Bars, Taverns and American Culture; North America

America Walks into a Bar by Christine Sismondo

  • This bar crawl through American history doesn’t discuss what patrons and barkeeps drink so much as what they do, have done, and why it matters.
  • 336 pages (279 pages excluding notes, bibliography and index)

This was the “okay, what the hell” book I tossed onto the stack on my last spree through Barnes & Noble. The title struck me as lighthearted, although I wasn’t sure what to expect from the topic. When I finally got back to it a few months later, I admit to choosing it because I didn’t have the appetite for something too dense. Little did I know, this book with fewer than 300 pages of content had more in common with a pint of Guiness than with a Bud Light.

Author Christine Sismondo’s thesis is that America’s bars and taverns anchor some of the key moments in its national history. For an obvious example, angry colonists complained about British taxation without representation in taverns. Depending on the sort of name and signage for a given tavern, the eavesdropping traveler might hear talk of rebellion in one local watering hole or support for His Majesty King George. Not really a stretch, right? Especially when you consider that many of the barkeeps had a financial interest in getting around the exorbitant tariffs for the goods they sold.

Taverns, Politics and Why George Washington Slept So Many Places

Now imagine the later, unsettled politics of a youthful nation. Yes, there is an elegant design of checks and balances to prevent the rise of another king. But if you want to be president—and General George Washington does—you subsidize the drinking of your many supporters. That’s because they turn out to hear you in the only indoor space most villages have that is large enough to accommodate that many people, the local tavern. Records of the campaign spending for our forefathers suggest that politics in the newly sovereign United States and modern fraternity parties share at least one crucial similarity. Perhaps you had already read about the importance of popping for the drinks if you were seeking political office in early America.

The tavern also allowed Washington a graceful way to sidestep invitations to stay the night in the homes of rival supporters. Public accommodations had become elegant enough for itinerant judges and the like, so he could maintain his usual standard of living without putting his foot in some local rivalry. Thus, modern tourists see all the “Washington slept here” spots in the Eastern U.S.

Drinking “healths” with the eighteenth-century voters wasn’t the last link between political machinery and barkeeps, and Sismondo doesn’t leave us with George Washington’s soused constituents. Rather, she’s making sure at this early point in her book that you’ve gotten the message about the centrality of the local watering hole to a community from the earliest parts of American history. If you haven’t accepted that thesis, then the rest of her book’s topics are mere curiosities, not milestones in the growth of a national culture.

You Can’t Buy Class, But How About a Drink?

Sismondo has much more she wants to tell you about. She wants to talk with you about some of the gritty parts of our earliest urban history, where unsuspecting imbibers in Chicago, New York or New Orleans might get slipped a mickey and wake up missing not only their wallets, but their pants as well. She wants to talk about where the teetotalers got their arguments, why they had trouble gaining traction in many parts of the country, and what kind of prejudices underpinned much of what they had to say. Along the way, she’ll explain the difference between a saloon, a growler and a beer garden. The differences turn out to matter in that fine, hair-splitting sort of way that only law books can force.

Of course, Prohibition is a big topic with this book, and the criminal glamor of the speakeasy still sparkles on Broadway and in American literature. Sismondo attaches a lot of ideas to Prohibition, ranging from women’s rights to jazz. I have to admit that this seedy bit of history was my favorite part of her book. I loved reading about women proprietors of some of the better-known speakeasies and their regular artists, moneyed debutantes and mobsters.

Prohibition’s Unintended Consequences

Prohibition changed how people thought about drinking in public. Women had been welcomed into some of the swankiest speakeasies in the country during that time, and now they weren’t going to be satisfied with a little sherry at home or a pint from the side door. Another demographic had more visibility at the best Prohibition gin joints: homosexual men and women had also come to drink whatever it was the barkeep was calling “gin” on a given evening. After Prohibition’s repeal, we saw the troubled rise of the gay bar, as this population of Americans sought a public space within a larger culture not ready to accept them. In fact, Sismondo tells us, the gay pride movement was born in no small part from a fed-up, grass-roots resistance to the perpetual raids conducted on gay bars.

Overall, this book wasn’t what I was expecting, but I’m glad I stuck with it. Sismondo addresses a number of topics I haven’t even touched here, and she does it with the forcefulness of solid research. You wouldn’t want it to be your first and only look at American history, but it has much more value than would a book of “Cheers” trivia and secondhand anecdotes about New York nightclubs.

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One thought on “Bars, Taverns and American Culture; North America

  1. Pingback: The Reject Pile, July 2016 Edition | History Reading Challenge

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