The History of Saloons Helps Understand the Social Harm of the PandemicHistorians in the News
tags: public health, alcohol, Prohibition, cultural history, public space, Bars
Just days before the signing of the Constitution, George Washington, not yet America's first president, took his pals out for a night on the town to celebrate the Constitutional Convention's end. They went to Philadelphia's City Tavern, where, if a surviving receipt is to be believed, he and his men consumed more than 100 bottles of wine, more than 30 bottles of beer, eight bottles of whiskey, eight bottles of cider, and seven bowls of punch, for an inflation-adjusted tab of somewhere between $15,000 and $17,000.
This was a big celebration, but it wasn't entirely out of the ordinary. The Founders were drinkers and distillers. Washington produced his own brandy and whiskey at Mount Vernon, and he and his fellow revolutionaries imbibed vast quantities of spirits as they plotted independence and developed the machinery of American governance. Saloons were so heavily associated with revolutionary ideas, in fact, that they became known as "nurseries of freedom."
Saloons were where the ideas that would define America were first hashed out, presumably via the kind of rowdy, unstructured conversation that tends to happen in bars. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that America was imagined, organized, and eventually built over booze consumed in saloons. Without saloons, America—or at least America as we know it—might not exist.
In the century and a half after the founding, saloons continued to be a key social institution, places of business, leisure, and community for many men—until Prohibition wiped them out, destroying in one fell stroke the cultural and economic infrastructure they had long provided.
COVID-19 was the greatest disruption to America's bar scene since Prohibition. Some 110,000 eating and drinking establishments, affecting an estimated 2.5 million jobs, closed either temporarily or permanently during the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association. This too represented a great cultural and economic loss.
It wasn't just the bars that went away, and with them the jobs and economic activity directly associated with the business of slinging drinks. There was a dramatic reduction in the casual conversations and fateful meetings these bars hosted, and the potentially valuable ideas those interactions could have generated.
This sort of thing is hard to quantify. How much is any given bar conversation worth? In most cases, probably not all that much. A better question is: How much are all of them worth, in aggregate? That is possible to measure—not by looking at today's pandemic-adjacent bar closures but by looking back to the closest analogue, Prohibition, and the decline in innovation that attended the shuttering of America's saloons.
The cost to innovation was just one of many associated with Prohibition, and it took nearly a century, and some unusually clever data gathering, to pin it down. That in turn provides a strong hint that the costs and consequences of the current pandemic are broader and deeper than we can currently measure or see. They may well take years to fully discover. To begin to understand them, we first have to understand America's long love affair with saloons.