The saloon is almost as iconic an element of the Old West as cowboys themselves. The very first one was established in 1822 at Brown’s Hole in Wyoming with a clientele principally made up of fur-trappers.
Generally speaking, the first saloons weren’t at all how we envisage them now or how they’re portrayed in films. They were tents or lean-to’s where liquor was served and a man could while away some hours. But then, as the settlement prospered, the saloon would become a more permanent and even luxurious establishment.
The typical saloon had a long wooden bar polished to a high sheen. On the customer side of the bar, close to the floor, would be a brass foot rail. There were spittoons and sometimes towels for the patrons to wipe their moustaches. The decorations of a saloon really depended where it was: on the prairies there would be a cowboy theme with the horns of a steer, a saddle, spurs and other accoutrements, while in the mountains there would more likely be the head of a deer, an elk or even a bear.
There’s a myth, perpetuated by films, that the door to a saloon was of the cafe or ‘batwing’ type with nothing else between it and the street. Such doors did exist, and could be quite practical, however most saloons had proper doors. Even if the batwing type was there, there would be another door on the outside which the proprietor could lock at night or close in a dust storm. On the other hand there were crude saloons, open 24 hours a day, which had no doors at all.
There were many different kinds of saloon which put varying emphases on different possible services. There were ones which offered gambling, eating, dancing, billiards, bowling or many other activities, as well as just plain drinking. Very often saloon girls offered the patrons company and cheer. They weren’t prostitutes; that was another proposition altogether.
Saloons weren’t places where everyone could go. There were whole classes of people who weren’t welcome: respectable women, Native Americans, and soldiers were 3 of the groups excluded. A Chinese man went into a saloon at peril of his life, while black men would probably only be tolerated if they were famous (or notorious) in some way.
The etiquette in a saloon was very specific. Say you couldn’t pay for a drink – you would most likely be offered one. Order a drink knowing you couldn’t pay for it – you would be beaten up or worse. It was also de rigeur to offer a drink to your neighbour at the bar, and a terrible insult to refuse a drink that had been offered. Curiosity about a person’s background wasn’t tolerated. First names only were used and one never asked, for example, how many head of cattle a man possessed as this would be a highly intrusive assessment of his wealth and likely to be rewarded with a punch in the face.