Review: America Walks into a Bar, by Christine Sismondo

Disclosure 1: I am very late with this review. Reason being not the appeal of this read, but rather the odd way my life sometimes rolls. Basically what it boils down to is that I read AWIAB in two parts, then procrastinated dreadfully until now.

Disclosure 2: I know and like Christine Sismondo. She is a lovely lady with a wickedly sharp sense of humour. I have tried, however, not to let that influence my review, although of course it has.

Now, the review…

I have read more than one or two books about the history of bars and taverns in America, including the terrific but heavily academic Taverns and Drinking in Early America, by Sharon V. Salinger, which Sismondo cites in her extensive bibliography. My conclusion from this experience is that it is very difficult to be both illuminating and entertaining in such a tome.

Somehow, with the exception of the first chunk of Part I, Sismondo manages to do this, and it is to her enormous credit that this is a remarkably info-packed book that seems like a light read.

What AWIAB does is guide readers through the development of American society, cultural and political, via the barroom, and in this lies Sismondo’s greatest deception. For although this book is billed “A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops,” it is actually more a history of revolution and emancipation, suffrage and gay rights, all viewed through the prism of the nation’s watering holes.

So while we are learning about such barroom “innovations” as the trough in front of the bar that allowed men to – ahem! – relieve themselves without needing to abandon their drink, or the glass-free bar that charged only for as much booze as you could slurp through a hose in one breath, we are also getting the inside story on how America came to be what it is today. And also the inside scoop on the many, many interesting characters who got it there.

What may surprise readers is how closely American bar history and assorted other histories intertwine and, indeed, are to a large extent dependent upon one another. But despite the lengthy history of Puritanism, temperance and prohibition in the United States, the nation has never been able to divorce its development from the seductive allure of the demon drink, and as Sismondo teaches us in America Walks into a Bar, stands today as a better country for it.

One Reply to “Review: America Walks into a Bar, by Christine Sismondo”

  1. Excellent review, Steve.

    I’ve always wondered about that channel or runnel under the bar, I know I’ve seen it in some English pubs too. I always assumed they were designed so that soiled sawdust and other detritus of the day could be swept with water into the runnel to be channeled easily out of the bar. It sounds like that wasn’t the real (or main) reason though and I’ll be interested to see her reasons why.

    I will definitely buy this book, it sounds essential reading for those interested in the social and cultural history of alcoholic beverages and their main dispensing points, bars and pubs.


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