The Spirited History of the American Bar

A new book details how the neighborhood pub, tavern, bar or saloon plays a pivotal role in United States history

According to author Christine Sismondo, taverns, such as the one shown here in New York City, produced a particular type of public sphere in colonial America. (Museum of the City of New York / The Granger Collection, NYC)

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Is there anyone who deserves the most credit in history for defending bar culture?
In terms of bar history, we don’t think of Clarence Darrow as much of a character, but he was really important in trying to defend the saloon from its detractors in the years around Prohibition. H.L. Mencken gets all the credit, but Darrow was an important part of that. Mencken defends it primarily on libertarian grounds, in terms of personal freedom. Darrow pointed out that the Anti-Saloon League had racist and class motives. He defended the saloon as a gathering place for minorities and people with radical ideas. He has a great quote that not every Anti-Saloon Leaguer is a Ku Klux Klanner, but every Ku Klux Klanner is an Anti-Saloon Leaguer.

What are some surprising things that used to happen in bars?
In some bars on the Bowery in New York City, they did away with glassware and for three cents you were allowed to drink all you could through a tube until you took a breath. So people would be outside practicing holding their breath. There was also dodgy entertainment. Freak shows traveled through in the 18th century, with animals preserved in formaldehyde, and later they’d have sports like wrestling or watching terriers kill rats.

Who’s your favorite bartender?
I like Orsamus Willard, who worked at New York’s City Hotel in the 1840s. He was famous for his peach brandy punch, and was the first bartender to get mentioned in newspapers. He had a tireless devotion to service and an incredible memory, never forgetting anyone’s name or favorite room. Once there was a guest who left abruptly because his son was ill. When he returned five years later, Willard asked after his son’s health and gave him his old room.

Can you recommend some memorable bars?
A fantastic one in New Orleans is the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar, because the bar really rotates. It used to be a literary hangout—Tennessee Williams went there. Henry Clay introduced the mint julep at the Willard [Hotel]’s Round Robin Bar in Washington, which has always been important in politics. In New York, I love the King Cole Bar in New York’s St. Regis Hotel. It’s hard not to think of that immediately because of the sheer beauty of the bar, which has a Maxfield Parrish mural, and the incredibly expensive cocktails. Downtown, McSorley’s Old Ale House is great because it hasn’t really changed in over 100 years.


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