Men And Their Saloons

Growing up as a newsboy on the streets of San Francisco, Jack London got to know and love “the wide-open, all-male flavor of saloonlife.”

“I had no time to read. I was busy getting exercise and learning how to fight, busy learning forwardness, and brass and bluff. I had an imagination and a curiosity about all things that made me plastic. Not least among the things I was curious about was the saloon. And I was in and out of many a one. . . .”

“The saloon was the place of congregation. Men gathered to it as primitive men gathered about the fire of the squatting place or the fire at the mouth of the cave.”

Marsh’s Saloon, Shackamaxon Street and E. Girard Avenue, April 15, 1901 (

“By way of the saloon I had escaped from the narrowness of woman’s influence into the wide free world of men. All ways led to the saloon [whose] doors were ever open. And always and everywhere I found saloons, on highway and byway, up narrow alleys and on busy thoroughfares, bright-lighted and cheerful, warm in winter and in summer dark and cool.”

“Yes, the saloon was a mighty fine place, and it was more than that. … The saloons are poor men’s clubs. Saloons are congregating places. We engaged to meet one another in saloons. We celebrated our good fortune or wept our grief in saloons. We got acquainted in saloons.”

“In the saloons, life was different. Men talked with great voices, laughed great laughs, and there was an atmosphere of greatness. Here was something more than the common every-day where nothing happened. Here life was always very live, and, sometimes even lurid, when blows were struck, and blood was shed, and big policemen came shouldering in. Great moments, these, for me, my head filled with all the wild and valiant fighting of the gallant adventurers on sea and land. There were no big moments when I trudged along the street throwing my papers in at doors. But in the saloons, even the sots, stupefied, sprawling across the tables or in the sawdust, were objects of mystery and wonder.”

J. J. Mallon’s Saloon, Southeast corner, Front Street and Girard Ave, July 7, 1905 (

And more, the saloons were right. The city fathers sanctioned them and licensed them. They were not terrible places I heard boys deem them who lacked my opportunities to know. Terrible they might be, but then that only meant they were terribly wonderful, and it is the terribly wonderful that a boy desired to know. In the same way pirates, and shipwrecks, and battles were terrible; and what healthy boy wouldn’t give his immortal soul to participate in such affairs?”

“Besides, in saloons I saw reporters, editors, lawyers, judges, who names and faces I knew. They put the seal of social appeal on the saloon. They verified my own feeling of fascination in the saloon. They, too, must have found that there was something different, that something beyond, which I sensed and groped after. What it was, I did not know; yet there it must be, for there men focused like buzzing flies about a honey pot.”

J. J. Mallon’s Saloon, southeast corner, Front Street and Girard Avenue, July 7, 1905 (

In saloons, confirms Madelon Powers, “men defined themselves as men. They established standards of manly comportment and continuously reaffirmed their personal and group esteem by observing. . . standards. They sought out men of the same age cohort whose experiences and interests chronologically paralleled their own. . . . Single men, married men, migrating men whose families waited behind—all sought fellowship and solace from barmates in comparable situations. As regulars dealt collectively with these deeply personal concerns, they cultivated the kind of intimate, emotionally charged relationships associated with community.”

“Bolstering the regulars’ ethic of manliness was the ambience of the saloon itself. Indeed, nearly every feature of the saloon’s interior seemed designed to promote an aura of freewheeling masculinity. The air was redolent with beer fumes and cigar smoke. The bar’s footrail was itself ‘a symbol of masculinity emancipate’ . . . Wall decorations often included photographs of prizefighters such as John L. Sullivan . . . depictions of cockfights, horse races and battleships, Also popular with lithographs of buxom, scantily clad women who posed provocatively.  . . . Brass cuspidors stood within convenient spitting distance, with sawdust scattered about to accommodate lapses in marksmanship. For those disinclined to answer calls of nature, a few establishments even featured a urination trough on the floor running lengthwise along the bar counter, built on a slight tilt to facilitate flushing.

In the opening years of the 20th century, the urban saloon served to” reinforce feelings of uninhibited masculinity and gender solidarity among workingmen.” It was a place, as Hutchins Hapgood observed of McSorley’s Saloon in New York, where “no woman ever passed or passes the threshold.” A place where “workingmen . . . sit quietly for hours over one or two mugs of ale look as if they never thought of a woman. They are maturely reflecting in purely male ways and solemnly discoursing, untroubled by skirts or domesticity.”

[Sources: Madelon Powers, Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon, 1870-1920 (The University of Chicago Press, 1998); Jack London, John Barleycorn (1913); Hutchins Hapgood, “McSorley’s Saloon,Harpers Weekly, Vol 58, October 25, 1913.]

4 replies on “Men And Their Saloons”

One of the (architecturally) best preserved saloons around here is the Good King Tavern on 7th below South St. Despite its American-French Bistro vibe, its tin ceiling, ceramic floor, wainscoting and bar preserve a lot of what was there in 1890. Just try to imagine the place full of odoriferous working men smoking cigars and drinking boilermakers instead of Millennials savoring sazeracs and duck liver mousse.

My recollection is that post-Prohibition, state law forbade the use of the word saloon because of its connotation as a place where reprobates gathered to drink in excess. Saloons were the great curse of late 19th/early 20th century Philly. Social reformers did maps that showed a saloon on so many street corners, especially in places like Kensington and Fishtown. So emered the use of Pub, Tavern & Bar. etc. Not true today, though; The stigma has been removed — though I am not sure the law was repealed. TF

Stigmas do come and go.

Checking in at the Inquirer archive, I see the word “saloon” appeared nearly 42,000 times in the three decades preceding prohibition (1920-1933) and only 3,700 times in the three decades after.

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