The first thing I found out when I began researching saloon doors was simply no one is certain about their origin, but they’ve been around forever, particularly in the Old West. In the frontier days the delicate louvered design with a gentle curved top and bottom was usually the most attractive door on Main Street and provided a welcome to the patrons.
The door was split in the middle so no one had to decide which side to open. The swing was designed to push from either side without having to stop and think about whether to push or pull when coming in or going out of the saloon.
They were designed with spring-loaded, two-way hinges which assured the doors would always re-close after use thus eliminating the age-old call all of us mamas know … “Were you honyocks born in a barn? Close the dang door!” The sides of each half were longer than the center so that heavy hinges always kept the doors in total control and required little maintenance but oiling occasionally. No latches, knobs nor locks were used as most Old West saloons never closed. This meant no keys to lose or lock maintenance eliminating security problems.
The double-acting hinges were most ingenious, as the always-closed doors kept the customers inside hidden from the public, as we as saving their irate wives from having a conniption fit searching for the head of the household who was out spending their paycheck. At the same time the door position also protected the outside innocents and holier-than-thou passing by from observing the horrible goings-on inside the den of inequity.
The door height and length were also carefully designed to prevent peeping overhead or forcing one to kneel down to peep under to see the festivities. These same openings provided ventilation to draw in fresh air at the bottom and let the billowing smoke escape from the top.
Saloon owners were happy with the door design as it satisfied their critics about keeping their temptations hidden yet allowed the laughter, music, other tantalizing sounds and odors to waft out into the street fulling advertising the entire range of sins available inside and totally without cost I might add. Many seated the saloon band near the front door where they played loudly enhancing the advertising effort even more.
The typical saloon door had a tender more gentle side as the free-working springs allowed the bouncers and bartenders to throw a trouble-maker through the opening without having to open the doors first. This free-working improvement seldom injured the victims head as he crashed through into the street.
This ingenious contraption was so famous worldwide that many saloons didn’t need signs to denote their business. All who passed by knew instantly the purpose of the building. Dare I suggest that some religious entities with their huge heavy locked doors (except during services) take notice?
I found a lot of opinions on why doors were made like they were. I’ll share some.
*** To see who was coming in too, but not the law. They could tell who was approaching the door by the boots and hat that they wore. If it was a know “bad guy” or someone who someone else was looking out for approaching the door surprising them would be more difficult.
*** People of the Old West were amazingly very moral about some things. An establishment without a door would haveseemed crude to them. Swinging doors allowed the respectability of a “fine establishment” coupled with the ability to see just who was coming in.
*** Another factor was the weather. Most saloons, in cold winter areas, had regular doors that were used when appropriate. Doors, even swinging ones, also cut down on dust kicked up from unpaved roads. (No one likes dusty in their red-eye.)
*** I think that the shutter style saloon doors that we know are the stuff of Hollywood to a certain extent, but they are also practical because the doors would make practical high traffic doors in the day when hinges needed to be highly maintained. I think many establishments would use this style door because it’s simple hinging and allows you to not knock someone silly when you come barging in to get your shot of whisky.
*** Let’s also not forget that the women folk would most likely not go into saloons so being able to see in was an advantage (probably more than being able to see out) although I doubt that it had anything to do with the use of the doors.
*** Additionally it would have been very impractical to install a door with glass in it in a saloon because that glass would likely be broken a few times a week. Glass was expensive and hard to come by because shipping was difficult. It isn’t very sensible to have a door that is constantly being opened and closed without glass because you can really knock into someone.
*** The doors were big enough that ladies and children could not see inside, but it allowed for a constant stream of traffic both directions. Also allowed a breeze to carry in fresh air in and stale air out. Otherwise there would have been a constantly slamming door. I am sure in the winter there was a blanket or outer door used to limit drafts.
I’d love your opinion on why you think saloon doors were made the way they were.