Symbol of the frontier, saloons were the embodiment of the settler’s dream. But what truly happened behind closed swing doors? Even though saloons are inextricably linked to heavy drinking and excessive gambling, the predecessor of the modern bar also held other positions besides being a breeding ground of everything illegal. Despite what most western movies want you to believe, social life at saloons wasn’t all backstairs poker and revolver shootouts. Find out what life at saloons was truly like, and bust the myths attributed by Hollywood.
Myth: saloons were the decor for shootouts
While there may have been an occasional shootout between rival cowboys every once in a while, the saloon definitely didn’t function the purpose of décor for this kind of mischief. Instead, saloons were – just like any other bar today – for socializing. Life on the frontier wasn’t always easy, especially with the intense labor of mining, farming or building train tracks. Winding down with a strong drink at a saloon after a long day of hard work was therefore a welcome change to everyday life. Also, life could get lonely – and the saloon offered solace.
Truth: saloons were at the centre of every town
Given the makeable character of the frontier, a new town could sprout anywhere and at any time. However, if a new town was to be established, the saloon had to be built first. The saloon therefore always was at the centre of the town, for it simply was the first building to be constructed. Alongside the saloon, other buildings would rise on either side, resulting in the iconic strip-like towns.
It was no wonder then that saloons weren’t only in the physical centre of the town, they also covered the social centre. Saloons offered a place to gather, a place to trade, to sleep, to hold elections and even hold service when a town lacked a church.
Myth: a town knew only one saloon
Where this may be true for most small settler towns, bigger settlements counted far more than just one saloon. With gambling facilities increasing and providing a greater incentive to spend time at a saloon, the business became increasingly competitive. Cities that started out as frontier towns yet grew the size of true metropolitans – like Denver, Colorado – knew nearly 500 saloons by the end of the nineteenth century.
By that time, you could hardly speak of a central meeting point but rather of several hubs that functioned as district localities. Competition among saloons in liquor prices or number of roulette tables wasn’t uncommon.
Truth: the early saloons were just tents
The iconic facades you associate with saloons weren’t at all what the establishments looked like in the early days. When settler towns first began to take shape, any saloon would just be a tent with liquor and the occasional table and chair. However, as the interest in saloons grew, more solid structures appeared, fully furnished and decorated.
Despite the recognizable structure of the wooden town house being characteristic for any saloon, plenty of saloons had an entirely different appearance. Depending on what building materials were available, saloons could rise as stone houses, log cabins and more. The classic style saloons were predominantly found in mid-nineteenth century Texas.
The mystery remains
Knowing the truths from the myths now, you might expect to have a little more insight into the true nature of saloons. However, do we need to discard the iconic and somewhat nostalgic mystery surrounding the unforgiving hardships of the saloon? Despite the facts, they do provide an intriguing stage for Western movies and old Western tales.