Photo: Charles C. Pierce / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

What Were Wild West Saloons Really Like?

Wild West saloons have been portrayed in popular culture as dens of vice and violence. Located throughout the American frontier, Western saloons were part of the landscape, present in small camps and growing towns alike. Saloons in the Wild West served as repositories of information, houses of companionship, and refuge points amid isolation and loneliness.

The activities that took place at saloons were emblematic of the American West itself; just as settlers gambled everything to embark into the unknown, saloon patrons could bet their earnings on a friendly game of faro or poker. Saloons provided a means of survival, even offering a chance at wealth and prosperity on the frontier. 

The realities of an old Western saloon match up to how you might imagine them - gathering places for men interested in drinking, gambling, and an overall good time - only with fewer gunfights and a lot more variability.

Photo: Charles C. Pierce / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • Saloons Were For Socializing, Not Shootouts

    In contrast to the depictions of saloons in popular culture, the drinking establishments functioned more as places to find conversation and comfort amid a lonely life on the American frontier. As young men worked as farmhands, on railroads, or as miners, they looked to saloons as a social outlet. 

    When people arrived at a saloon, they could talk to fellow travelers or locals, engage in a bit of business, and relax while having a drink. Researcher Kelly Dixon found evidence to support the notion that saloons were more about collegiality than conflict. At former saloon sites in Virginia City, NV, Dixon found more bottles, smoking pipes, and game boards than bullets or signs of violence. 

    Homesteaders also spent extended periods of time in isolation, often struggling "to keep body and soul together" through their work, but single men didn't have families to go home to at the end of a long day. Saloon patrons may have also looked for companionship while there.

  • Saloons Acted As The Center Of Newly Founded Boom Towns
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Saloons Acted As The Center Of Newly Founded Boom Towns

    As one of the first establishments to pop up in a frontier settlement, saloons served a variety of functions. They were gathering sites for drinking, socializing, and relaxing, and they often became the focal point of an entire camp or town.

    Locations lacking a church, for example, might see services held in the local saloon, which shut down drinking and gambling briefly out of respect for a visiting preacher. In Brighton, CO, for example, Reverend A.F. Heltman held his first Presbyterian services in a saloon. 

    Community gatherings, even local elections, could be held at saloons. Saloons served as information points, providing men with opportunities for work alongside news and gossip. Saloons were trading posts and lodging sites, bringing together individuals from all walks of life as they entered and exited a town. 

  • If The Boom Town Expanded, Saloons Became Major Investment Opportunities
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    If The Boom Town Expanded, Saloons Became Major Investment Opportunities

    To set up a saloon in some sites, like a mining camp, individuals only needed a tent, a few seats and tables, and some liquor. Once a settlement or town began to thrive, however, putting resources into a saloon was in the interest of the owner. This was especially true in towns along railroad lines, whereas saloons that popped up in mining camps were more susceptible to failure when the gold or silver gave out. 

    As towns grew, so did the number of saloons. When saloons became bigger, they moved into permanent structures and offered increasingly diverse forms of entertainment; gambling options increased and furnishings improved.

    Soon after its formal founding in 1858, Denver, CO, had roughly 30 saloons. By 1890, there were 478 saloons located in the city. In Fort Worth, TX, the White Elephant Saloon opened in 1883, competing with more than 60 fellow drinking establishments for patrons. 

  • The Majority Of Saloons Across The West Were Not As Ornate As Hollywood Films Suggest
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Majority Of Saloons Across The West Were Not As Ornate As Hollywood Films Suggest

    Saloons often began as nothing more than a piece of canvas spread across a wooden frame, essentially a tent under which men could drink, talk, and gamble. As saloons became more permanent structures, they may have featured wooden floors and housed elaborate bars, but most still remained quite small with rustic decor and ambiance. 

    Saloons in major cities like San Francisco and Seattle may have had chandeliers and mirrors, the likes of which are common in Hollywood's version of the Wild West, but most were much more austere. 

    Location played a big factor in what types of decorations one might find in a saloon. Building materials came from what was available nearby. A saloon in a prairie town might have sod walls adorned with spurs and saddles, while a saloon in the mountains was characterized by woodworking with animal bones, hides, and heads mounted throughout.  

    The variability in saloon presentation could be striking. In Fort Worth, TX, the First and Last Chance Saloon, opened during the 1850s, was nothing more than "a small, dingy room with a few shelves... a plain bar counter on one side... a bench for customers on the other, and a box stove in the center of the room."

    On the other hand, by the 1880s, the White Elephant Saloon in Fort Worth was a two-story establishment that served "fresh fish, oysters, and wild game" alongside the "choice wines, liquors, and cigars." 

  • The Price Of Drinks Depended On How Difficult It Was To Reach Town
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Price Of Drinks Depended On How Difficult It Was To Reach Town

    When visiting a saloon, the price of a shot of whiskey or a beer depended very much on location. Procuring alcohol from a liquor distributor was a challenge in far-off places like the Yukon Territory, something reflected in the $0.50 individuals paid per shot of whiskey. In Colorado, throwing back a shot would cost about half that, or the same price as two glasses of beer

    The price of a drink also varied depending on the type of establishment, ultimately dictated by emerging social classes on the frontier. Cheap saloons provided beer and whiskey for cowboys with little expendable income, while nicer saloons gave businessmen and ranchers a chance to drink cocktails or higher-quality liquor. 

  • Women Who Weren't Working Girls Or Barmaids Seldom Entered The Saloon
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Women Who Weren't Working Girls Or Barmaids Seldom Entered The Saloon

    Women served two main purposes at saloons: they sold alcohol or sold flesh. At saloons that offered entertainment, women might be dancers or theater performers as well, but sometimes the lines between roles blurred. Maulda Branscomb, known as Big Minnie, was a woman of many talents, working as an actor, barmaid, and sex worker in Tombstone, AZ, in the theatre that she and her husband bought during the 1880s. 

    When it came to drinks, women did their best to persuade men to buy them expensive liquor, usually getting a cut in the process. George M. Hammell, an anti-saloon advocate, described the scene:

    In Denver, when I was there, saloons were full of disreputable women, drinking with the men right at the bar. One would come up and nudge you and say, "How's things for a drink?" The barkeeper would say, "Yes, go on, throw a drink into her." 

    It cost twenty-five cents at the cheapest to treat a woman there. If one took a five-cent drink and gave her the same, the bill was twenty-five cents. Of this the house kept a dime and gave her a check for fifteen, which she cashed in at the end of the evening.

    To keep women from becoming too intoxicated, bartenders swapped out whiskey for tea or gave them watered-down product. Women could also discard a drink in a nearby spittoon.