Saloon Style

How 19th-Century Billiards Hustlers Created the Ideal Bar

Bowling alley and pool table maker Brunswick also, for decades, outfitted drinking establishments.

Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty

Classic 19th century American bar design has endured for decades for a simple reason: It is perfect.

You know these places. You’ve likely been in a few of them. But if not you’d still know them from photos and movies, especially westerns.

A solid mahogany or black walnut bar runs the length of a room, immovable and staunch save for the playful glint of a brass foot rail near the floor. Behind the bar rises a mad architectural collage of arches, columns and entablatures set amid mirrors that add tantalizing volume and depth. A cherub or two may be involved.

Bottles of varied shape and size are arrayed layer upon layer in front of the mirrors, as if a chorus about to launch into Verdi’s “Requiem.” Capping it all off is an intricately carved canopy that crowds the ceiling, every bit as elaborate as the crown of a 15th century pulpit.

Such bars served multiple purposes. They were theatrical, making an ideal stage for mixological maestros. Yet they also had elements of a church, adorned with classical features that calmed one’s nerves even before the sedative effect of sacramental potions were sipped. Just as 19th century banks festooned their buildings with porticos and columns to send a message that money deposited there was safe, many rudimentary 19th century bars remodeled their interiors by creating elaborately designed spaces that would implicitly assure you, the drinker, of several fundamental truths.

Chief among those truths: Drinking is important business. You are not wasting your time at this bar, since the liquor and the bartender are first class. And, naturally, the longer you remain, the more important you are.

Concluding this high praise of the classic bar, I should point out something slightly more prosaic: Many, if not most, of these bars were made in a factory in Dubuque, Iowa.

Their roots date to 1845, when a Swiss immigrant named John Moses Brunswick, then a carriage-maker, started producing billiard tables in Cincinnati in 1845. He caught the wave at the precisely right moment—billiards were then sweeping America, and he soon moved his thriving company to Chicago, where he received an early sort of celebrity endorsement from Abraham Lincoln, who bought one of his tables in 1850. His high-quality woodwork and responsive bumpers soon set the standard for pool tables worldwide. Fancy bars bought them and touted their presence. In 1873, Brunswick merged with Julius Balke’s Great Western Billiard Manufacturing, and then these two merged again in 1879 with another company to form Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co., the largest billiards company in the nation. (It outsold all other competitors combined.)

The firm’s sales staff, of course, visited a lot of bars and what they found were a surfeit of sadly furnished and threadbare establishments. Brunswick began offering to help owners improve their watering holes—what later designers would call “place-making.” The company would send in their craftsmen and a load of hardwood lumber to create interior grandeur. And these makeovers took off—it was, after all, the Victorian era. Bars everywhere clamored for their services, so much so that they couldn’t keep up with the demand. So they opened up a factory to mass manufacture their bars in Dubuque. The pre-fab bars would then be disassembled, shipped by train, and reassembled in the field. (The firm would eventually have seven factories around the country making billiard tables and bowling alley supplies, but Dubuque remained the central source for bars.)

Mechanizing bar production meant that they could not only make more, but make them cheaper. “We have forced prices down by steadily increasing our immense output,” they boasted in their catalog. “Greater quantities mean cheap production.” Cheaper production meant increasing ubiquity.

“What are we here for?” read one of the company’s newspaper ads in 1894. “To supply the saloon trade with any and everything pertaining to a saloon outfit at our factory prices.” Their vast catalogs served up a range of bars of every size and for every budget. (Their ads claimed that bars started at $100, but the larger, more ornate versions could cost in excess of $20,000, or about a half-million dollars today.) Catalogs displayed bars that roamed widely through the architectural canon, from Gothic to Romanesque to Eastlake Victorian.

The names of the bars were as fanciful and evocative as Benjamin Moore paint colors today: The Waldorf, The Argyle, The Victor, The Metropolitan, The Oxford, The Mont Oro, and The San Leon. While all varied in style and adornment, all were designed to impress.

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And impress they did. When a bar decided to upgrade with a Brunswick-Balke-Collender bar, it became news in some communities. “The design is neat, plain and elegant, harmonizing with the massive and luxurious quality of the materials,” reported Montana’s Helena Daily Herald, when Mr. I. Marks improved his bar in 1889. In 1892, the Dallas Morning News admired the Saratoga model recently installed in town—with 42 beveled mirrors of “extra heavy French plate” and the black walnut with “curly French veneer.”

“The output of this company is known and universally popular in all civilized communities,” gushed the reporter, adding the ultimate local compliment: this bar was “possibly the largest of its kind in Texas.”

As with billiards, Brunswick-Balke-Collender sold the right product at the right time. America was in then its post-Civil-War-edging-into-Gilded Age era. And the West in particular was a booming—railroads were laying track and opening doors for cattlemen, silver miners, wildcatters and other boom-and-busters throughout the last three decades of the century. Saloonkeepers were flush with business and sought out the best equipment to show they’d arrived.

What’s more, Brunswick bars also flourished when skilled mixologists were compounding drinks both simple and fancy. No one would be surprised if the first Martini, first Manhattan and first Clover Club first slid across a surface of a Brunswick bar. The Brunswick bar was how the wet was won.

Brunswick-Balke-Collender produced their iconic bars for three decades. But by the early 20th century, the distant rumble of Prohibition could be heard. “The Brunswick-Balke-Collender company has seen the handwriting on the wall,” a reporter wrote in 1917, shortly after they’d ceased the manufacturing of bars. Always looking ahead, Brunswick had been quick to retool their Iowa plant for “the manufacture of phonographs, automobile tires and tubes, rubber goods, etc...They are expected to be to the tire world what they are to the billiard world.” Brunswick also pioneered the 15-inch phonograph disk, which they boasted “will play continuously for seven minutes.”

Brunswick continued to make pool tables—which moved from taverns to pool halls during the Great Drought, and then into home rumpus rooms soon after. Today, the Brunswick Company remains a billiards powerhouse, and has expanded into foosball tables and exercise equipment in recent years. Hewing to its roots, the company’s website notes that it is “dedicated to creating new games that enable families to put down their electronic devices and engage in friendly competition and conversation.”

As a testament to the quality of their bar craftsmanship, hundreds of Brunswick-Balke-Collender bars remain in active use more than a century later, sometimes in their original location, often not. (They were, after all, designed to be disassembled and shipped.) You can find them from Alaska at (Christo’s Palace Restaurant, in Seward) to the Florida Keys (at the bar in the Bass Pro Shop in Islamorada), with plenty still dotting the West, often in small towns where business may be slow but the haste to demolish was slower.

Antique dealers that specialize in Brunswick bars report that many today end up installed in lavish private homes. (For a mere $89,000, you can get a 20-foot Wilmington model, beautifully restored and shipped to you from Arizona for an additional $4,000.)

This strikes me as being akin to a church converted to condos. It’s good news for a few, but bad news for everybody else. Drink at one while you can.