Saloons of the American West

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 begrudgingly be 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 parlor 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 men’s and women’s 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.

Dance Hall Girl, 1885

Dance Hall Girl, 1885

And lest we not forget the saloon or dance-hall girl, whose job was to brighten the evenings of lonely men starved for female companionship. Contrary to what many might think, the saloon girl was very rarely a prostitute – this tended to occur only in the very shabbiest class of saloons. Though the “respectable” ladies considered the saloon girls “fallen”, most of the girls wouldn’t be caught dead associating with an actual prostitute. Their job was to entertain the guests, sing for them, dance with them, talk to them and perhaps flirt with them a bit – inducing them to others in the bar, buying drinks and patronizing the games.

Not all saloons employed saloon girls, such as in Dodge City’s north side of Front Street, which was the “respectable” side, where guns, saloon girls and gambling were barred, Instead, music and billiards were featured as the chief amusements to accompany drinking.

Most girls were refugees from farms or mills, lured by posters and handbills advertising high wages, easy work, and fine clothing. Many were widows or needy women of good morals, forced to earn a living in an era that offered few means for women to do so.

Earning as much as $10 per week, most saloon girls also made a commission from the drinks that they sold. Whiskey sold to the customer was marked up 30-60% over its wholesale price. Commonly drinks bought for the girls would only be cold tea or colored sugar water served in a shot glass; however, the customer was charged the full price of whiskey, which could range from ten to seventy-five cents a shot.

In most places, the proprieties of treating the saloon girls as ladies were strictly observed, as much because Western men tended to revere all women, and because the women or the saloon-keeper demanded it. Any man who mistreated these women would quickly become a social outcast, and if he insulted one he would very likely be killed.

Cowboys at Tascosa, Texas

Cowboys at Tascosa, Texas

While they might have been scorned by the “proper” ladies, the saloon girl could count on respect from the males. And as for the “respectable women”, the saloon girls were rarely interested in the opinions of the drab, hard-working women who set themselves up to judge them. In fact, they were hard-pressed to understand why those women didn’t have sense enough to avoid working themselves to death by having babies, tending animals, and helping their husbands try to bring in a crop or tend the cattle.

In the early California Gold Rush of 1849, dance halls began to appear and spread throughout the boomtowns. While these saloons usually offered games of chance, their chief attraction was dancing. The customer generally paid 75¢ to $1.00 for a ticket to dance, with the proceeds being split between the dance hall girl and the saloon owner. After the dance, the girl would steer the gentleman to the bar, where she would make an additional commission from the sale of a drink.

Even today, don’t we still see the vestige remains of the Old West Saloon as the professional woman may peer down upon the bar waitress, who may peer down upon today ’s prostitute?  And though the gaming tables and spittoons may be long gone, the tavern or bar remains an establishment that is apparently free from the effects of the economy and will, no doubt, always remain a place where business people continue to make deals and people frequent to chase away their cares.


Another fun video from our friends at Arizona Ghost Riders: Old West Saloons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *