Americans Improve An English Design


The Bell In Hand tavern in Boston, which I discussed in my last post, was mentioned in a number of popular and social histories of Boston into the mid-20th century. One is Rambles Around Old Boston by Edwin M. Bacon (1921), from which the above illustration is taken. (Image courtesy HathiTrust).

The pub carries on to this day and is certainly one of the oldest continuing licensed establishments in the country if not the oldest.

In my last post, I mentioned that an early owner, John Leischman, was credited in a 1915 trade article with installing ale hand pumps from England in 1851, and indeed that these were first of their kind in the U.S.

billies-bar-1936Earlier, I have written of hand pumps in famed McSorley Ale House in New York City. The pumps are still there, but haven’t been in use it seems since c. 1914 – this is based on information given me by a server there some years ago. Also in the link above I wrote of a Manhattan pub called Billie’s Bar. A handsome 1930s photo (included here from that article) shows a set of hand pumps on the back bar in a curved housing of mid-1800s English design – McSorley’s has the same – but it is unclear if they were still used to dispense beer.

The use of hand pumps to raise beer from the cellar in the United Kingdom accompanied, indeed facilitated, continued service of cask-conditioned ale. This is beer allowed to complete a secondary conditioning in its container of service, unfiltered and unpasteurized (but generally fined to drop clear), with no CO2 or other gas added. Since ale brewing in the U.S. is as old as the Republic and before that was a Colonial practice, it is natural English equipment would have been used occasionally to dispense it when available.

The hand pump operates on a vacuum-and-piston method, similar to the iron pumps used to raise water in the country. An engineer called Bramah perfected it c. 1800 and its use developed from about then including for porter. 1851 seems perhaps late to bring the equipment to America, but we must take sources as they are and failing further information, we have authority that their first use was in 1851 at Bell In Hand in Boston. (A brewing trade journal is not a bad source and Western Brewer must have had a confidant with a long memory, probably the current owner or a long-time customer).

McSorley’s was established in what is now the East Village, Manhattan around 1860 – the founding date differs in various discussions. Certainly though neither McSorley’s nor the predecessor to Billie’s Bar existed in 1851 much less 1795, date of founding of The Bell In Hand.

In the (seemingly) pen-and-ink drawing above made some time after 1851, three hand pumps are shown. They are not immediately noticeable even to a practiced eye, but interested readers should click twice for a full resolution.

The bartender is drawing a pot of beer from the pull to the left (his right). In the 1800s the Bell In Hand used pewter mugs, as did many public houses in England at the time. You can clearly see the mugs and the spouts from the taps.

From left to right, the first two handles are shorter and wider than the third. The first on the left bears a smiling face, Toby Jug-style. A unique feature of these hand pumps is that a goose neck metal lever is fitted operated by an oval handle probably made of wood. Clearly the bartender grasped the small wood handle to move the vertical lever rather than holding it directly. Why was this done?

The standard levers were probably too low to be easily manipulated by tall American men, and/or the retrofit allowed a pull with less effort than grasping those handles. When hundreds of pints were being served in a day, efficiency in service was an important consideration. Also, note how low the counter was, probably reflecting late 1700s designs. According to various accounts, at least for its first move the bar took its furnishings and re-installed them at Pie Alley, so the original height may have been maintained.

In a British brewing journal in the 1900s, in fact one I’ve discussed earlier on compressed air dispense of beer, it was noted that the hand pump design was deficient from the point of view of what we would now call ergonomics. It is no surprise that it was adapted in some cases, although the pre-Prohibition Bell In Hand may be a unique example. I have seen a patent from the later 1800s claiming rights in a scimitar lever design – again the idea of an easier pull on the beer. Whether it came into use I can’t say. Certainly today the typical hand pump looks like the same you see in countless 1800s and early 1900s illustrations.

How was beer served in Boston before the hand pumps? It had to be straight from the barrel, either in the basement with pot boys bringing beer in pitchers to the bar, or if there was room on the main level, from a convenient place there. Some cask beer is still served straight from the wood today. Sometimes the barrel is placed on the back bar or the front bar, but generally it is too large for that. Some bars order a smaller keg (sorry) so it can be placed somewhere on the bar.

In the 1915 Western Brewer article, the hand pumps in the “comfortable and cozy” Bell In Hand were made the subject of particular comment and called “treasured”. This was indirectly a tribute to the worth of cask-conditioned ale and porter, beers the English brought to America and some other parts of the world where Empire penetrated.

In the result, the palatability and consistency of draft lager proved a more marketable proposition than ale and porter. German-American brewers ran with it and the boon companion, sediment-free bottled beer. But ale and porter never quite left the American scene. With the revival of brewing from the 1970s, ale in general including as cask-dispensed has come back big time. There are many places around the country, and Canada, you can get it with the accompanying hand pumps – the same equipment John Leischman brought to Boston in 1851 from the old sod.

Footnote: in this study (1925) of old Boston inns by Mary Harrod Northend, the author makes an amusing reference to an old Boston custom, this would be pre-Revolutionary days. Inns offered a free drink to a new customer. The mug was gaily festooned with a flowers design. After draining half the beer, the drinker saw in the base a green frog leering up at him! The little animal was harmless, of porcelain, but no doubt the punter received a shock. An insight into early Yankee humour, perhaps. Presumably such practices fell away by the 1800s when lager made the Americans … sociable.