Few institutions have evolved as dramatically or invited as much debate and controversy -- as the American barroom.
In colonial days, simple country taverns served as outposts on the expanding frontier, rest stops for thirsty pioneers, and vital communication centers where the news of the day was relayed and discussed over a dram of whiskey or a pint of ale. Early taverns and ordinaries doubled as town halls and hotels, and proved to be critical necessities for the new settlers' survival, according to Christine Sismondo and her fascinating book, "America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops."
Sismondo's work is exhaustively researched and thoroughly readable, and would be equally suitable as a college course book or as a book to read over a few pints at the local gin mill. It is a credit to Sismondo's writing style and her knowledge of the subject matter to have presented such detailed historical information in such an accessible manner; after all, a "drinking history" should never be a dry read.
Sismondo opens her examination of America's love affair with the corner tavern at the very beginning -- with the Pilgrims. "The Mayflower's crew, incidentally, was in a right panic over beer supplies, even before it had sight of the coast," Sismondo writes. "The ship's beer stores were low and everyone understood the gravity of the situation -- This pending shortage may well have forced (Captain Christopher) Jones to cut the trip shy of its original destination -- the area at the mouth of the Hudson River where the Pilgrims had a charter to settle."
With the early settlers, beer was a "superfood," Sismondo writes, taken to facilitate digestion, settle the stomach, relieve anxiety and treat blood ailments. In 1637, the General Court of Massachusetts decreed that each town establish places where "wine and strong water" could be purchased, lest the public suffer from a "lack of public accommodations."
Taverns spread throughout the colonies, creating a unique public forum where community members (at least male community members; it would be another couple centuries before the fairer sex set its heel on the barroom's brass rail) could meet, discuss politics and share ideas and discussion. Taverns were places where wealthy travelers would be served alongside local farmers, blurring class distinctions so engrained in European nations.
The American tavern would evolve as a hub of political dissent and take a major role as a breeding ground of political activism and rebellion, with many of the rebel meetings leading to the Revolutionary War taking place in colonial taverns. Sismondo explains how taverns helped cabals of individuals rise to political power and the growth of machine politics, and the role taverns played in fomenting dissent with the British.
Sismondo spotlights several well-known moments from American history, and presents them from the vantage point of the tavern -- a point of view that is absent in history books, but a perspective that was common at the time. One of these remarkable anecdotes examines the Boston Massacre, which began with an alarm that a British soldier was under attack.
"Scores of people spilled out of nearby taverns to discover the altercation was between the Redcoat and a boy, a wig-maker's apprentice who had followed the soldier outside his shop to continue a dispute over the bill, only to get rapped with the butt of (Private) White's musket," Sismondo writes. "While reinforcements arrived for White, the crowd grew in size and emotional outrage They soon began pelting the soldiers with snowballs." The situation quickly escalated until the British soldiers fired shots into the increasingly agitated crowd.
The tavern patrons who had gathered that day had likely discussed anti-British articles in that day's Boston Gazette (news stories were regularly read aloud in taverns) and -- emboldened by spirits -- were at a breaking point, especially after witnessing a British soldier strike a boy with his rifle. In cases such as this, and others such as the Boston Tea Party, taverns helped prime the colonists for uprising and rebellion.
Sismondo -- a writer and lecturer in Humanities at York University in Toronto -- presents her book in 15 chapters, each focusing on an evolution in the role of the bar or the culture of the bar. From colonial taverns, she delves into the sin-laden saloons, known as being dens of vice where patrons risked being drugged, mugged, or worse. She explores the beginning of the Anti-Saloon League and how the "noble experiment" of Prohibition resulted in rampant binge drinking and introducing women to drinking in public in speakeasies. She examines the role bars played in the struggle for equal rights fought by women and homosexuals in the latter half of the 20th century.
Through the years, taverns (and especially their deviant cousins, saloons) were condemned from the pulpit (by the likes of Cotton Mathers), derided by businessmen (including Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst and George Pullman), and attacked by reformers, politicians and moralists, yet the local tavern has managed to survive all opposition and remains a lasting and, some might say, cherished institution.
Impressively, Sismondo hopscotches across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, and all points in between, without losing focus or letting the book fall into a lull of dates, locations and notable events. She maintains a brisk, yet detailed pace, creating a book that is difficult to put down.
The City of Buffalo even makes a cameo (naturally, a book about American bars should be required to include some Buffalo reference). Sismondo notes that at one point during the 1890s, 63 out of 69 unions in Buffalo used saloons for their places of meeting. It didn't hurt that many Buffalo bosses paid their employees in the barroom, too, naturally spurring on brisk business at the bar -- many of which were owned by those same bosses.
"America Walks Into a Bar" isn't a paean to drinking or a love letter to alcohol. It is an insightful, well-told look inside the unique thing that is the American tavern, and how the tavern has helped change American history. It is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of anyone who appreciates the nuances of American history and an occasional visit to the local watering hole.
Dan Murphy is a local writer and the author of "Nickel City Drafts: A Drinking History of Buffalo, New York."
America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops
By Christine Sismondo
Oxford University Press
314 pages, $24.95