Revisited Myth # 71: Women in early America were not allowed in taverns. OR . . . were not allowed to use the front door of taverns.

January 30, 2016
Wetherburn's Tavern in Williamsburg

Wetherburn’s Tavern in Williamsburg

This myth probably began when people assumed that practices from the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth originated in colonial days.

True, women in the colonial period didn’t go to taverns all that often, but there are documented instances of women spending a night in a tavern while traveling or dining at a tavern with friends or family. Balls, lectures, and other entertainments were often held in taverns because they had the largest rooms, and women certainly attended those. When women did enter taverns, they came through the front, side, or rear door, whatever was most convenient. (P.S. Some women owned taverns in the colonial period; some managed them.)

The custom of a separate ladies’ entrance seems to date from the Victorian era. Some nineteenth-century urban American hotels had a ladies’ entrance and a ladies’ waiting room in an effort to appeal to that market segment. Conventional wisdom has it that women were seldom seen in bars, and it is true that some “wild west” saloons prohibited women from entering at all. But many bars and saloons, whether in cities or in the western territories, accommodated working-class women with a separate entrance that served three functions, according to “saloon scholar” and history professor Madelon Powers [Women and Public Drinking, 1890-1920; History Today, Feb. 1995].

“First, it permitted them to enter inconspicuously and minimise public scrutiny of their comings and goings, an indication that even those bold enough to patronise saloons remained sensitive to the disapproving glances of their more conservative neighbours and peers. (On some occasions, men wishing to avoid public notice would also use the side entrance).

Second, and perhaps more important, women’s entry through the side door eliminated the necessity of their running the gauntlet through the establishment’s front room — the barroom proper — which in this era was still undisputed male territory with its stand-up bar, spittoons, moustache towels, brass footrails, and other symbols of ‘masculinity emancipate’, in the words of journalist Travis Hoke. Adventuresome though most saloongoing women were, they were not agitators; their aim was sociability, not social equality, and their stepping out did not include stepping into bar areas where they were not welcome.

Finally, the side door for women afforded them quick and convenient access both to the far end of the bar, where they could purchase carry-out alcohol, and to a second chamber in many saloons which was known as the ‘backroom’, where they could feast on free lunches and beer, socialise with their dates, attend social events, or watch small-scale vaudeville productions. By means of the ladies’ entrance, the saloon trade both facilitated and circumscribed women’s participation in saloon culture.”

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