Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology And History In Virginia City (Shepperson Series in Nevada History)

Category: Industries
Author: Kelly J. Dixon
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by itsallfolklore   2019-07-21

This and this are slide photos (and therefore of poor quality) of our excavation of the Boston Saloon, an African American establishment that was at this location between 1866 to 1875 when it burned. Burning left us with a nice, easy-to-read layer of burnt material and building parts.

Each of the saloons (an Irish saloon, a shooting-gallery and saloon, a theater saloon, and the Boston) had their own stories to tell. We found a lot of spent bullets and empty cartridges at the shooting gallery and saloon (which combines two activities I ALWAYS enjoy - namely, drinking heavily and shooting firearms in a crowded place!!! (please do not take that seriously!!!)). The theater saloon clearly offered a nice environment and included a piano - and the carbon water filter described elsewhere.

Some astonishing insights, however, came from the African American Boston saloon. While each of the saloons served food, the Boston had the finest cuts of meat (they were eating "high on the hog" - there was even evidence of a hog's head served on a platter!) and it had the finest crystal. It even had a newly-patented smoke-free system of gas lighting.

Three of the most remarkable discoveries from the Boston were the oldest Tabasco Pepper Sauce bottle with the name of the company embossed on its bottom (ca. 1870); the retrieval of genetic information from a pipe stem, which indicated a woman was smoking the pipe, complete with her tooth mark - this and an artifact from another nearby dig that summer were what we believe to be the first time that human DNA was retrieved from non-human material taken from an excavation; and finally there were the mutilated coins.

Beneath the burnt floorboards, we found two coins a new 1865 half dollar and an older dime, which had been defaced in a way that would have taken considerable effort, and they were intentionally placed beneath the floorboards. This is in keeping with coins found beneath other African American structures, although this is the first (and I believe it remains the only) evidence west of Texas. Research suggests that this was a magical means of ensuring that the structure and its inhabitants would be blessed - and it is a practice that has parallels in West Africa. Kelly Dixon talks a great deal about this in her excellent book, Boomtown Saloons (2006)

I could go on for hours about these four gems from the American West. It was a fascinating exercise.

by itsallfolklore   2019-07-21

Ad additional word about sources, popular perception and folklore about the Western saloon.

From the start, there was an assumption that the "Wild West" was, well, rather wild, and there was a perception that its saloons were the most wild of all. This early 1860s depiction of a saloon was crafted for an Eastern audience (it appeared in Harper's Weekly) and it was far removed from reality, but it contributed to a popular image of the Western saloon that survives to this day. It is true that when one combines youth, male hormones, and alcohol there will be occasional violence, but primary sources attest to businesses that were proud to offer safe environments to customers of all sorts, including respectable women and their children (many saloons also offered sodas and food).

Quality of products varied, and without federal controls (there was an excellent - unfortunately-deleted - answer dealing with how slow federal standards were to be imposed on whiskey production. But people were people, and they sought out the best products and scorned the worst.

Elliott West wrote the classic treatment (by an esteemed, professional historian) in 1979 - The Saloon on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier. Kelly Dixon, who directed two of our excavations and worked with the entire collection, wrote the excellent Boomtown Saloons (2006) - an adaptation of her PhD dissertation. I then picked up the subject with my synthesis/retrospective of 30 years of working with this and other material: Virginia City: Secrets of a Western Past (2012).