America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops

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When George Washington bade farewell to his officers, he did so in New York's Fraunces Tavern. When Andrew Jackson planned his defense of New Orleans against the British in 1815, he met Jean Lafitte in a grog shop. And when John Wilkes Booth plotted with his accomplices to carry out a certain assassination, they gathered in Surratt Tavern.
In America Walks into a Bar, Christine Sismondo recounts the rich and fascinating history of an institution often reviled, yet always central to American life. She traces the tavern from England to New England, showing how even the Puritans valued "a good Beere." With fast-paced narration and lively characters, she carries the story through the twentieth century and beyond, from repeated struggles over licensing and Sunday liquor sales, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the temperance movement, from attempts to ban "treating" to Prohibition and repeal. As the cockpit of organized crime, politics, and everyday social life, the bar has remained vital—and controversial—down to the present. In 2006, when the Hurricane Katrina Emergency Tax Relief Act was passed, a rider excluded bars from applying for aid or tax breaks on the grounds that they contributed nothing to the community. Sismondo proves otherwise: the bar has contributed everything to the American story.
In this heady cocktail of agile prose and telling anecdotes, Sismondo offers a resounding toast to taprooms, taverns, saloons, speakeasies, and the local hangout where everybody knows your name.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Breezy, anecdotal, and pun-laden yet complete with a selective bibliography of print sources, Sismondo's (humanities, York Univ., Toronto; Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History) book surveys a myriad of American drinking establishments, accenting their importance in social, political, and cultural history and discerning subtle differences over the centuries. (Her treatment of non-U.S. drinking customs and establishments is sparse.) The author writes that these venues served as community centers; places for self-definition, determination, and articulation; surrogate corporate boardrooms; and town halls. Replete with coverage both of those who favored and those who opposed the habit of communal drinking in America, the book also covers such topics as the Pilgrims' fondness for beer and the playing out in taverns of central dramas in the lives of figures as diverse as George Washington and John Wilkes Booth. VERDICT Joining a growing list of works, mainly by journalists, on alcoholic drinks and drinking (e.g., Eric Burns's Spirits of America and Daniel Okrent's Last Call), appealing to an apparently unquenchable thirst for information on the topic, this book treads ground familiar to many academic historians but may prove revelatory to popular history readers to whom it is primarily addressed. Recommended.—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress
Kirkus Reviews

Belly up to a scholarly treatise on the evolution of the barroom.

Sismondo's sophisticated narrative on the cocktail (Mondo Cocktail, 2005) could be considered a primer course for this companion volume, her "pub crawl through American history." This three-part exploration of the bar—an institution where culture, politics, law enforcement, prejudice and gender bias all had a hand in its genesis—begins with the traditional taverns of the early colonial era. These establishments assisted travelers as a Puritanical way-station and concurrently formed vital social and political networks, yet were plagued by rampant drunkenness. Sismondo also plumbs George Washington's Whiskey Rebellion resistance movement as it paved the way for the president's political popularity. The author includes whimsical doggerel, diary entries and a wealth of significant historical milestones like Prohibition, the controversial presence of women in pubs and a particularly illuminating chapter devoted to bars like San Francisco's Black Cat and the Stonewall Inn, where the gay community fought for, and eventually won, the freedom to associate. The author lucidly discusses more recent changes in bar culture as well. Cigarette legislation, for instance, caused a whole new set of complications by forcing smokers outside, often causing restaurant and bar patios and sidewalks to become noisy neighborhood nuisances, while the newly smoke-free air inside made it safe for children to accompany their parents. Sismondo's passion for her subject matter is evident in both her comprehensive research and in short anecdotes on her own initiation to the bar culture as a child accompanying her parents to lounge-friendly client meetings on business trips and, later, working in the local Toronto pub community. These personal sections and the author's spirited prose add personality to text that, to casual readers, could seem dry.

A robust homage to the history and proliferation of bars and their vast and often overlooked cultural significance.

From the Publisher
A Boston Globe "Best Nonfiction Book" of 2011

"A robust homage to the history and proliferation of bars and their vast and often overlooked cultural significance." —Kirkus Reviews

"Breezy, anecdotal, and pun-laden yet complete with a selective bibliography of print sources, Sismondo's book surveys a myriad of American drinking establishments, accenting their importance in social, political, and cultural history and discerning subtle differences over the centuries." —Library Journal

"Displays both detailed research and wit..." —David Wondrich, The Wall Street Journal

"Many of the author's anecdotes offer interesting glimpses into the history of the Americas and the important role drinking establishments have played in the development of our society." —Wine Enthusiast

" A wide-ranging, often hilarious, always sharp and thoughtful look at the way our nation's drinking establishments have shaped and reflected our history."
—Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe

"America Walks Into a Bar isn't a paean to drinking or a love letter to alcohol. It is an insightful, well-told look inside the unique thing that is the American tavern, and how the tavern has helped change American history. It is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of anyone who appreciates the nuances of American history and an occasional visit to the local watering hole." —Dan Murphy, Buffalo News

"I found the history to be interesting... the level of detail spectacular, and the information on the changing bar formats and their ever-changing reputation fascinating. If you are interested in American history and bar history, this is your new favorite book." —Camper English, Alcademics

"'America, as we know it, was born in a bar.' This is the thesis of a fascinating, informative, well-researched and well-written new book called America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops."
—Ted Scheffler, City Weekly

"The book is a revelation." — American Interest

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199734955
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 6/21/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,374,722
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Christine Sismondo is a writer and lecturer in Humanities at York University in Toronto. She has written numerous books and articles about film, literature, drinking, and vice, including Mondo Cocktail, a narrative history of cocktails.

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Table of Contents

Preface: A Tale of Two Bars CHAPTER ONE: A Puritan Walks into a Bar (1600-1700)
CHAPTER TWO: A Lawyer Walks into a Bar (1700-1750)
CHAPTER THREE: A Revolutionary Walks into a Bar (1750-1776)
CHAPTER FOUR: A Taxman Walks into a Bar (1777-1830)
CHAPTER FIVE: An Irishman Walks into a Bar (1830-1900)
CHAPTER SIX: An Industrialist Walks into a Bar (1900-1920)
CHAPTER SEVEN: A Flapper Walks into a Speakeasy (1920-1933)
CHAPTER EIGHT: America Walks into a Bar (1934-1950)
CHAPTER NINE: A Cop Walks into a Bar (1949-1970)
Post-Script: A Mother and Her Baby Walk into a Bar

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