I’ve used saloons in several of my westerns, my favorite being “Notorious.” It’s a battle of the sexes, a duel between the male and female owners of competing saloons in San Francisco. When she tries to have him shanghaied, he decides to even the score by putting her out of business.
“He’d been prepared for a battle of wits. Had even relished it, but his neighbor had declared war, and he could be every bit as underhanded and vicious as she.
He gives away free food, and she gives away free drinks. He hires the world-famous Lotta Crabtree and she gets Can Can dancers. The battle escalates and becomes the talk of San Francisco.
In writing the book, I did a lot of research on saloons. I think what surprised me most was the elaborate entertainment many had – even in small cattle towns. I also found it interesting that Yuppies didn’t invent happy hour. Many saloons gave away free food to lure customers into their premises.
I’m starting a new book and again my heroine owns a saloon/bawdy house, this time in a mining town in the Montana. My hero is a federal judge sent to wipe out lawlessness. He’s a easterner, a scion of a wealthy family. His father is a senator and he is being groomed to take his place. He soon discovers that his formal experience with the law doesn’t exactly work well in the wild west.
But, as usual, I digress. Back to researching saloons. Here’s a few new facts.
In the early days in the west, the whiskey served in many saloons was some pretty wicked stuff made with raw alcohol, burnt sugar and a little chewing tobacco. Some barkeeps would cut their cheap whiskey with pepper sauce, turpentine, ammonia, gunpowder, and even a small amount of rat poison. Names given this whiskey included Dead Dan, 6 feet Under, Tarantula Juice and Coffin Varnish for obvious reasons. Some drinks contained peyote and tequila, and the cheap “house specials” was often known as rotgut.
Later as competition increased and transportation improved, many offered established brands of whiskey along with such delicacies as oysters. I’ve been puzzled over how they shipped oysters, but apparently they were very, veryy popular.
The majority of saloon regulars drank straight liquor – rye or bourbon. If a man ordered something fancy or sipped his drink they were sometimes forced to swallow a fifth of 100 proof at gunpoint. Beer was plentiful but served warm. Patrons had to knock back the beer in a hurry before it got too flat.
One of the most intriguing facts – at least for me – is that many had not only the obligatory piano player but orchestras and even small chamber music groups that played classics. Never saw that in a western film. I think I’ll add it to my tale, though.
Eventually, there was every type of saloon that one could imagine. There were gambling saloons, restaurant saloons, billiard saloons, bowling saloons (Yep, I was surprised at that, too) and, of course, the plain old “just drinking” saloons.” Almost all, however, had the long paneled bar, a gleaming 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 they might wipe the beer suds from their mustaches.
Some names: the Bull’s Head in Abilene, the Holy Moses in Creede, Colorado and the Arcade Saloon in Eldora Colorado.
Now my immediate problem is finding a name for my saloon. Any suggestions? I’ll send a signed copy of “Notorious” to the person sending the most intriguing name.