickelodeons also competed for the entertainment niche. An increasing numbers of employers demanded abstinence during the workday. City health departments also enacted regulations that eliminated many features of the free lunch table. Finally, World War I brought not only an attack on anything that seemed remotely German but also a temporary ban on brewing.[2]

Free lunch

The free lunch was a sales enticement which offered a meal at no cost in order to attract customers and increase revenues from other offerings. It was a tradition once common in saloons in many places in the United States, with the phrase appearing in U.S. literature from about 1870 to the 1920s. These establishments included a "free" lunch, varying from rudimentary to quite elaborate, with the purchase of at least one drink. These free lunches were typically worth far more than the price of a single drink.[4] The saloon-keeper relied on the expectation that most customers would buy more than one drink, and that the practice would build patronage for other times of day.


A saloon's appearance varied from when and where it grew. As towns grew, the saloons became more refined. The bartender prided himself on his appearance and his drink pouring abilities. Early saloons and those in remote locations were often crude affairs with minimal furniture and few decorations. A single wood-burning stove might warm such establishments during the winter months.

A pair of "batwing" doors at the entrance was one of the more distinctive features of the typical saloon. The doors operated on double action hinges and extended from chest to knee level.[5]

As travelers made their way West, some sold liquor from wagons, and saloons were often formed of materials at hand, including "sod houses. . . . a hull of an old sailing ship" or interiors "dug into the side of a hill".

As towns grew, many hotels included saloons, and some stand-alone saloons, such as the Barlow Trail Saloon in Damascus, Oregon, featured a railed porch.[6]

Saloons' appearance varied by ethnic group. The Irish preferred stand-up bars where whiskey was the drink of choice and women could obtain service only through the back door. German saloons were more brightly illuminated, more likely to serve restaurant food and beer at tables, and more oriented toward family patronage. Germans were often at odds with Temperance forces over Sunday operation and over the operation of beer gardens in outlying neighborhoods. Other ethnic groups added their own features and their unique cuisines on the sideboard, while a few groups, most notably Scandinavians, Jews, Greeks, and Italians, either preferred intimate social clubs or did little drinking in public.[2]


By way of entertainment saloons offered dancing girls, some (or most) of whom occasionally or routinely doubled as prostitutes. Many saloons offered games of chance like Faro, poker, brag, three-card monte, and dice games. Other games were added as saloons continued to prosper and face increasing competition. These additional games included billiards, darts, and bowling. Some saloons even included piano players, can-can girls, and theatrical skits. A current example of this type of entertainment is the Long Branch Variety Show that is presented in the recreated Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas.


When a town was first founded, the initial saloons were often nothing more than tents or shacks that served homemade whiskey that included such ingredients as "raw alcohol, burnt sugar and chewing tobacco".


To stretch their profits, saloon owners would cut good whiskey with turpentine, ammonia, gunpowder or cayenne. Their custom product was called by names like "Tanglefoot, Forty-Rod, Tarantula Juice, Taos Lightning, Red Eye, and Coffin Varnish." Other offerings included Cactus Wine, made from a mix of tequila and peyote tea, and Mule Skinner, made with whiskey and blackberry liquor. A saloon might also be known as a "watering trough, bughouse, shebang, cantina, grogshop, and gin mill".[1]

As towns grew, saloons were often elaborately decorated, featured Bohemian stemware, and oil paintings were hung from the wall. The hard liquor was improved, often featuring whiskey imported from the eastern United States and Europe. To avoid rotgut, patrons would request "fancy" mixed drinks. Some of the top ten drinks in 1881 included claret sangarees and champagne flips.


Beer was often served at room temperature since refrigeration was mostly unavailable. Adolphus Busch introduced refrigeration and pasteurization of beer in 1880 with his Budweiser brand.[1] Some saloons kept the beer in kegs stored on racks inside the saloon.[7] Some saloons made their own beer. Sometimes the beer was also kept in chairs, as we can see in the movie 'Fort Apache'.

Notable saloons

The Northern, Wyatt Earp's saloon in Tonopah, Nevada, c.1902. Josie Earp may be the woman on the horse at left.

Among the more familiar saloons were First Chance Saloon in Miles City, Montana; the Bull's Head in Abilene, Kansas; the Arcade Saloon in Eldora, Colorado; the Holy Moses in Creede, Colorado; the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas; the Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, Arizona; the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada; and the Jersey Lilly in Langtry, Texas. Many of these establishments remained open twenty-four hours a day, six days a week except Sundays and Christmas.[1]

Bull's Head

Among the anecdotes of the American West, several notable events took place in or outside saloons. One such incident occurred at the Bull's Head in Abilene, Kansas. When the tavern's owner, Phil Coe, outraged the townspeople by painting a bull, complete with an erect penis, or pizzle, on the outside wall of his tavern, Wild Bill Hickok, the marshal at the time, threatened to burn the saloon to the ground if the offending animal was not painted over. Instead, he hired some men to do the job, which angered Coe. The two became enemies and in a later altercation, Wild Bill Hickok killed Coe.[8]

Wild Bill, also a professional lawman, gunfighter, and gambler, was later killed on August 2, 1876 by Jack McCall, who shot him in the back of the head, in Saloon No. 10, in Deadwood, South Dakota as Wild Bill was playing cards. His hand—aces and eights, according to tradition—has become known as the "dead man's hand".

