Down The Pub

A Visit to the Local, Streamliner-style

I have off and on been chronicling the appeal in the American social pattern of the “English pub” aka “English tavern” aka “English Inn”. The terms were all happily mixed and mashed in the American mind without regard to the original distinctions.

In truth, the appeal has manifested since the beginning of the American project, despite the ostensible rift Independence caused with British customs and manners. Perhaps because the pub embodies hospitality and hence benignity, Auld Country associations have remained strong here.

The origins were sometimes disguised in the oft’ ambiguous term “Colonial”, hence Colonial tavern, Colonial punch bowl, Colonial nog, and so on. Still, the British origins continued to be recognized and were made patent again as memories of the American Revolution and the 1812 War softened.

I have examined manifestations in the post-Civil War era, Gilded Era, and 1930s, and still have much to write, notably on the more straightened (but still indulgent) attitude to the English public house in the 1910s, when Temperance sentiment was at its peak.

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

1933-1939 was a different matter, when in the diffident period following Repeal the English inn provided the perfect model for a renewed American bar, one type anyway.* This was due to its traditional and congenial associations. By the rocket age, the idea could seem old hat.

In the 1950s the chrome, circular-chaired, Naugahyded lounge emerged as a maximal node of comfort. Dry Martinis were sold there, refined in the last 50 years and the perfect antidote to Atomic Age anxieties. Men and women in the service during WW II weren’t likely to pine for olde English pub atmosphere and warm bitter beer, and the designers stayed away from that motif.

Stayed away mostly, but not entirely. You could still find English-theme taverns in ever-cosmopolitan New York. Even in the American West, with its own tradition of drinking bar – setting aside where the term saloon actually came from – there was evidence of the enduring appeal of the comfy British tavern.

It hadn’t quite gone away, and never has really in the last 200 years although I think its apogee was reached here between about 1965 and 2010. Yes, “craft beer bar”, I’m looking at you, now successfully transplanted to Britain. At one time Albion didn’t take lessons in what the drinking place should look like. Or the beer. It was rather the other way around. That was then.

In 1954 when Union Pacific Railroad placed new locomotives and consists (the related cars and equipment) on its Chicago-Denver run, it featured as club-lounge The Pub, a sleek affair meant to resemble an English country tavern.

I wonder what beers were served there. 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 modern American Anglo pub offered mainly a misty romance. Retention of the core ale and porter – the things that fuelled and originally made the pub what it was – was felt unnecessary.

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 obtrude but it’s a stylized version surely of the chintz or crushed velvet cushions once standard in Victorian English pubs.

The “English” pub, as the “Irish” one that followed often as part of a chain, remains 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”.



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