The American bar has distinguished itself for two very different things. First and foremost, it served as the cradle that rocked most of the country’s radical and progressive political movements–the American revolution; many of the riots and rebellions that took place before and after independence; socialist, labor and anarchist political movements and the pre-Stonewall political organization of the gay rights movement.
Even when there wasn’t a legal American bar, it was still re-shaping the country socially. Women exerted independence in speakeasies during Prohibition and are said to have re-shaped the mores of the American family by rejecting courtship for the more liberal and egalitarian “dating” ritual.
Then there’s the other thing: Ice. That’s right, the world has the American bar to thank for the deployment of ice.
Thanks to the efforts of Frederick Tudor and other industrious New England ice harvesters, the American bar pioneered the 19th century cocktail and, in the process, put the country at the forefront of gastro-innovation, arguably for the first time and on a scale not to be seen again until, perhaps, the fast-food hamburger of the 1950s.
The cocktail was a cultural export. And the American bar it was made in, with its signature design, was the country’s ambassador and attaché. It was part of World Fairs and, as it toured, locals adopted and mimicked the design and menu in cities all over Europe, South and Central America and Japan.
Late 19th- and early 20th-century bar stars like Orsamus Willard, Jerry Thomas and the “Only William” were gracing the pages of newspapers and wowing the country with new cocktails like Peach Brandy Punch and the Bumitskywitz and mastering techniques for shaking drinks and handling ice and flaming liquids. Unfortunately, as we all know, this wasn’t enough good PR to save the bar from the anti-saloonists who put an end to all that flair and fun, seemingly for good, in 1920.
When things got back up and running after Prohibition’s repeal, however, the proper techniques for ice handling and stirring and shaking–not to mention the recipe for the Bumitskywitz–had been lost and forgotten. This is a clear example of what people call a lost foodway. Fortunately, there were folks around the world–and especially in Japan–who had kept the torch going. And so, in the 1990s, when one Sasha Petraske walked into Angel’s Share, a Japanese bar in Manhattan that had reintroduced originally American techniques back to their native land, he knew he was witnessing something special. And that’s why he opened Milk and Honey in New York, one of the most famous and early pre-prohibition bars in America.
A good deal of what we see when we go to current haute-cocktail scenes is part of that revival. And, hey, that’s a fun way to taste a piece of history. There’s no doubt, too, these bars foster a community–quite a formidable one, in fact–but it’s primarily among the people who work in these bars. In many of the cocktail-centric bars, you can tell that designers and proprietors do not value the communal bar area aspect. Many limit the size of the bar and have established more tables–often booths–for people to sit at. Milling around the bar is discouraged or outright prohibited. Talking to women is often another no-no.
There are some valid reasons for some of these rules–especially that last one–but a bar where people are forced to sit in assigned seats and not allowed to mingle is hardly the space to inspire the next political or social revolution. Nor is it where you go for empathy and support because you’ve recently become unemployed or homeless. Or even to meet someone you might start dating. These bars are certainly what sociologist Ray Oldenburg called BYOFs (Bring Your Own Friends) rather than places that operate as a “third place,” where the community unwinds between work and home.
And unwinds in a particular way, too. A wide range of people frequent the semi-public space that is the bar. And before the bar, to paraphrase J.R. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, all are essentially equal. At the bar, there is an unwritten code that, for the large part, class divisions are to be dropped. Fraternity extends equally to dishwashers, cab-drivers and university professors alike. After all, this is a social space where the typically working-class bartender is the ultimate authority.
I’m not trying to suggest that bars are a utopia. Clearly, segregation based on race, gender and sexual orientation have been hard to overcome in this semi-public space. Rather, that in those bars that have been inclusive, democratic and egalitarian, they have managed to foster political and social action and a lot less well-documented social bonding. Many neighborhood bars have been and continue to act as de facto community centers, helping some of the most vulnerable members of society when they’re in need. Bonding is, of course, fueled by alcohol which, as William James says, “expands, unites, and says yes.” (Sobriety, in contrast, “diminishes, discriminates, and says no.”)
To bars, we owe at least some of our most democratic and progressive movements. This is the social space in which Elisha Cooke, Jr. established the Boston Caucus, pre-cursor to the Sons of Liberty. This is the social space where Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man was read aloud night after night. It’s where Eugene Debs began his journey of working for the working man. It’s where Emma Goldman listened to anarchist leader Justus Schwab sing “La Marseillaise” to his patrons. It’s the space Clarence Darrow defended. And it’s the space where Jose Sarria decided he would run for office as an openly gay man, more than a decade before Harvey Milk.
No comparable revolutions are likely being hatched at a high-end cocktail bar. But signature causes and concoctions have co-existed in the past: the Only William was making pre-cursors to the Bumitskywitz (made, we think, from rye, vermouth, bitters, a dash of brandy and a dash of crème de menthe) at the same time as people leaned on each other in community center saloons.
Still, I recently spoke with a man from Long Island who told me that in his town, four of his local watering holes had survived Prohibition, but only one had survived gentrification. And add to high-end places, the corporate chains which drive out local, independent businesses by raising the stakes and playing havoc with rents. Ray Oldenburg worried that the neighborhood bar was an endangered species back in the 1980’s and it’s certainly not off the endangered list as I write.
That would be a real shame, since we need all the independent public spaces we can get. Maybe Starbucks has picked up some of the slack, but I do worry about the erosion of social cohesion those vanished gathering places might represent.
Bars serve a number of purposes, but it’s important, even when patronizing places for their gastro-innovations, to appreciate the role our watering holes have played in triggering mass engagement in the issues of the day, from those 18th Century Sons of Liberty gatherings to those brave men and women who gathered in persecuted gay and lesbian bars to organize the most recent campaign to assert the right to associate.
Christine Sismondo is the author of America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops (Oxford University Press).
*Photo courtesy of missmonet.