Wyatt Earp's saloons

Former lawman, faro dealer, and gambler Wyatt Earp worked in or owned several saloons during his lifetime, outright or in partnership with others. He and two of his brothers arrived in Tombstone, Arizona on December 1, 1879 and during January 1881, Oriental Saloon owner Lou Rickabaugh gave Wyatt Earp a one-quarter interest in the faro concession at the Oriental Saloon in exchange for his services as a manager and enforcer.[9]:41 Wyatt invited his friend, lawman and gambler Bat Masterson, to Tombstone to help him run the faro tables in the Oriental Saloon. In 1884, after leaving Tombstone, Wyatt and his wife Josie, Warren, James and Bessie Earp went to Eagle City, Idaho, another boom town.[10] Wyatt was looking for gold in the Murray-Eagle mining district. They opened a saloon called The White Elephant in a circus tent. An advertisement in a local newspaper suggested gentlemen "come and see the elephant".[11]

In 1885, Earp and Josie moved to San Diego where the railroad was about to arrive and a real estate boom was underway. They stayed for about four years. Earp speculated in San Diego's booming real estate market.[12] Between 1887 and around 1896 he bought three saloons and gambling halls, one on Fourth Street and the other two near Sixth and E, all in the "respectable" part of town.[12][13][14] They offered twenty-one games including faro, blackjack, poker, keno, and other Victorian games of chance like pedro and monte.[12] At the height of the boom, he made up to $1,000 a night in profit.[15] Wyatt particularly favored and may have run the Oyster Bar located in the Louis Bank of Commerce on Fifth Avenue.[9]:71

In the fall of 1897, Earp and Josie joined in the Alaska Gold Rush and headed for Nome, Alaska. He operated a canteen during the summer of 1899 and in September, Earp and partner Charles Ellsworth Hoxie built the Dexter Saloon in Nome, Alaska, the city's first two story wooden building and its largest and most luxurious saloon. The building was used for a variety of purposes because it was so large: 70 by 30 feet (21.3 m × 9.1 m) with 12 feet (3.7 m) ceilings.[16]

Wyatt and Josie returned to California in 1901 with an estimated $80,000. In February 1902, they arrived in Tonopah, Nevada, where gold had been discovered and a boom was under way. He opened the Northern Saloon in Tonopah, Nevada and served as a deputy U.S. Marshal under Marshal J.F. Emmitt.[17] His saloon, gambling and mining interests were profitable for a period.[18]


See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "Saloons of the Old West". Legendsofamerica.com. November 16, 2006. Retrieved 2009-10-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 "Saloons". Encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org. Retrieved 2012-11-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. The Week: New York, Thursday, August 13, 1891, pg. 112
  4. "Free Lunch in the South." The New York Times, Feb 20, 1875, p. 4. Re value of the lunch, this source speaks of patrons who "take one fifteen cent drink [and] eat a dinner which would have cost them $1 in a restaurant." http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9407EEDA133EE43BBC4851DFB466838E669FDE
  5. "Saloon Doors, Petticoats and Pistols". February 1, 2011. Retrieved 2013-10-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Old West Saloons Vintage Photographs — Damascus, Oregon Saloon". Legendsofamerica.com. November 16, 2006. Retrieved 2009-10-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Old West Saloons Vintage Photographs — Orange County, California". Legendsofamerica.com. November 16, 2006. Retrieved 2009-10-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Home | Cowboys, Native American, American History, Wild West, American Indians". thewildwest.org. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved 2009-10-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 Woog, Adam (February 28, 2010). Wyatt Earp. Chelsea House Publications. p. 110. ISBN 1-60413-597-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Betz, Nick. "Eagle City - Idaho Ghost Town". ghosttowns.com. Retrieved 15 July 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Reidhead, S. J. "Wyatt Earp, Senior Citizen". Retrieved May 9, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Starr, Raymond G. "Wyatt Earp: The Missing Years, San Diego In The 1880s". San Diego History Center. Retrieved March 8, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Shady Ladies in the "Stingaree District" When The Red Lights Went Out in San Diego". San Diego History Center. Retrieved March 8, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Peterson, Richard H. "The Story of New San Diego and of its Founder Alonzo E. Horton". San Diego History Center. Retrieved March 8, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Wyatt Earp". San Diego: Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. 2005. Retrieved February 28, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Barra, Alan (December 1998). "Who Was Wyatt Earp?". 49 (8). American Heritage Magazine.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Earp Historical Timeline San Francisco and Alaska". Archived from the original on February 13, 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Tombstone History – The Earps and "Doc" Holliday". Retrieved February 24, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • The Week: New York, Thursday, August 13, 1891 (1891). The Nation, Volume 53. Nation Company. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>