Saloons of the American West

In almost every saloon, one could depend on seeing the long paneled bar, usually made of oak or mahogany, and polished to a splendid shine. Encircling the base of the bar would be a gleaming brass foot rail with a row of spittoons spaced along the floor next to the bar. Along the ledge, the saloon patron would find towels hanging so that they might wipe the beer suds from their mustaches. Most saloons included some kind of gambling including such games as Chuck-A-Luck, Three-Card-Monte, Faro, and usually an on-going game of poker.

Decorations at these many saloons varied from place to place but most often reflected the ideals of the customers. In the cowtowns of the prairies, one might see steer horns, spurs, and saddles adorning the walls, while in the mountains, a customer would be met by the glazing eyes of taxidermied deer or elk. Often, there was the infamous nude painting of a woman hanging behind the bar.

Holy Moses Saloon, Creede, Colorado, 1890

Holy Moses Saloon, Creede, Colorado, 1890

One question many people ask is whether saloons were really adorned with swinging style doors. These type doors, actually called cafe doors, and sometimes referred to as “batwing” doors, were in fact, found in many saloons; but, not nearly as often as they are depicted in popular movies. In film, there’s just no better door than the swinging door for the hero to burst into, and for the bad guys to be tossed out through.

Cafe doors are designed to allow easy passage between two rooms, or from the outside to the inside, by using bidirectional hinges. Shorter than full height, they are situated in the middle of the frame. They were practical because they provided easy access, cut down the dust from the outside, allowed people to see who was coming in, and provided some ventilation. Most importantly, it shielded the goings-on in the saloon from the “proper ladies” who might be passing by.

Most saloons; however, had actual doors. Even those with swinging doors often had another set on the outside, so the business could be locked up when closed and to shield the interior from bad weather. On the other hand, some crude saloons didn’t have doors at all, as they were open 24 hours a day.

The regulars at saloons often acquired calluses on their elbows by prolonged and heavy leaning on the bar. Men of the West usually did not drink alone nor did they drink at home, and needing each others company, there were a lot of regulars at the many saloons. The patrons were a varied lot – from miners to outlaws, to gamblers and honest workmen. What they were not — were minorities. Saloons of the West did not welcome other races. Indians were excluded by law. An occasional black man might be grudgingly accepted, or at least ignored, if he happened to be a noted gambler or outlaw. If a Chinese man entered a saloon, he risked his life.

Hotel Anaconda, Anaconda, Montana

Hotel Anaconda, Anaconda, Montana

However, there was one type of “white man” that was also generally not welcome. That was the soldier. There were several reasons for this. Given the makeup of the many men of the West — adventurers, people who “didn’t fit in” in the East, outlaws, and Civil War deserters, they had no respect for the men who “policed the West.” Nor could these independent-minded men respect anyone who was made to “stand at attention” and obey all orders. Finally, for some unknown reason, they blamed the soldier for infecting the parlour house girls with diseases.

Due to the culture at the time,  respectable women were also excluded. Unless they were a saloon girl or a “shady lady,” women did not enter  saloons, a tradition that lasted until World War I. In retaliation, the ladies were primarily behind the prohibition movement.

These private men of the West were also accustomed to inquiring of another man’s first name only. With their varied and often shady backgrounds, curiosity was considered impolite. Both mens’ and womens’ pasts were respected and were not inquired about. If and when it was, it could be very unhealthy for the inquirer, who might end up dead in the street in front of the saloon. For instance, one would never ask a rancher the size of his herd, which would be tantamount to asking a man to see their income tax return today.

Another custom was the expected offer to treat the man standing next to you to a drink. If a stranger arrived and didn’t make the offer, he would often be asked why he hadn’t done so. Even worse, was refusing a drink, which was considered a terrible insult, regardless of the vile liquor that might be served. On one such occasion at a Tucson, Arizona saloon, a man who refused the offer was taken from bar to bar at gunpoint until “he learned some manners.”

However, if a man came in and confessed that he was broke and needed a drink, few men would refuse him. On the other hand, if he ordered a drink, knowing that he couldn’t pay for it, he might find himself beaten up or worse.

Because the saloon was usually one of the first and bigger buildings within many new settlements, it was common that it was also utilized as a public meeting place. Judge Roy Bean and his combination saloon and courtroom were a prime example of this practice. Another saloon in Downieville, California was not only the most popular saloon in town, but also the office of the local Justice of the Peace. In Hays City, Kansas, the first church services were held in Tommy Drum’s Saloon.

Doc Hollliday

Doc Holliday

Several noted gunmen of the west owned saloons, tended bar or dealt cards at one time or another. These included such notable characters as Wild Bill Hickok, Bill Tilghman, Ben Daniels, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Ben Thompson, Doc Holliday, and many others.

But, most notable among the many saloons of the West, was the ever present violence that was instigated or occurred within these establishments. In 1876, Bob Younger said “We are rough men and used to rough ways.” Couple that with the public access, flow of potent whiskey, and the general lawlessness of the times, and the saloon was an inevitable powder keg.

There were numerous killings inside of these Old West saloons. Just a few of these included Wild Bill Hickok who was killed by Jack McCall while playing poker in the No. 10 Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Bob Ford, Jesse James’ killer was shot down in his own tent saloon in Creede, Colorado; and John Wesley Hardin was shot and killed from behind on August 19, 1895 in an El Paso, Texas saloon.

Many other acts of violence were instigated in saloons, which wound up with shoot-outs in the street, or public hangings after vigilante groups had formed within a saloon.

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