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A history of American bars

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When you order a drink at your neighborhood bar, you are partaking in a tradition older than our nation itself.

Taverns, saloons and bars all played an important role in American history. They weren’t just places to get a drink and socialize. They were the hub of the community: where news was spread, votes were cast and business was conducted.

The history of the American bar is the subject of Christine Sismondo's recent book 'America Walks into a Bar – A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops'. The York University literature professor (and former bartender) says she was inspired to write it after traveling through America and learning how many important events in the country’s history were rooted in bars. 

"This is where people organized, this is where people aired their grievances, this was where people spread political propaganda," Sismondo tells NPR books. “You could get a tumbler of whiskey, and you could find out what your neighbors thought about the latest news — and what they planned to do about it.”

Taverns shouldn’t be compared to the coffeehouse in London or a Paris salon, Sismondo informs Smithsonian Magazine. “In taverns, people could mix together: you see men drinking alongside the people they work for. Early laws fixed the price that tavern-keepers could charge for a drink, so they couldn’t cater to wealthy patrons. And once you add alcohol in there, it changes the way everyone relates to each other. You end up with accelerated relationships—and occasionally cantankerous ones. People become more willing to go out and raise hell over things that they might have let go when sober.”

Here are just some of the American historical events that, according to Sismondo, were galvanized in bars:

•    Taverns were top priority for British colonists and usually built first. New World bars would become the unofficial town hall, courtroom, marketplace and communications center for each colony.
•    Plans for the Boston Tea Party were thought to have been hatched at Boston’s Green Dragon tavern. 
•    After the revolution, there were three main insurrections organized in taverns: the Shays' Rebellion, the Fries Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion.
•    Anarchists and their saloons were especially despised by the turn of the century since they were connected to the Haymarket Riot, which influenced the history of labor in this country more than any other single event. 
•    The Atlanta Race Riots sparked the popularity of dry laws in the South because they were, in part, a reaction to a fear that African-Americans were organizing and consolidating power in local bars. 
•    Prohibition was partially the result of an alliance between progressive Northerners and conservative Southerners who worried that African-Americans and immigrants might be gathering and organizing in bars.
•    World War II created a shortage of bartenders when men went off to fight. These spots were filled by women, but they were expected to resign when the bar ended. Some refused and as a result, protests erupted in Brooklyn, New York. 
•    The National Organization of Women took up the cause of segregation in bars where they staged “sip-ins” at men’s-only bars like The Plaza’s Oak Room. 
•    The gay community also had to fight for their right to gather in bars, since gay bars were explicitly illegal until 1970.

Sismondo revealed to us that the response to her book has been surprise that the bar was such an important part of American history, “The most enthusiastic readers seemed to be beer enthusiasts, maybe because they already had a sense that beer has a long and important history,”.

Having published 'America Walks into a Bar' in 2011, Sismondo’s research continues today. “When I was in Savannah, Georgia last year, I learned of Pinkie Master's, a great dive bar that has quite the political legacy. Although official political conventions and campaigns happened in places like the nearby Hilton De Soto, Pinkie Master's was an unofficial place where political fates were sealed. Apparently Jimmy Carter jumped on the bar and announced his candidacy there. I'm sorry I didn't learn this in time to include in the book,” she says.

What Sismondo did learn in her research was that it wasn’t always socially conservative moralists who wanted to close bars and curtail drinking but rather people who objected to the political rallying going on in these establishments. 
 
Over the years, bars have become a symbol of personal freedom in the United States. From immigrants to African-Americans, women, the gay community and people with radical ideas, each group was denied access to taverns and in the case of Prohibition, alcohol in general.

The history of the American bar is also the history of the quest for liberty and justice and, thanks to Sismondo, it will be remembered as more than just a place to celebrate happy hour. 

For more, read an extract from 'America Walks into a Bar'

 

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