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America Walks Into a Bar

New book on America's spirited history



“America, as we know it, was born in a bar.” This is the thesis of a fascinating, informative, well-researched and well-written new book called America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops, by Christine Sismondo. It’s not just that America was born in a bar, however; it also grew up in a bar, as we discover from reading Sismondo’s book.

From the get-go, bars and taverns have been crucial gathering places for Americans. Sismondo documents the importance of bars to the earliest colonists, writing, “Taverns were absolutely critical for the new settlers’ survival. Establishing a tavern was the first priority—not just the first choice—of every colony.” In Boston, for example, the first official government building wasn’t built until 1658. Until then, “all legal and government proceedings took place in taverns and meeting houses.” Since the earliest days of this country, bars, taverns, saloons, grog shops—whatever you want to call them—have served as centers of political, social and cultural expression, ideas, opinion and organization.

In passages about early American urban centers, Sismondo reminds us that most people lived in small, cramped quarters—tenements, in particular. There was no place to recreate or socialize—no place, really, to think. Thus, bars became a logical neighborhood locale for simply finding a little bit of space. And Sismondo does a great job of detailing the importance of bars, from the mundane to the monumental: John Wilkes Booth plotted his infamous assassination with accomplices in the Surratt Tavern in Clinton, Md. Andrew Jackson met Jean Lafitte in a New Orleans grog shop to plan their defense against the British. The modern-day gay-rights movement was founded largely as a result of the Stonewall Riots, named for the Stonewall Inn where they began.

Even Utah, surprisingly, factors into the rich history of bars and drinking in America. One of the country’s oldest gay bars was in Salt Lake City: the only recently closed Radio City Lounge. Utah was also the site of one of the first places on America’s frontier to call itself a “saloon”—“Brown’s Hole, named for the town in which it was established in Utah in 1822.” And, of course, it was Utah that cast the deciding vote against Prohibition, in 1933, after which President Franklin Roosevelt immediately issued a repeal proclamation.

While today we may think of bars as places to forget our troubles, meet interesting strangers, gather socially or just get sloshed, Sismondo reminds us that bars in America have always been the place where political and social movements were hatched—from revolutionaries, anarchists and labor movements to civil and the aforementioned gay-rights movements. The freedom to associate—one of the underpinnings of our democracy—has been exercised in no other place more than in bars. They’ve been an essential institution of American life for as long as there has been a place called America.

Don’t get the idea, though, that America Walks into a Bar is all heavy history. There is a lot of wit and humor in the author’s writing. And for those of us who reside in Utah, you might be comforted to know that there have been liquor laws, policies and regulations across the country that would make your heads spin just as much as the present-day Zion curtain. For example, there was much controversy in mid-17th-century Massachusetts surrounding the practice of toasting to a drinking companion’s health, since one toast inevitably led to a reciprocal one, and so on and so on, resulting in inebriated parties. Legislation against “healthing” soon followed. That’s just one of the countless captivating tidbits in this fine cocktail of America’s drinking history.

By Christine Sismondo
Oxford University Press, 2011
336 pages, $24.95 hardcover