Today the terms bar, tavern, saloon, and inn are often used interchangeably. While each may have started with different amenities, they have evolved over the years to cater to many of the same needs of travelers.
Through the centuries, businesses that offer lodgings and serve alcoholic beverages have gone by a number of names.
What’s In a Name?
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what the name of each establishment means. As a traveler in North America during colonial times, what could you expect from these different types of public houses? As you moved farther west, the names may have changed, but many of the offerings stayed the same.
Bars were primarily for purchasing and consuming alcohol. They were named as such because patrons literally sidled up to a tall counter with a metal bar around it to order and pick up their drinks. These days, a bar can suggest any number of things, from a venue for entertainment and drinks to a full-service restaurant that offers liquor, cocktails, wine, and beer.
A simple, hole-in-the-wall business serving alcohol is often referred to as a dive bar. It may not be known for extra bells and whistles, but patrons are usually loyal to their favorite. Whether it’s the pricing, the atmosphere, or that one perfect menu item, a dive bar can still be a gem. They can be a great way to a feel for local culture and have a place to stop where everybody knows your name.
Some bars have evolved to include more than just alcohol as the main attraction. Many bars include venues for live shows, ranging from music to art galleries. In addition to a bartender pouring and serving drinks, more upscale or larger bars might also include servers to bring drinks to tables. Bouncers are also more commonplace in bars today, helping enforce the age limit of patrons and monitor behavior in the venue.
Whereas in the past, bars usually had a set price for all drinks regardless of the time of day or status of an individual, today bars have Happy Hour and cover charges. Happy Hour gives patrons a chance to enjoy discounted drinks at a designated time of day, while a cover charge is a flat fee a patron pays just for admission to the venue. On top of that, patrons still have to purchase drinks and food.
You might find a hotel, casino, or restaurant that has a cocktail lounge. This is a way to offer a high-class vibe for a bar, and offer specialty drinks to guests. Cocktail lounges may also offer live entertainment, from singers and dancers to live bands and comedy shows.
Also known as blind pigs or blind tigers, bars were referred to as speakeasies during prohibition in the United States. From 1920 – 1933, it was illegal to sell, buy, and consume alcohol. But that didn’t stop Americans from enjoying bars or nightclubs! These illegal establishments were called speakeasies as a nod to the British slang “speak softly shop.” In the early 1800s, this British phrase referred to a smuggler’s shop, of which you spoke softly so as not to bring attention to the illegal transactions being conducted.
The term blind pig referred to a bartender’s practice of charging patrons to see a supposed attraction at what was really just a bar. The alcohol was then considered complimentary, thus getting around the law that alcohol couldn’t be sold, or bought. An animal was often touted as the bar’s must-see attraction, hence the name blind pig.
Blind tiger was used to refer to the anonymous owner or operator of a speakeasy. The alcohol might be purchased from behind a curtain, or through a drawer in a wall that connected patrons to the bar behind it. Payment would be dropped into the drawer, which would then be pulled back by the blind tiger (bartender). The blind tiger would then deposit the drink into the drawer, and slide it back through the wall to the patron.
Historically, New England taverns were businesses at which travelers could stop for alcoholic drinks, food, and a place to stay. The word “tavern” is derived from the Latin word taberna, which means shed, workshop, stall, or pub. Eventually, the name “tavern” and “inn” came to mean the same thing- a public house where one could grab a bite and take load off.
Rather than offering a bar that patrons approached to order a drink, historic taverns designated a tapster to dispense drinks. Today, patrons themselves can be their own tapsters, accessing taps that connect to the drink of choice, such as beer in a keg.
In the 1800s, New England taverns served as community gathering places, where people came together to hold court, worship, trade goods, or even send mail. A tavern provided a location for farmers to talk crop prices, get the latest news, and relax. They served as a hub for talking politics, and as polling stations when it came time to vote. During wartimes, taverns may have served as military posts as well.
In those colonial times, many taverns were owned and operated by widowed women in the colonial era. It was a way for them to support themselves, and avoid becoming a financial burden on the county or their family members.
As local communities changed their infrastructure over time, taverns as a one-stop shop became less common. Trains were able to transport people more quickly and directly to their destination so there was less need for stopover lodging. Business owners opened specialized shops that offered a wider variety of goods than a tavern. The post office became a stand-alone business, eliminating the need to drop into the tavern for a pint and the post.
Known as the Western version of a New England tavern, saloons didn’t always provide rooms or meals for travelers in the wild west. They were solely a spot for whetting your whistle and maybe getting into a bit of mischief. If you think of old western movies, one of the first images that pop into your head is probably that of a cowboy sauntering through swinging saloon doors while looking around menacingly.
In the 1800s, if a private homeowner wanted to earn income, they often did so by opening up some rooms of their home for lodgers. By the late 1800s, saloon owners started offering free lunches with the purchase of a drink as an incentive for customers. The Saloon owner might also stable horses for travelers, host public events, and house the post office.
As saloons continued into the 19th and 20th centuries, they were a staple for the working class. Even saloons operated by women did not typically welcome women as patrons unless they were accompanied by a man. Women were often entertainers in saloons, and it playing cards was common among patrons.
Ancient travelers needed inns to house them along their trade journeys. They are known to have existed around the world along trade routes in Persian, Italy, and Great Britain. An inn was generally a rural form of a hotel.
During the late 1700s in North America, an inn usually wasn’t much more than a roadside shelter. Travelers could rent a bed and a horse stall for an evening before heading on their way again. Inns, motels, and hotels got their humble beginnings along trade routes and the first highways.
In the 1800s, some inn owners started putting more thought into accommodations for travelers. The first luxury hotel opened in 1829 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Tremont House was the first hotel that offered a private bathroom to guests, with locks on the doors. In later years, some hotels would add restaurants, bars, or lounges to their main levels to increase their offerings to guests.
In the 1900s, travel was less cumbersome, and more lodgings popped up in the hospitality industry. Conrad Hilton started purchasing hotels, starting what would eventually become the Hilton family brand of hotels. From 1919 on, Hilton built a brand with his name, expanding Hilton Hotels across America and overseas.
In 2008, Airbnb launched, bringing the hospitality industry full circle. With Airbnb services, private homeowners can once again rent out spare rooms, or secondary homes, for income.
To this day, hotels continue to improve upon the services and amenities first offered by roadside inns. Your next stay probably includes access to the Internet, recreational activities, fine dining, room service, laundry facilities, fitness centers, and more.