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.