The Drive-in, Tail fins, and … the Pub (Part I)

“The Local”, Streamliner-style

I’ve discussed how the notion of “English pub”, aka English tavern or English inn, persists in the American social pattern. The terms were and remain mixed in the American mind, without much regard to the original distinctions, quite real at one time.

Each way of saying it connotes the same ideas: hospitality, relaxation, benignity of spirit.

The appeal has endured since the start of the American project, despite the rift with Britain over Independence.

The British origins of the pub were 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 character was made more manifest. Building style, food items, and types of beer served all showed this through the 19th century, of which I’ve given numerous examples.

To be sure the saloon, which assumed a Germanic form in many places, had a distinct character, but the “alehouse” idea was still strong. Many examples existed in the Northeast and elsewhere.

(Canada was essentially similar, but the present context is the United States).

The Eisenhower and Space Age 1950s seem least propitious for its continuing appeal, though. After all, Prohibition had ended 20 years before. America had re-established a legalized drinking culture via the newly built corner bar, roadhouse, and cocktail lounge. These took increasingly American forms and didn’t need fresh inspiration from overseas.

But while the new culture was still forming, the English inn remained a reassuring model. And some new bars borrowed its imagery and iconography. A bit of the old 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 the Fifties was the rocket age: how did “olde English” fit now?

Indeed the chrome, circular-chaired, Naugahyde lounge suggested, nowhere. Icy dry Martinis in the latter – refined during the previous 50 years to ultimate Americanness – were the perfect antidote to Atomic Age anxiety. It attracted among others men and women who had served in WW II. The veterans were unlikely, now, to pine for the cramped comfort and warmish beer of mid-40s memory.

Yet, English-style taverns continued at least in cosmopolitan centres. In the West, where the whiskey saloon was brought to maximum American pitch, the idea endured as well. 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. From 1965 until recently, it arguably had its apogee. The chain English and Irish beer bars and many independent versions are the proof.

The “craft beer bar” assumed its own form, often minimalist in design, and (yikes) even spread to the U.K. But the English pub idea is far from snuffed out, it’s anchored in the North American folk memory.

Let’s look now at a frank 1950s manifestation.

In 1954 Union Pacific Railroad placed new locomotives and consists (the related cars and equipment) on its Chicago-Denver run. Featured as the club-lounge was “The Pub, a sleek affair meant to suggest a country English tavern. This went against the prevailing ethic of shiny cocktail bar and high circular chairs.

What beers 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 – the very things that fuelled the British pub and gave it much of its character – had ended as items of commerce in America.

So that was gone, the odd import ale on a menu, perhaps, apart.

But a cozy, wood-clad comfort remained, stylized to be sure, but suggestive still of the real thing. An ex-airman strolling through the train, remembering the pubs of Luton, say, might have a gladdened feeling.

Hopefully the bar list for The Pub will emerge. The Norman Rockwell-style image below, from a Union Pacific postcard, gives an idea what he saw.



Strapwork, casements, boarded walls, Toby jugs – all check out. The Day-Glo upholstery does kind of jar, a contemporary rendering of the chintz or crushed velvet associated with the Victorian pub.

And so, even in the space age, the pub remained as cultural touchstone Stateside.

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.