And it was perfectly respectable for gentlemen to do it.
If war and prostitution are the world’s oldest professions, the saloon business must be close behind. And it was the Western entrepreneur who really put the “saloon” in saloon business. On the frontier, every ex-lawman and gentleman gambler was a potential saloon owner. Start-up costs (a tent, a couple of barrels capped by a board, and a supply of rotgut whiskey) were minimal, management skills were optional and marketing was unnecessary—the product sold itself. Building a clientele was no problem either, as there were always eager customers. Saloons were like today’s fast-food joints; you could never have too many.
In a typical Western community, the saloons came first, and even after decent folks arrived, saloons always outnumbered the churches by a long sight. Photos of main streets and public squares in the 1870s-80s inevitably show more than a few saloons, interspersed with dry goods stores, land offices and restaurants.
With so many thirsty clients waiting to be served, it’s no wonder the saloon business was a “golden parachute” for so many Westerners. In the days before unemployment, it was also a solid interim line of work when other career paths hit a dead-end. A man could barkeep for a few years until he saved enough to buy land or get elected. In fact, the saloon business was often an entrée into public office. Being a barkeep was not held against a man out West, where “starting over” was a way of life.
Western saloons were pretty much the same all over, right down to their names. Places like the White Elephant and the Oriental were so common, they could have been franchises. They even inspired imitators: The White Elephant begat the Black Elephant, and the Oriental begat the Occidental. They ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or whatever hours the owner felt like being open. As soon as local government was created, however, saloon owners had to apply for an operating license. A major source of income for the town, licenses were given to anyone able to pay the fee and taxes. State law also required saloons to be licensed. Nobody required background checks or bonding.
Saloons fell into three broad categories: premier saloons, blue-collar or working-class saloons, and dives. The premier saloons, like Fort Worth’s White Elephant and San Antonio’s Vaudeville, were full-service establishments—tobacco apartments up front, wine rooms in the back, private gambling rooms, entertainment and, of course, a full list of whiskeys and wines. The liquor was commercial quality; the beer was chilled. The wine rooms, with their outside entrances, were where “ladies” could sit and drink with others of the gentler sex or wait for male customers to whisk them away for a night of frolic or profit. More often than not, a restaurant connected to the barroom could provide a decent meal. There was often a stage for local or traveling performers. They even had “water closets” (i.e., indoor plumbing), so a gentleman did not have to visit the outhouse behind the establishment.
The blue-collar saloon was a one-room operation with a bar, a few tables and chairs, and a billiard table or two in the back. The owner and the bartender were usually the same person. The selection of booze was limited, the quality of that booze uncertain, and the glasses might or might not be washed. Up until the Progressive reform era, working-class saloons offered “free lunch” with the purchase of a beer or two; patrons could enjoy a daily spread laid out on one end of the bar. Entertainment was limited to the occasional piano or fiddle player. Ladies, respectable or not, were unwelcome. The drinking men found outhouses out back. Every working-class saloon attracted its own particular clientele: Irish, Germans, blacks, cowboys. This form of segregation was maintained mostly by mutual agreement, not by law, but woe to the man who carelessly violated the unwritten law.
The lowest of the low were the dives, where bartenders served rotgut and room-temperature beer and sold a limited selection of tobacco products from behind the bar. Lighting, ventilation and sanitation were afterthoughts. Even after the advent of electric lighting, these places relied on gas or oil lamps, which kept them smoky and stuffy. Often lacking windows and fans, dives reeked of body odor and stale beer. Proprietors emptied spittoons whenever they got around to it, and men relieved themselves in either a back alley or nearby privy. Absent such formal casino games as keno and faro, the dives usually had gambling only when a customer brought some cards.
Most of the respectable Western saloons had three layers of ownership—property owners, building owners and business owner(s)—an arrangement that made it hard to place legal liability. The owners of the land on which the buildings sat were often among the community’s most respectable men, including state representatives and church elders. They always had clean hands whenever moral uplifters launched one of their periodic campaigns to drive the saloons out of town. Landlords also remained aloof from what went on behind the batwing doors, merely collecting their rents and turning a blind eye to everything else. The actual saloon proprietor might or might not be a solid citizen. If a proprietor got into trouble in one town, he or she quickly pulled up stakes and moved to another, as Luke Short did when he came to Fort Worth from Dodge City in late 1883.
The better class of saloons employed staff to handle the myriad jobs. The chain of command started at the top with the saloon owner. The man who ran the gambling concession was either a part owner or just under the main man. Next came the bartenders, who were valued for their drink-mixing and people skills and considered themselves professionals. There was even a bartenders union. Tobacco-apartment operators, porters, “special policemen” and sometimes shoeshine boys and barbers rounded out the staff. The special policeman functioned as a resident bouncer but with the force of the law behind him. He wore a badge and carried a city or county commission, although the owner paid him.
The cost of an evening in a Western saloon could take a bite out of a man’s pocket at a time when cowboys pulled down about $30 month. However, it is a myth that a man could blow a whole month’s wages in one night. Saloons were a cheap form of entertainment. A glass of beer cost 5 cents, a shot of whiskey 25 cents (two bits) and a premium cigar another 5 cents. A visit to a soiled dove in one of the nearby “cribs” to top off the night might cost him another dollar. The only way to blow all his wages was at the gambling tables. As both an inducement to return and an early form of advertising, the better saloons handed out tokens stamped with its value on one side and the business name on the other (see “Western Enterprise,” in the April 2008 issue).
Typical operating expenses in the saloon business included liquor taxes and licenses, even in frontier days. An 1879 Texas law placed an 18 percent tax on every hard-liquor drink sold. The introduction of the cash register around this time made it easy for proprietors to keep up with daily sales and calculate their tax liabilities. A liquor license in Fort Worth cost $650 a year, a substantial sum in the late 19th century. The fact that so many small-time saloon operators were able to pay their taxes and licensing fees and still earn a comfortable living shows just how profitable the saloon business was.
What ultimately doomed the saloon business was changing morality. As towns became more civilized, respectable citizens demanded an end to wide-open vice, meaning saloons and bordellos. Sunday closing laws and ordinances otherwise limiting daily hours of operation were the first blows to the “good old days.” Gambling, which went hand in glove with saloons, was driven first behind closed doors and ultimately underground, cutting deeply into business, as men tended to stay longer and drink more when gambling was available. Other ordinances forced restarant and saloon operations to split up, so the former could avoid the rules and regulations against the latter. Last, putting the spotlight on the landlords and building owners shamed many of them into divesting themselves of their saloon properties.
Federal Prohibition in 1920 finally put the classic Western saloon out of business for good. Over the next 13 years, speakeasies and rural roadhouses filled in for the old saloons, feebly carrying on the tradition. By the end of Prohibition in 1933, the word “saloon” had too many negative connotations to stage a full comeback, thus nightclubs and bars proliferated in post-Prohibition days. But the Wild West saloon, like the parlor house and the dance hall, would not be forgotten. It was not only a legendary frontier institution but also a legitimate business enterprise.
For more on Western saloons, see Richard Selcer’s 2004 book Legendary Watering Holes.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.