The Saloon in Urban Life

Interior of the Luna Bar, Brownsville Texas. The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, courtesy of The Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin


The saloon was an almost exclusively male world, a place for sociability, for political organizing, for deal making, for betting on sports or other forms of gambling, for illicit sexual encounters. In the poorest neighborhoods saloons might have little more than a simple bar and a few chairs, while upper class saloons like the one shown below included art and lavish furnishings in multiple rooms. Respectable women generally could not enter saloons without a male escort--in older American cities you can still find bars with a separate "ladies entrance" leading to a dining room.

A Fancy Saloon, circa 1898


By the turn of the century, saloon patrons had begun hearing a new musical form, ragtime. Turn of the century America experienced a "ragtime" craze. Any saloon in an urban setting would probably feature a "ragtime" piano player. Most people are familiar with Scott Joplin's music, but Joplin was only one of dozens, even hundreds of ragtime composers.

We can see some of this described in James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, where Johnson's narrator makes his living playing ragtime in bars and gambling houses, but also in the homes of the rich. In an interview included here Eubie Blake, who played ragtime as well as writing the music for Broadway shows, here recalls his childhood and plays some ragtime tunes. (Caution: the sound files on this page require quicktime and may take a while to download).

Stay tuned to this space for other samples of ragtime music, or if you're interested, click here to see an example of the "cake walk," a form of dance closely associated with the rise of ragtime.

Saloons came under increasing attack in the early twentieth century, for several reasons. Critics cited damage to health and public safety; they worried about the saloon's bad effects on the home. They also worried about the saloon as the focus of political organization--places where labor unions could recruit and immigrants could be organized into voting blocks. Historians tend to see the anti-saloon league, pictured below at its 1915 meeting, as more opposed to the saloon than to drinking.

Golden Jubilee and Fifteenth Annual Convention, Anti-Saloon League of America, Columbus, O., November 10-13, 1913. Credit Line: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division pan 6a34360