Significance of Western Saloons

As we re modelling a western saloon, I wanted to explore the historical significance behind these buildings. If found a quote that sums up basically what these structures were about;

Sometimes too much drink is barely enough- Mark Twain

These bars were already in existence in cities such as Taos, Sante Fe and New Mexico, known as Cantinas. They soon spread to the Americas, becoming popular in cities of labor communities as a place to unwind and drink. These were very different than our own perceptions of the buildings- usually tents thrown together for a few nights before workers or soldiers moved on.

The first place to become to hold the name saloon was Browns Hole on the Wyoming-Colerado-Utah border. It was popular during the fur trade era, opening in 1822. The establishment grew immensely, for example one existed in Santa Barbara (California) in 1848, but by 1850, there were 30 saloons in total. The type of clientele varied considerably on location;

  • Soldiers e.g. Bents Ford, Colorado
  • Miners e.g. Santa Barbara
  • Cowboys e.g. Dodge City Kansas

These saloons didn’t just appeal to the everyday folk, mainly single working men. They were used by many historical famous figures. George Washington said goodbye to his officers in the Fraunces Tavern in New York. Andrew Jackson planned his defence attack of New Orleans for the British by meeting Jean Lafitte in a grog shop. John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices planned President Lincoln’s assassination in the Surratt Tavern.

The drink in these bars was strong. Strong being an under exaggeration estimate, look at some of the combinations below;

  • Whiskey- raw alcohol, burnt sugar and chewing tobacco. It received names such as Tangle Foot, Forty- Rod, Red Eye and Coffin Varnish
  • Cactus Wine- a mix of tequila and peyote tea
  • Mule Skinner- whiskey and blackberry liquor

Drinking wasn’t the only pass time in these bars, gambling was also a common activity. Poker tables littered the rooms, card games like Faro and Brag were popular. Other games, three card monte and dice games were also player. These included high low, chuck a luck and grand hazard.

Regarding the interior of the saloon itself, this varies with the general industry and area that the saloon exists in.

In almost every  saloon, one could depend on seeing the long paneled bar, usually made of oak or mahogany, and polished to a splendid shine. Encircling the base of the bar would be a gleaming brass foot rail with a row of spittoons spaced along the floor next to the bar. Along the ledge, the saloon patron would find towels hanging so that they might wipe the beer suds from their mustaches. Most  saloons included some kind of gambling including such games as Chuck-A-Luck, Three-Card-Monte, Faro, and usually an on-going game of poker.

Decorations at these many saloons varied from place to place but most often reflected the ideals of the customers. In the cowtowns of the prairies, one might see steer horns, spurs, and saddles adorning the walls, while in the mountains, a customer would be met by the glazing eyes of taxidermied deer or elk. Often, there was the infamous nude painting of a woman hanging behind the bar.  (, 2016).

Our own bar, we decided, would be located in a cowtown or prairies, so therefore would need decoration such as antlers and other ornaments.

A really cheesy video on the western saloon history. Enjoy. (YouTube, 2016).

References (2016). Saloons of the Old West. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Oct. 2016].

YouTube. (2016). Old West Saloons history. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Oct. 2016].



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