American History, Seen Through A Shot Glass The United States as we know it was born in a bar, according to a new history of drinking in America. Author Christine Sismondo says most of the major events of the Revolution were plotted in colonial taverns, the start of a grand old American tradition
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American History, Seen Through A Shot Glass

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American History, Seen Through A Shot Glass

American History, Seen Through A Shot Glass

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GUY RAZ, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz, and this was where the American Revolution was born...


RAZ: a bar.

CHRISTINE SISMONDO: The inner logic of the tavern rabble-rousers was in fact what produced the early American public sphere. And after the revolution, America continued to redefine itself in that same space, be it the country's numerous taverns, saloons, juke joints, grog shots, blind pigs, speakeasies, nightclubs and eventually post-Prohibition bars of all stripes. America, as we know it, was born in a bar.

RAZ: That's Christine Sismondo, author of our book today. It's called "America Walks Into a Bar." And it's a look at American history through the bottom of a pint glass, a chronicle of all the rebellions and social movements that were born in that most humble of places, the bar. In fact, the very first British colonists who arrived in the New World had one immediate priority, to build taverns right away.

SISMONDO: Sounds absurd, doesn't it? The idea, what? What are you going to build first? Oh, I don't know. How about a tavern? But it kind of served as the initial infrastructure while everyone was waiting for everything to be built properly. So if you needed to go have your court matter settled or if you needed to think about buying another piece of property or anything that came up, you would go to the tavern, find out some news. They became great communication centers. I think that might be their greatest role.

RAZ: You take us, obviously, to the beginnings of the American Revolution and a lot of what happens, right, the - sort of the outrage after the Stamp Act was introduced, the planning of the Boston Tea Party, these take place in houses of drink.

SISMONDO: It's kind of stunning to see just how much does take place there. And the tavern is this great place that you can use for all of these wonderful things but it's also where people start to talk about what they're unhappy about. The tavern is really considered the cradle of the revolution. And this was where people organized. This is where people aired their grievances. This is where people spread political propaganda.

People strategized, recruited, and, I mean, it's really quite fantastic everything that happened in many, many taverns for, say, about 65 years leading up to the Revolution.

RAZ: Obviously, taverns became a gathering point for political parties. And machine politics really starts to kind of grow out of some of these bars and saloons, particularly in the Northeast, right?

SISMONDO: Yeah. It becomes a real problem. And I think to some degree you could argue that machine politics begins as early as the 1720s with the establishment of the early Boston caucus. But it becomes entrenched in the 19th century, and that's part of what everybody gets really concerned about, which is this idea that the rum, Romanism and rebellion that comes out of the saloons and that the political system is being completely controlled in major urban centers by the buying of votes through alcohol.

So that's one major reason to start to root for Prohibition if you're on the other side.

RAZ: And Prohibition was a movement that was fueled in large part by Southerners. There was a - this kind of loose alliance between progressive Northerners and quite reactionary Southerners.

SISMONDO: The problems don't seem so fraught in the South until about the turn of the century, and then there's a real concern rising up out of the union of the Ku Klux Klan and the Anti-Saloon League and a real kind of a hysteria over the idea that African-Americans are using saloons as places to kind of gather political power.

RAZ: The movement to ban alcohol in America really particularly affected immigrant groups because, as you write, the pub was really one of the few places where communities from the old country, so to speak, could come and gather and reconnect.

SISMONDO: Yeah. And I don't know if you've ever been to the Tenement Museum in New York or...

RAZ: Yeah. It's amazing. It really is.

SISMONDO: Isn't it?

RAZ: Yeah.

SISMONDO: Yeah. And you get this sense of how tiny and claustrophobic and crowded and awful these spaces are, and then you imagine what it would be like to go out into the saloon, into this public space that is relatively spacious compared with where you're living or where you're working or, you know, even the crowded streets - that you have this sort of respite from the grind of daily life and how important that public space must've been to people.

And especially you're working six days a week and you only have Sunday off, and that's your one day, and all of sudden, there are these groups who are rooting for closings on Sundays. It's hard not to see that as being basically an anti-immigrant policy.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Christine Sismondo. She's the author of the new book "America Walks Into a Bar: a Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies, and Grog Shops." Jumping ahead, you sort of wind the book up with a look at the kind of places most people didn't want to admit existed for a long time in this country: gay bars.


RAZ: You write that the gay liberation movement could not have happened without bars, without pubs.

SISMONDO: Yeah, absolutely. It's a very, very important space for the gay community during the late '40s and 1950's as there was a crackdown on sort of this family value, an early kind of family values campaign. You start to see the gay community really persecuted.

And so gay bars don't start off as a political thing, an overtly political thing, but they wind up becoming very important centers for people to get to meet each other. Of course, they're also harassed by the police, and they're shut down. The average lifespan of a bar in San Francisco was about 6 months in the early 1960's and they would get shut down by police. In New York, they were run by the mob. Of course, the Stonewall Inn was run by the mob, which is where the Stonewall riots happened, the thing that sparked the gay pride revolution.

RAZ: And that essentially could only have happened because bars and pubs were places where gay men felt comfortable congregating.

SISMONDO: Yeah, that's right. And so I think that's really what my book is arguing, is that taverns and saloons and bars used by various groups are really important in terms of freedom of association which I think is perhaps the whole point of freedom in some ways. I think it's the whole sense that we have the right to congregate, to associate, and to affect political change. And that, I think, is really born in the bar. And it's sort of - it's the place where we try to keep it alive.

The tavern, the saloon, my neighborhood bar is where I go when I have a problem, frequently. And I know a lot of people there, and frequently, they'll help me out. And I think if you think about the tavern and the saloon in that way today, then you wonder what you would be cutting out if we lost something like that

RAZ: That's Christine Sismondo. She's the author of "America Walks Into a Bar: a Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies, and Grog Shops." She joined me from Toronto. Christine Sismondo, thank you so much.

SISMONDO: Thank you very much.

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