Drive-ins, Tail-Fins, and the Pub

“The Local”, Streamliner-style

I’ve discussed how the notion of “English pub”, sometimes called English tavern or English inn, has persisted in the American imagination. These terms were and still are mixed and mashed, without much regard to the original distinctions, quite real at one time.

Each form of saying it conveyed the same ideas: of hospitality, relaxation, benignity.

This appeal has endured since the start of the American project, despite the rift with Britain that launched it, in other words.

In America the pub’s British origins were at first masked by the ambiguous term “Colonial”, hence Colonial tavern, Colonial punch bowl, Colonial nog, etc.

As memories of the Revolution and 1812 War faded, the British origins became less disguised. Pub building styles, food offered, and not least (non-lager) pub beer all showed this influence, through the 19th century. I’ve recorded numerous examples in these pages.

The American saloon, which assumed a Germanic form in some cities, developed a distinct character, but the idea of British-tinged pub, vending ales, remained part of the culture. Many examples existed on the ground in the Northeast and elsewhere in the country.

The Eisenhower and Space Ages of the 1950s seem least propitious to continue the appeal, however. After all, Prohibition had ended 20 years before. America had re-established a legalized drinking culture via newly- established corner bars, roadhouses, and cocktail lounges. They had usually frank American character and did not need fresh inspiration from overseas.

But still the English inn remained a reassuring model, in some ways an ideal. Some new bars borrowed the imagery and iconography. A bit of this older culture even survived in the way lager beer was marketed.

This advertisement by the Windmill Tavern in Brooklyn, N.Y., 1933, guilelessly offered “ye olde golden lager”.

But we all know the Fifties was the rocket age: how did “olde English” fit in now? Indeed, the chrome, circular-chaired, Naugahyde lounge suggested, nowhere. Icy-dry Martinis, refined to perfection during the previous 50 years, were the perfect antidote to Atomic Age anxiety.

The veterans of WW II were unlikely now to pine for the cramped comfort and warmish beer they recalled from UK pubs during the war. Yet, English-style taverns subsisted at least in cosmopolitan centres. Some were being reborn, as we shall see presently.

In the West where the whiskey saloon was brought to maximum American pitch, the British-style pub still endured. The Cock and Bull tavern on the Sunset Strip, L.A., where the Moscow Mule was invented around 1946, is an example.

This 1987 Los Angeles Times article described it as a “mock English tavern”. In sum the English tavern has never gone away, in the last 200 years. Indeed from 1965 until perhaps recently I would argue it had its apogee. The plethora of English and Irish pubs, some in well-organized chain form, attest to this.

The craft beer bar has assumed its own form, often minimalist in design, and has even spread to the UK. But the British pub idea is far from tapped out here, it is anchored in North American folk memory.

Let’s consider now a clear, 1950s manifestation. In 1954 the Union Pacific Railroad placed new locomotives and consists (the related cars and equipment) on its Chicago-Denver run. Featured as its club-lounge was “The Pub, a sleek affair meant to suggest a country English tavern. So this idea went against the prevailing ethic of shiny cocktail bars with high circular chairs.

What beer did it serve? America (and Canada) had virtually abandoned the “heavy” 19th-century India Pale, stock, and still ales descended from U.K. tradition. The core ale and porter, that fuelled the British pub and gave it much of its character, were mostly replaced by an increasingly uniform type of lager.

But the cozy, wood-clad comfort of a British pub could be replicated, stylized to be sure, but suggestive enough of the real thing. An American veteran in the train might recall the real thing they patronized when stationed in Britain during the war.

The Norman Rockwell-style image below, from a Union Pacific postcard, gives an idea what he saw.



We see strapwork, casements, boarded walls, Toby jugs. The Day-Glo upholstery does kind of jar, a contemporary rendering of the chintz or crushed velvet still often associated with the British pub in America.

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