A Humid Wind

Bibulous American in Europe

In 1933 Guy Hickok, Ohio-born, Oberlin-graduated, had long been bureau chief of the Daily Eagle in Paris.

In February that year it carried his wry survey of European drinking establishments. The object: to guide Americans for the kind of bar to be permitted once Prohibition ended.

As Hickok noted, the air was “humid”, with talk of “percentages”, or alcohol content, for beer once made legal again.

He imagined that normally a “congressional junket” would be organized to tour European bars for this purpose, but as it would only provide fodder for “comic papers and cartoonists”, he would do the job himself. That way the citizen got the answers needed just for the price of the Daily Eagle.

Throughout the piece the nefarious nature of the pre-Prohibition saloon is assumed. It was an idée reçue, a shibboleth few dissented from, even the “wets”. So everyone accepted that a new type of bar had to emerge.

The same issue was discussed in brewing journals during Prohibition – one of the few things they had to talk about – and in other forums – magazines, Congress, etc.

Hickok profiled drinking places in Britain, France and Germany. His profile of the last two was positive, for Britain, rather gloomy.

He fell on the naysaying side of American journalists who had inquired into British pubs since the late 1800s. While some appreciated the deep affection held by the people for the public house, other scribes focused on its iniquities such as public drunkenness, street disorders, and family upset.

Hickok’s English survey was rather summary, even within this tradition. Plush West End pubs in London, which were hardly unrespectable, received only a lukewarm nod.

Of Germany, he noted, as many American observers since the 19th century, that beer gardens and indoor bars were resorts of the family, with drunkeness mostly absent.

They served food as well which most partook of. Resident bands helped soothe the spirit. Of German beer he states little excepting it was “bright”, in contrast presumably to some English beer for which he had only denigrating remarks.

A “yeasty” odour at the English bar, and overflowing glasses, discomfited him in particular! (Today hazy beer is regarded as a sign of authenticity).

French bars received the most attention, not surprising since Hickok was based in Paris for 15 years, from 1918 until 1933. Much of what he says applies equally today, as I had the chance to note during a sojourn in France recently.

His two types of French bar were the cafe, still the main type although sometimes called a brasserie, and the zinc, a bar with counter originally made of that material, which tended to serve wine. It was mainly a workman’s resort, then.

He refers to decorous morning drinking, by no means a rare event today in France, often a small beer or two.

The zinc still exists, I saw examples in Paris, and some still specialize in wine especially Beaujolais varieties, the traditional tipple of Paris.

But there are fewer of them now, versus the specialty wine bar in general. It might serve tapas and a wide variety of wines, and tends to an upmarket trade.

N.B. A bonus in Hickok’s sketch is the reproduction of various artworks, lending a photo-essay touch. The S. Van Abbé is particularly good, an intaglio drypoint that portrays a typical tourist and bar staff encounter – each trying to understand the other. See this interesting biographical note on S.[Salomon] Van Abbé.