Kirkus Reviews QR Code
FACES ALONG THE BAR by Madelon Powers

FACES ALONG THE BAR

Lore and Order in the Workingman's Saloon, 1870-1920

By Madelon Powers

Pub Date: June 15th, 1998
ISBN: 0-226-67768-0
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

A fascinating, not to say spirited, study of the play of alcohol in Gilded Age history, focusing on the neighborhood bar. At the outset of her book, Powers (History/Univ. of New Orleans) defends her choice of subject, arguing that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries American saloons were the focal points for local politics, union organizing, and community-building. But, she continues, she is more interested in the way that those who frequented the saloon built a community around drink, a community with its own lore, music, jargon, and customs. The saloon, which began as a somewhat high-toned alternative to the usual tavern, drew in large crowds of workingmen (and some women, and even some children), who found inside the swinging doors a place to escape from daily hardships—and to cash paychecks and find a proverbial free lunch, that powerful and now long bygone enticement to spend one’s lunch hour or evening wrapped around a mug and a shot glass. Powers studies the changing drinking habits of Americans through several waves of immigrants, with Anglo-Saxon hard cider giving way to German beer, Italian wine, and upper-crust French cocktails. She unearths wonderful, sometimes improbably sentimental drinking songs. She details the subjects of conversation in the saloon—religion, of course, and politics, and sports. And she examines the people gathered around the bar; the Irish were, of course, notorious for their hard-drinking ways, she writes, but were never so badly demonized as were rural, southern African-Americans, whose escape into drink has not been much studied. At each turn she has much to say about the changing face of American culture in a momentous time, and she says it with uncommon clarity. Social history with a hard edge, highly recommended. (16 b&w photos, not seen)