When Bars Were More Than Just Bars

Drinking in History

The stories and history surrounding what we sip.


"Barroom Dancing" by John Lewis Krimmel (1786-1821) [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

A lot of stuff gets stirred up and started in bars: protests, movements, sit-ins, and even the occasional revolution. After one recent bar outing, however, my uncle commented that more bars are gathering the traits of hospital waiting rooms. At the bar we were visiting, patrons stood quietly by themselves, their faces lit by smartphones as they waited on news or contact from others.

"Where's the noise?" he remarked. "People at bars used to flirt more, and there was an art to starting up conversations with strangers."

It wasn't the familiar rant against distracting technology or a nostalgic stroll through "the way things used to be." It was just a joke—he knows that bars have dull moments and are still noisy places where people hit on each other. But for me, his observation struck a chord about how a common fixture in our everyday lives—the corner bar—has changed. It was a topic best discussed over drinks in, well, a corner bar.

In many ways, bars are still what they always were (except that, in the eighties, more of them had ferns). They've always had a unique role of being places both part of and separate from the common horde, which is part of their appeal. The sociologist Ray Oldenburg described bars as a "third place," different from home or work, where people could escape but still be part of a group. In centuries past, however, bars were far more than just that, and doubled as de facto town halls, jails, theaters, and places where schemers schemed and plotters plotted.

Drinking establishments—whether they're bars, saloons, or taverns—have always had roles outside of just providing alcohol, of course, and many of America's early taverns took cues from the coffeehouse and salon cultures of Europe. In those places, people exchanged news and debated political and social philosophy in a manner that helped define the very concept of "public." In these public spaces, people listened to, and perhaps challenged, conventional wisdom.

In colonial America, a general lack of infrastructure meant the tavern had to pinch hit in various other social functions, whether of church or state. Preachers would give sermons in bars, and until an official government building was built in Boston in 1658, all legal and government business there took place in taverns and meeting houses, according to historian Christine Sismondo.

When taverns weren't used as meeting-houses, they sometimes doubled up as courthouses. Fancier examples even featured elevated judges' benches, although the informal setup often wreaked havoc on justice. One Virginia tavern also served as the local jail, the bartender doubling as the jailkeeper. When drinkers failed to pay their tabs, he'd "jail" them, and then turn to the county for payment after their inevitable escape. His argument: now it's the county's problem.

In the lead-up to the American Revolution, Philadelphia's City Tavern became the unofficial meeting place for the First Continental Congress and is where George Washington and John Adams met for the first time. When fighting broke out, taverns were often where militias would muster. Once the Revolution was over, George Washington bid farewell to his officers at New York's Fraunces Tavern.

But taverns weren't just good for launching, waging, and ending wars. They were also good for freak shows, and served as local theaters that catered to the highest and lowest of brows, according to historian Alice Morse Earle. Locals could enjoy a rendition of Shakespeare's Richard III, then pay admission for a stage show featuring deformed animals and humans. One show featured a cat with one head but two bodies. Another had an educated pig that could apparently read and do math. Traveling lecturers were big on the tavern circuit, packing houses by giving speeches with peculiar titles like "Heads, Coats of Arms, Wigs, Ladies' Head Dresses." When lightning rods were invented, tavern keepers would set them up and sell drinks to patrons who wanted to see a good show.

Of course, many bars still offer performances and host other events, but maybe it's better that they've lost a little bit of their edge. Early bars had multiple functions because other institutions were lacking. We now have separate town halls, courthouses, and jails, and are surely better off for it. Regardless, bars offer a social role we sometimes forget to appreciate. When the relief bill for Hurricane Katrina was passed in 2006, it originally excluded bars from applying for aid on the grounds that they didn't contribute to society. I imagine that many New Orleans residents, seeking refuge in corner bars, would argue otherwise.

Today, the e-world accessed through the phones of patrons my uncle observed has obviously taken on many of the bar's former functions. It's where people go to make new friends, and has all the sermons, rants, discussion groups, and freak shows you could ever want. And while America's Revolution was "born in taverns," revolutions today are born much more quickly over wi-fi. There are both advantages and drawbacks to the changes, but they're probably best discussed and debated in a bar, mainly because you still can't walk into the Internet and order a drink.

About the Author: Reid Mitenbuler is a Washington, DC-based writer. He is currently writing a book about bourbon for Viking/Penguin. Find him online at The Bourbon Empire and on Twitter @ReidMitenbuler.