Down The Pub

A Visit to the Local, Streamliner-style

I have, off and on, chronicled how the notion of the “English pub”, aka “English tavern”, aka “English Inn”, persists in the American social pattern. These terms were and remain happily mixed in the American mind, without much regard to the original distinctions, which were quite real at one time.

The appeal has existed since the American project began, despite the rift with Britain over Independence.  Perhaps because the pub embodies hospitality and benignity of spirit, the appeal remained strong in this case.

The British roots of the pub were sometimes disguised in the ambiguous term “Colonial”, hence Colonial tavern, Colonial punch bowl, Colonial nog, etc. Still, the British origins continued to be understood by many. As memories of the American Revolution and 1812 War softened, the connection of the American pub to its British origins was later made more manifest, e.g. in building style, menu items, entertainment offered.

I have examined many examples of the British-style pub in the post-Civil War, Gilded, and 1930s eras. I still have much to write, notably on the more qualified (but still indulgent) attitude to the public house in the 1910s, when the Temperance campaign was at its peak.

Looking at the Eisenhower and Space Age 1950s, this era seems least propitious to find a continuing appeal. After all, Prohibition had been over for some 20 years. America had re-established a legalized drinking culture and its related institutions such as the corner bar, roadhouse, and cocktail lounge. America seemingly didn’t require fresh inspiration from overseas.

The 1933-1939 period was a different matter, as legal drinking was still new and evolving. The English inn provided in that period a perfect model for a renewed American bar, one type anyway.* By the rocket age, the “olde English” idea of pub hospitality could seem old hat.

Rather, in the 1950s the chromed, circular-chaired, Naugahyded lounge emerged as the maximal node of comfort. Dry Martinis were sold there, refined in the previous 50 years and the perfect antidote to Atomic Age anxieties. Men and women who had served in the forces during WW II weren’t likely to pine for the cramped English pub and warm bitter beer of their recollection.

Yet, English-theme taverns continued to operate in ever-cosmopolitan New York. Even in the American West, with its own traditions of drinking, notably the whiskey saloon, there was evidence of an enduring appeal of the comfy British tavern.

It hadn’t quite gone away, in other words, and never really has in the last 200 years although I think the apogee was reached between about 1965 and 2010. Yes, “craft beer bar”, I’m looking at you. The phenomenon has even extended to Britain itself. At one time Britain didn’t take lessons from foreigners in what the drinking place should look like. Or the beer. It was rather the other way around, but that’s a different topic.

In 1954 when Union Pacific Railroad placed new locomotives and consists (the related cars and equipment) on the Chicago-Denver run, it featured for the club-lounge “The Pub, a sleek affair meant to resemble an English country tavern. In a sense, then, this went against the prevailing shiny cocktail bar image and appealed to the nostalgic sense.

What beers were served there, we wonder? America by 1954 had virtually abandoned its 19th-century India Pale, stock, and still ales, beers descended from U.K. tradition. Apart a superficial architectural allusion, the American-Anglo pub in 1954 offered mainly a misty romance. The core ale and porter – the things that fuelled and originally made the British pub what it was – had ceased to be sold in most American drinking places

Hopefully the bar list for The Pub will emerge. Meanwhile, we can ponder this Norman Rockwell-style vision, from a Union Pacific postcard of the period (see Note below for source):

Strapwork, casements, boarded walls and floor, Toby jugs – all check. The Day-Glo cushioning does kind of jar (no pun intended), a stylized version probably of the chintz or crushed velvet cushions familiar in Victorian English pubs.

The English pub, as the “Irish” chain pubs that followed, have remained a cultural touchstone in America. Even Eisenhower America had its version.

Note: the image above, identified as in the public domain, was sourced from this informative Wikipedia account of the City of Denver, the train service mentioned.


*See for example this advertisement by the Windmill Tavern in Brooklyn in 1933, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Guilelessly offered is “ye olde golden lager”.