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What is a Western Saloon?

By S. Ashraf
Updated May 17, 2024
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Particular to the American Old West, a western saloon was a business establishment that primarily served liquor. Today, it might be called a bar, beer joint, pub or tavern. During their heyday in the 19th century, western saloons mainly served such customers as gamblers, cowboys, fur trappers, soldiers, gold prospectors and miners.

According to historians and archaeologists, the first establishment to be called a saloon was opened in 1822 in Brown’s Hole, Wyoming. It was opened to serve fur trappers who were traveling through the region. The earliest saloons were not like those usually depicted in films of the Wild West.

As people made their way west, liquor might be sold from wagons, and saloons might be built from whatever materials were at hand. Early saloons, usually crudely built, might be dug into the side of a hill, be in a sod hut or be little more than a tent or shack. Either distilled spirits such as bourbon and rye might be served or a homemade whiskey concocted from burnt sugar, raw alcohol and chewing tobacco.

As towns and populations grew, the western saloon became more refined and, eventually, took on the iconic appearance made famous in movies. A pair of batwing doors at the entrance was a distinctive feature of the typical western saloon. These doors extended from knee to chest level and swung on double-action hinges. The interior usually held a long, wooden counter with a brass rail running along the bottom where patrons rested their feet and a large mirror that hung behind the bar.

In new towns or settlements, saloons often were the largest and first buildings erected. At its height of popularity, the western saloon fell into one of three broad categories: premier saloons, working-class saloons and dives. Premier saloons were full-service businesses offering private gambling rooms, entertainment and a full list of commercial-quality wines and whiskeys. The working-class western saloon served a limited selection of liquor of uncertain quality and usually was a one-room facility with a few tables and chairs, a bar and perhaps a billiard table in the back. Dives sold homemade whiskey called rotgut, sold tobacco and usually lacked ventilation or toilets.

The coming of prohibition in the United States in 1920 put western saloons out of business. For the next several years, speakeasies took the place of saloons. By the time prohibition ended in 1933, the word “saloon” had so many negative connotations that new business establishments came to be called bars and nightclubs, among other monikers.

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Discussion Comments
By anon275165 — On Jun 16, 2012

I've been to several real saloons, like the Palace on Whiskey Row in Prescott Arizona, the Crystal Palace in Tombstone Arizona and the Buckhorn in Denver, Colorado. All were in business back in the old days, but the Crystal Palace is the only one that has really stayed true to it's roots (the other two are really more restaurants nowadays, although they still have the original bars).

The Crystal Palace still has the original bar and even bullet holes in the copper plated ceiling. But they are really no different than bars nowadays. There are plenty of rough dives in almost every town in the country that have as many fights, shootings and stabbings as those old West saloons.

If you want to get a good idea of what a really rough old west saloon was like, go to a biker bar that's the watering hole for an outlaw motorcycle club. Apart from the difference in dress and transportation, I bet there's not enough difference to spit at.

By SkyWhisperer — On Jan 07, 2012

@Charred - I have often wondered how realistic the Western saloon scenes were in the movies that depicted them. I am not talking about the sets; I think they are picture perfect and true to the real saloons.

I am talking about the stuff that happened in the saloons, like the bar room brawls and stuff like that. I am prone to believe that most of that was mere drama.

Of course the places served strong liquor so I figure there would be the occasional altercation, but I don’t think it was a common sight.

By Charred — On Jan 07, 2012

I’m not a big fan of Westerns myself, but I have been to a Western set. Believe it or not, it was not in Hollywood, but in Oklahoma.

I attend a mega church that used to do its own movie productions, and it built a completely realistic Western set out in the middle of Oklahoma, complete with western décor, saloons and a fully functioning steam engine train.

They use the set not only for productions but also for their holiday presentations. The saloon of course, does not sell liquor, but rather hot chocolate, warm meals and offers up family friendly entertainment.

It’s a fun place to hang out actually. Apart from this set that’s probably as close as I’ll ever get to a Western saloon.

By kylee07drg — On Jan 06, 2012

@wavy58 – I think it's neat when people try to replicate the old western saloon atmosphere. My cousin has an old shack in his back yard that he throws parties in, and everything from the décor to the liquor is designed to bring to life the feeling of an old saloon. He accomplished what he set out to do.

What is disgusting is that he even makes that old whiskey that contains chewing tobacco. I tried some of it unknowingly once, and I spit it out right away. How anyone could ever drink that without promptly vomiting is beyond me.

I do love the unique atmosphere of the shack, though. It provides a quick escape from reality for a few hours on weekend nights.

By shell4life — On Jan 06, 2012

I love the sound of western saloon pianos. They just had a richer, more self-contained sound than pianos today.

My musical keyboard has a western saloon piano sound option, and I like to use this to play old folk and country songs. It just creates an atmosphere of the days long ago, and I can almost see the dust in the air and smell the strong liquor as I play.

This type of piano usually sounded slightly off-key. I don't know whether this was intentional or if no one bothered to tune them, but it contributed to the rustic aura of the saloon.

By wavy58 — On Jan 06, 2012

My cousin decided to have a birthday party with a western theme, and she chose to make it look really authentic. She rented an old wooden cabin and decked it out to resemble the saloons in old western movies.

She even made the guests wear cowboy hats and chaps. The girls had the option of either dressing like prostitutes from that time or wearing fake mustaches and going as dudes.

There was even some moonshine on hand, and we ended up with quite a few altercations and temper tantrums. It was a bit too wild for my taste, and I left after the first fight. I think she got more than she bargained for, and it probably resembled a western saloon in more ways than one.

By OeKc05 — On Jan 05, 2012

If I had lived back in the days of old, I would have been terrified to enter a western saloon. People were not like they are nowadays, and everyone seemed always ready to fight to the death over every little argument.

Also, it was totally acceptable for anyone to carry a gun into a saloon. Combine this with strong whiskey and clashing, strong personalities, and you have an unavoidable disaster.

Bar fights these days often end with the people involved getting thrown out, and that's the end of it. It is less common for fights to end in death.

By tigers88 — On Jan 05, 2012

I have been to a few bars that are made to look like old time western salons. It is kind of a cool novelty, but we all realize that its nothing close to the real ting.

No mater how much parlor piano and sawdust they fill a bar with, it would never really feel like a western saloon without the sights and smells of the real thing. You need the smell of the horses outside, the stench of the men, the fragrance of whiskey rising out of a glass broken on the floor. You need a pile of broken lumber leftover from the latest bar fight to erupt after a poker game. You need the cheap perfume of the ladies.

They can try to imitate it all they want but it's pretty clear how far from real it is.

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