What Foretells “a Humid Wind”?

A Bibulous American in Europe, early 1933

Guy Hickok, Ohio-born, Oberlin-graduated, had long been bureau chief for the Daily Eagle in Paris. In February 1933 the paper carried his wry survey of typical European drinking establishments. The object – to guide Americans in the choice of bar to be allowed post-Prohibition.

Of course Prohibition had not yet ended, but as Hickok noted, the air was “humid” and there was talk of “percentages”, or alcohol content in the beer to come. He forecast that normally a “congressional junket” would be organized to do a grand bar tour to help frame the new laws, but given this would provide fodder for “comic papers and cartoonists” he would do the job himself, for only the price of an Eagle.

Throughout the piece the evil of the old American saloon is a given. It seems to have been a societal idée reçue at the time, one of those shibboleths few dissented from, even the “wets”. So it was a question of what type of bar, different from the old saloon, would suit American ways post-Repeal.

The same question was debated endlessly in brewing technical journals – one of the few things they had to talk about during Prohibition – other specialized, and popular, publications, and Congressional klatches.

Hickok profiled three countries’ drinking places: U.K., France, and Germany. His profile of the last two is positive, of Britain rather gloomy. Here, he falls on the naysaying side of American journalists who had investigated British public houses since the mid-19th century. As I’ve shown in numerous postings, some perceived the deep hold the public house had on the public imagination, and the positive role in general the pub performed.

Others tended to focus, as some British reformers did, on perceived iniquities such as public drunkenness, street disorder, and family dislocation. Hickok’s pub survol is overly superficial in our view. Even the relatively plush West End pubs of London received at most a lukewarm nod.

Of Germany, he stated what many American observers had (not quite all, but most) since the 19th century. The beer gardens and indoor bars were resorts for the family, with no intoxication evident, providing food as well which most partook except (he said) lovers preoccupied more with themselves, and music to soothe guests for a respite. Of the beer he states little except that it was “bright”, apparently in contrast to the English type for which he had only negative remarks.

A “yeasty” odour in the bar, and overflowing glasses, distressed him in particular.

The French bars get the most attention, not surprisingly given Hickok was based in Paris for 15 years, from 1918-1933. Much of what he states applies no less today, as I had the chance to see during a five-week sojourn in France recently. Most arrivals tend to have one drink, and often coffee or lemonade instead of alcohol although today Coke or another soft drink often substitutes for lemonade or Orangina.

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

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

Certainly, the zinc still exists, I saw examples in Paris, and some still specialize in wines especially Beaujolais, the traditional wine of Paris although made far afield. But there are ever fewer of them, and for the first time of many visits to Paris, I never entered one. Occasionally you see a zinc bar in a usual cafe, transplanted there to provide a furnishing both evocative of an earlier time and (presumably) economical.

I’ll conclude in relation to his remark that in larger German cities the speakeasy and American nightclub were being imitated. Although he doesn’t mention it, Paris had similar examples, London too. As soon as cocktails became fashionable internationally, which occurred well before WW I, establishments to dispense them sprang up everywhere including Europe’s capitals.

Today, the craft beer bar does similar service. Ideas popular in one place take root quickly elsewhere, the phenomenon is not new and drinking customs provide a perfect example. He said nothing more of these places though, understanding that Americans hardly needed guidance in their ways!

N.B. A bonus in Hickok’s sketch, one that sets it apart from similar treatments, is the reproduction of various artworks, lending a photo-essay touch albeit quaintly in this case. The S. Van Abbé shown is particularly good, an intaglio drypoint that pinpoints a typical tourist and bar staff encounter – each trying to understand the other. The tourists appear to be a father and daughter, no doubt on the grand tour. See this interesting biographical note on S.[Salomon] Van Abbé.