Havens in a Heartless World Part 2 -- Virginia City's Saloon Artifacts - View Gallery
The cliché of the whiskey bottle at a saloon is defied by what archaeologists actually found. Patrons consumed a wide variety of beverages, but not all contained alcohol. A water filter, dating to as early as 1863, offered a clean glass of water to customers at Piper's Old Corner Bar. (Detail of water filter -- full image can be found in the exhibit. Courtesy of Ronald M. James.)
Virginia City’s saloons were centers of life. Barkeepers sought to distinguish their enterprises with choices in décor, food, and drinks. While some saloons catered to specific ethnic groups, others pitched to different parts of the market. From humble to expensive saloons, there was something for everyone’s interests and price range.
Eliot Lord, in his 1883 history of the Comstock, said some saloons only had a “cheap pine bar with a few black bottles.” While he was certainly accurate, archaeologists uncovered four businesses that were much more complex. These saloons featured whiskey, beer, wine, and champagne, drinks more diverse than legend would have it. Mixed beverages were growing in popularity during the last half of the nineteenth century. A good saloon boasted an expert “mixologist.”
Most saloons offered food as well. Excavations retrieved hundreds of bones from meals featuring beef, lamb, pork, poultry, and fish. The Boston Saloon, catering to an African American clientele, had some of the best cuts of meat. Sawed pig’s teeth suggest that at least on one occasion the Boston offered a pig’s head on a platter as an elegant centerpiece. In contrast with this, the Hibernia Brewery and Saloon offered its Irish-American patrons pig’s feet and other inexpensive foods.
Text by Ronald M. James, Nevada Historic Preservation Office, and Kelly J. Dixon, University of Montana; all images by Ronald M. James unless otherwise noted.
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