Saloons in the Wild West
Learn about the history of beer and salons in the Wild West!
By Emma Zhao on Jul. 15, 2022
Saloons in the Wild West have been portrayed as meccas for gunfights, violence, and crime. With movies like Rango and High Noon, and infamous criminals like Bonnie and Clyde, it’s no wonder saloons have a rather unsavory reputation.
The reality of saloons were actually quite tame. While there were many instances of violence and crime, Hollywood has largely inflated the lawlessness of saloons and the Wild West. Instead, saloons really were just bars, often held under tents, where men would gather to socialize, drink, and gamble.
Let’s break down the popular violent narrative of saloons in the Wild West, and figure out what they were actually like.
History of Saloons in the West
Saloon vs. Salon
The saloon emerged from salons, which were popular during the 16th and 17th centuries, and were most popular in France. Salons were gatherings held by an influential host, and was a way for educated groups to read poetry and literature together. Salons were incredibly important in exchanging ideas, and were in fact instrumental in progressing the French literary and philosophical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries.
In America, the modern saloons took the form we know today as early as 1841. As the 1880s approached, salons became more closely associated to breweries. As saloons became overpopulated, breweries started directly purchasing and owning saloons to make higher profits.
One of the earliest breweries to adapt this method was the Schlitz Brewing Company, which set up saloons across America to attract more customers to their beers.
It was during this time the politicians began frequenting saloons to discuss business.
Free Lunch: Early Advertising Campaigns by Beer Saloons
As can be expected, saloons were really only popular later in the day. In order to drive up sales, saloon owners would offer a ‘free lunch,’ which acted as a marketing campaign to entice more customers at all times of the day.
These free meals were technically worth more than drinks, but the saloon owner relied on the patrons buying multiple drinks at a time to make profit.
The Anti-Saloon League formed in 1893, and protested against saloons. The league became an official organization in two years, and ended up outcompeting other organization such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Prohibition Party, both instrumental in progressing Prohibition as a law.
Much like these organization however members of the Anti-Saloon League lobbied for prohibitive laws regarding alcohol. They pressured the police to make arrests and confiscate licenses when saloons and bars violated closing hours, and often provided witnesses to testify in court.
Ultimately, they contributed to American Prohibition , which started in 1920, and ended in 1933.
Fun Facts about Saloons
What was served in saloons?
Saloons are just like any bar, they served alcoholic beverages and food. Whiskey was quite popular, and at the time, was made with alcohol, burnt sugar, and a bit of tobacco.
Meals that were serves at saloons typically consisted of breads, meats, potatoes, cakes, coffees, etc.
How did saloons keep beer cold?
Unlike current bars which have a cooling system to keep alcohols cold, saloons in the Wild West relied on wet gunny sacks and sawdust. Some saloon owners would actually harvest ice from ice caves to keep their beer cool.
Women’s roles in the Wild West were generally limited. Many of them had limited options, and were forced to rely on men for financial support and social mobility. However, women who were able to get jobs at saloons occasionally had more options.
While saloon girls were portrayed as unconventional dancers and prostitutes, the majority of their profit actually came from drinks alone. For each beverage sold, a saloon girl would receive a percentage for profit.
Saloon girls were looked down upon for not fitting into more traditional roles for women, such as becoming a housewife. As the higher status women rarely bothered with saloon girls, men actually quite enjoyed their comfort. Their lowly status made men feel more comfortable. In fact, saloon owners often required men to treat women kindly. If not, they could be permanently banned from the saloon.
Saloon appearances typically differed from region to region. In smaller towns, saloons were less refined, sometimes held in tents. As towns grew, the appearances of saloons improved.
Batwing doors became rather popular in saloons, and is one of its most distinctive features.
Saloon appearances also differed according to the ethnic groups it was owned by and served. For example, Irish saloons were dimly lit and often installed stand-up bars, where men would be the prioritized patron. In German owned saloons, the lighting was brighter, and the atmosphere resembled more of a restaurant, with an emphasis for family.
The Legacy of Saloons
While it’s easy to think saloons were just an old outdated version of the modern bar, the importance of saloons is often overlooked. According to the New York Times, saloons are a forgotten piece of a democratic institution. Saloons fostered social lives, and made the event of drinking more communal in an ever-morphing American society.
If you want to learn more about drinking throughout history, check out these articles:
Prohibition in America
Prohibition in Canada
History of German Style Beer
History of Craft Beer in Canada