Beer — Another Turning Point from "Drinking History"

Andrew Smith, Beer

Yesterday, we posted on the history of youth drinks from Andrew Smith’s Drinking History: Fifteen Turning Points in the Making of American Beverages. Today, we turn to the more adult beer, which skyrocketed in popularity in the 1840s thanks in large part to German immigrants. You can read the full chapter on beer, The Most Popular Drink of the Day and below is an excerpt from that chapter in which Smith discusses saloons and the role of breweries in promoting their growth:

Beer’s rise to stardom was closely associated with the rise of the saloon. The American saloon emerged from English tavern and public house traditions. The name derived from salon, a French term meaning an ornate spacious hall that was often used for large public gatherings. The first American saloons were established in swank hotels in approximately 1840; they catered mainly to the upper class. Saloons provided various entertainment and usually contained a bar, which served whatever alcoholic beverages were in vogue at the time. To cash in on the upper-class cachet, grog shops, taverns, public houses, and lower-class dives renamed themselves as saloons. The upper class then launched private clubs where they could socialize with their own kind and drink their own beverages.

In popular mythology, the classic American saloon is the western establishment popularized in Hollywood cowboy movies, complete with swinging doors, rampant fighting, gambling, gunfights, and prostitution. As George Ade, an American writer and newspaperman, wrote in 1931:

The truth is that the average or typical saloon was not a savory resort. . . . Nine-tenths of all the places in which intoxicants were dished out affected a splendor which was palpably spurious and made a total failure of any attempt to seem respectable. The saloon business was furtive and ashamed of itself, hiding behind curtains, blinds and screens and providing alley entrances for those who wished to slip in without being observed.

As immigrants flooded into American cities beginning in the late 1840s, saloons catered to their needs. Ethnic saloonkeepers were magnets for the newly arrived. Many saloons were closely connected with political power in cities and towns. This upset temperance advocates, who concluded that saloons fostered “an un-American spirit among the foreign-born population of our country.”

Breweries considered saloons as their main means for distributing their products. For promotional purposes, breweries distributed cheap gifts, such as playing cards, bottle openers, corkscrews, calendars, matches, pocket knives, stationery, and postcards. To gain market share, breweries made exclusive arrangements with saloonkeepers to sell only their beer. In other cases, breweries bought saloons outright and hired managers to run them. Beer sales surged. Profits generated were enormous, and large breweries competed with each other for national market share.

Breweries began pumping funds into saloons to upgrade their appearances and attract customers. Massive mahogany bars became de rigueur, as did mirrors, large pictures on the walls, tables and chairs, and entertainment. Saloons had bars—long narrow solid counters that separated the patrons from the liquor. The counter usually had stools in front of it, with brass foot railings for the comfort of the customers. Reproductions of famous paintings of presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield, or dramatic scenes, such as Custer’s Last Fight, The Spirit of ’76, and Washington Crossing the Delaware, as well as pictures of nude women often graced the saloons’ walls. Occasionally, saloons had tables and chairs where patrons could chat or gamble. As competition picked up among saloons, entertainment—including pool tables, pianos, and occasionally dancing girls—became part of the saloon scene. Saloons provided a place where working-class men could socialize and get assistance from their peers when needed. As a report in 1901 stated, the saloon was the workingman’s club. Brewers bought up more saloons. In St. Louis, brewers owned 65 percent of the city’s saloons. Schlitz owned fifty retail outlets in Milwaukee in 1887.

Often with brewery assistance, saloons began offering free lunch to attract even more customers and to encourage drinking more beer. As competition increased among brewers, the numbers of saloons in America shot up and so did the amount of beer Americans drank. By 1885, Americans drank more than eleven gallons per person annually, and this was just the beginning. The invention of inexpensive commercial beer bottles in late nineteenth century also made it possible for grocery stores and small restaurants to sell or serve a wide variety of beers, rather than having just a few on tap, as at a saloon. Due to the increasing number of saloons and the available of beer bottles, beer consumption continued to rise; by 1916, Americans were drinking twenty gallons of beer per capita in 1916—virtually all of it lager.

Laws were passed to control crime and restrict the influence of bar owners and their allies, but most proved inadequate. Support grew for Prohibition. Bar owners tried to protect their interests by bribing police, judges, and politicians, but sometimes this was hardly necessary because bars served as clubhouses for big-city political bosses. This state of affairs further inspired the Prohibition movement, which culminated in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1919 and the passage of the Volstead Act, from which America’s saloons never recovered.

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