Tales from the Saloon
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Tales from the Saloon

The fundamental appeal of the saloon to its working-class customers was social and recreational. The saloonkeeper presided over and fostered an atmosphere of good-hearted, informal socializing, in part by supplying jokes and stories. For those whose own supply of humor ran low, the A. V. Newton’s Saloon Keeper’s Companion provided bar owners with about fifty pages of assorted jokes and stories with which to amuse their customers. The jokes most often ridiculed hypocritical temperance advocates, dishonest police and politicians, unsophisticated and easily fooled clergy and church-goers, and stupid or pompous judges. Included here are two brief excerpts from The Saloon Keeper’s Companion. The first, “The Use of Slander,” expressed a cynical view of politicians that seems remarkably contemporary. The second, “Farmer and the Crow,” wryly satirized the bartender’s own profession. It also seems likely that bawdier, masculine humor circulated through nineteenth-century saloons, but genteel conventions probably prevented authors like A. V. Newton from publishing such jokes and stories.

"Farmer and the Crow": The Saloon Keeper’s Joke on Himself

A Farmer, who was pestered with crows, hit upon the plan of soaking some corn in whiskey and placing it in the field so that the crows would get drunk, and then he could easily close on them. After soaking some corn all night, he put a bountiful supply in the field the next morning, and in about two hours he went to see how things were progressing, and mark what followed. One old crow, a little larger than the rest, had gathered up and taken possession of all the soaked corn, and had built a himself a bar out of some clods of earth, and was retailing the whiskey-soaked corn to the other crows, charging them three grains of sprouted corn for one soaked grain. He hadn’t the gall to kill creatures that acted so much like human beings.

"The Uses of Slander": The Saloon Keeper Satirizes the Politician

Slander is often beneficial to the victim, particularly when the victim is a candidate for Congress. We recollect a case in point. A man somewhere out west, “got sent to Washington.” He was totally unqualified in every respect, for the position. A friend at Washington once asked him:

“ How the deuce did you manage to get elected?”

“ I stole a pig.”

“ Hey?—What?—How?—is stealing pigs a qualification to Congress?”

" No; but as soon as it was known the papers on the other side took it up, and of course ourn had to defend me. A great noise was made about it—we called it an attempt to destroy the spotless reputation of an innocent man for party purposes—the people got roused and I got in."

At the next election his opponent was elected. His friend meeting him one day, asked how it happened.

“ Oh! blast the feller!” he replied, "he smelt the rat, and got the start of me. He stole a sheep!"

But it is not necessary to be absolutely slandered for vices. Congressional honors may occasionally be achieved by a reputation for comparatively trifling defects, or even a lack of accomplishments. We remember a well known Congressman, equally celebrated for his fastness and his talent, who, after being considerably used up on several games of billiards, was roundly told that “he might be a smart man but one thing was certain—he hadn’t been sent to Congress for his playing.”

“ That’s whar you’re all wrong,” he responded, in a cool drawl. “It was just that elected me, and nothing else!”

“ Losing at billiards?”

" Yes, I always lost every game; everybody wanted to play with me, and I let 'em! That made me very popular. Sometimes it cost me a hundred dollars a day—but I got elected!"

Source: A. V. Newton, The Saloon Keeper’s Companion, and Book of Reference, (Worcester, Mass.: West and Lee Game and Printing Co. 1875), 25–27.