Saloons in the Old West ~ Whiskey and Women (update)

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In my historical fiction novel, Cat’s Cafe, two saloons compete for hard-drinking rail workers, cowboys, bullwhackers, and others who love a stiff drink as often as they can afford it. In July of 1879, the town of Eagle Rock had just been formed but more saloons would swiftly follow. As an example of the saloons importance in the 1880s West, the town of Livingston, Montana, in 1883 had 3,000 residents and 33 saloons.

In Cat’s Cafe, Potts’ Saloon, supported by the corrupt town mayor, sells cheap, bad tasting beer and, for what passes as whiskey, a house blend of grains and noxious chemicals. Patrick’s, the new saloon in Eagle Rock run by barmaid Fannie Smiles, stocks better beer and genuine, undiluted, red-eye whiskey.

Whiskey available in the mid-to-late-1800s West was usually made locally with various combinations of alcohol, burnt sugar, chewing tobacco, red pepper, gunpowder, arsenic, and muddy river water. It was transported in ceramic “little brown jugs” until the late 1860s when glass bottles became more affordable to produce. In 1870, George Garvin Brown started selling his Old Forester bourbon exclusively in sealed glass bottles. It was generally considered a special treat for anyone who could afford it.

Various meanings are attributed to the nickname “red-eye” whiskey — from the “red eyes” of hard drinkers in the morning, to a foul, rot gut whiskey consumed as a cheap drunk, or just the red tint from aging in oak barrels, which is the definition I think is most likely correct. It was considered a more refined whiskey, although some saloons might have served their own homemade whiskey with a little red coloring added to pass it off as red-eye.

Saloons that offered a combination of whiskey and flirtatious women enjoyed substantially increased alcohol sales. However, they were not usually prostitutes. From Legends of America, “Though ‘respectable’ ladies considered saloon girls ‘fallen,’ most of the girls wouldn’t be caught dead associating with an actual prostitute. Their job was to entertain the guests, sing for them, dance with them, talk to them and perhaps flirt with them a bit … buying drinks, and patronizing the games.”

Yet the average number of single men in western towns outnumbered single women by a hundred to one. It didn’t take long for a combination of saloon and brothels to show up in these towns.

Update on Book Signings

In addition to the presentations listed in my last post, two more have been confirmed.

Prairie Archives book signing – 522 East Adams Street, Springfield, Illinois – March 22, 2023, 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM

Yardstick Books book signing – 317 Steele Street, Algoma, Wisconsin – April 14, 2023, 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM

Hope to see you there.

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