The Black Bartenders That Created the Dive Bar
The roots of the dive bar go back to the 19th century and quite possibly to Buffalo, New York.
Part of writing history is finding a path around the load of stories and “facts” that have been handed down to us so that you can see the real people standing behind them. When it comes to the history of drinking in America, one of those “facts” is that bartenders were always beefy white guys with mustaches. That path is not easy to find, maybe because we’ve been looking in the wrong places.
There are two enduring traditions of the American bar. The first one involves mixing delicious drinks from quality ingredients in elegant surroundings. It’s got lots of mahogany and polished brass and people on their best behavior sipping from jewel-like glasses holding icy little puddles of concentrated delight. Back when drinks cost fifteen cents or two for a quarter, at these joints your quarter only got you one drink. Nowadays, these are the places where a hipster with interesting ink all over her arms mixes you a spectacular Bittered Mai Tai with cachaça and nocino and charges your credit card $15 for it. Let’s call this the fancy tradition—fancy drinks in fancy bars for fancy people.
Then there’s the other one. The one with friends in low places. The lowdown tradition, let’s call it, is, of course, the one with the shots and the ice-cold bottles of Miller High Life; the one where there’s a jukebox, which is always playing something as old and familiar as the street where you learned to ride a bicycle, where the person on the next stool is as likely to work in the post office as a law office, and where “maintenance” is spelled d-u-c-t-t-a-p-e. It’s the one with the dives.
The history of the fancy tradition has been pretty well charted in books such as Jim Marshall’s pioneering Swinging Doors from 1949, William Grimes’ 1993 Straight Up or On the Rocks and Gaz Regan’s 2003 Joy of Mixology, which received an updated edition last year. (I also wrote about it in my book, Imbibe). Beginning with men like Orsamus Willard and Cato Alexander in New York, Joseph Santini in New Orleans, William Pitcher in Boston and John Dabney in Richmond, Virginia, its lineage stretches through to modern figures such as Dale DeGroff, Dick Bradsell, Audrey Saunders, Tony Abou-Ganim, and Julie Reiner and from them to the bartender with the Bittered Mai Tai and all the tattoos.
Despite figures like Alexander and Dabney, who were African American, this tradition has historically been primarily white and male. Sure, there were women behind the bar and some immigrant groups slid right in, or at least the men among them did. But white men have always been jealous of their privilege and, as I’ve written about elsewhere, they made damn sure that it was mostly people like themselves behind the mahogany and brass.
Unfortunately, the lowdown tradition, which is every bit as American and historic as the fancy one, has received far less attention from historians, whether academic or popular. That incurious attitude might seem appropriate to the dive bar—“you here to drink, professor, or teach a damn history class?”—but it has also led to a whole lot of men and women being left out of American history altogether.
They might not have made fancy drinks, but they gave literally millions of Americans a place where they could find a measure of community and rough recompense for the difficulties of their paths through life. Not surprisingly, given how American history works, it turns out that the pioneers in this tradition—the men and women who built the institution; who taught their descendants (us) how to behave in a dive and what to expect from one—were black. Also not surprisingly, that essential fact is buried deep under a layer of old Merle Haggard records, shillelaghs, shamrocks, lager beer-soaked sawdust and Clydesdale turds.
The black roots of the dive should not be hidden knowledge. In fact, they’re baked in to the very term “dive.” But you would not know that from the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines a dive as an Americanism for “an illegal drinking-den, or other disreputable place of resort, often situated in a cellar, basement, or other half-concealed place, into which frequenters may ‘dive’ without observation.”
This is, of course, woefully out of date: while you might have to dive beneath the sidewalk to get into the Cloak Room in Austin, one of the most righteous dives I know, most of the others I frequent are right there at street level—hiding in plain sight, as it were—and perfectly legal, as long as you’re not too much of a stickler about the smoking laws after 1 a.m. But it also leaves something essential out of that early definition, as does the earliest citation the Dictionary gives, from the New York Herald in 1871, which refers to a “gaily decorated dive.”
With modern research tools, we can push the earliest use of “dive” for a bar back to 1857. More importantly, we can see that that 1871 date is one of the rare early uses where “dive” appears in print without a certain attached adjective. The newspapers usually rendered it as “negro,” although sometimes they used a much rawer word, particularly if the reporter was quoting another person.
Before we dig into the nitty gritty of what these places were like, let’s first talk some etymology and geography. “To dive” had been used in London to describe the descent into a basement eating and drinking place, and rarely an elegant one, since at least the middle of the 18th century, as a reading of Tobias Smollett’s classic 1748 novel Roderick Random will prove. That usage crossed the Atlantic and was still current in the mid-19th century. Thus the American editor Nathaniel Parker Willis could write in 1843 about making a “dive” into a basement dance hall in New York’s notorious Five Points neighborhood. The verbal noun he uses is already a long way toward turning the verb “to dive” into the place “a dive” (English does this in coinages, like “dog run” and “hooker stroll”).
There already may be a racial sense to Willis’s diving, as the cellar where he dived was “crowded with negroes, eating, drinking, and dancing.” (Unusually among high-life observers of urban African American recreations, he had little condescending to say about this and made no moral judgments.)
There appears to be another intermediate stage between the verb and the final noun, and that’s the term “diving bell,” used for a drinking-cellar (which, like a diving bell, is below the surface). This turns up once in London in 1840 and then enjoys a brief vogue in the police reports of a couple of New York newspapers in the mid-1840s. Most of the establishments so christened, such as Butcher Jo’s at 47 Orange St. in the Five Points and Simon Johnson’s at the corner of Ann and Nassau streets in Lower Manhattan, were black-owned.
Whether one posits that the act of “diving” led directly to the place where one does it being called a “dive,” or it did so only after an initial detour through “diving bell,” the first place the term makes it into print is not New York but Chicago, where it appears three times before turning up elsewhere: in June and August 1857, and again in April 1858. All three establishments it’s applied to appear in police reports, and all three are identified as black-owned, two of them in the crudest terms.
Then, in May 1858, the term turns up in Buffalo, New York, when the police pick up a couple of Philadelphia pickpockets at “Izzy Lazarus’ ‘dive’ on Exchange street.” Neither the pickpockets nor Mr. Lazarus was black. There are a couple of more appearances in Buffalo over that summer, one at least attached to a place run by a white Englishman, a nasty piece of work by the name of Adam Cook, and then we get to Dug’s Dive.
Here I have to pause for a moment. In a twitter conversation early last year on dives and their history, the novelist Daren Wang (a Buffalo native) mentioned Dug’s Dive and a claim that Buffalo has been making for some time that it was in fact America’s first dive, or at least the origin of the term. At the time, I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have: sure, I looked through some old newspapers and found that one William “Dug” Douglas was indeed operating a “dive” on Commercial Street near the harbor in the 1850s, but I also found those three Chicago joints, and they were first. I should have, um, excavated deeper.
Because, of course, even if Chicago got there first, that does not cut Buffalo out of the picture. Establishing the first appearance in print of a piece of slang depends greatly on when it happened to have crossed paths with someone interested in writing it down, on where it got written down, and on how accessible that document is today. In the days before the internet, it could take several years for a word to get recorded, particularly in the 19th century, when newspapers took a gingerly approach to the vulgar tongue as it were spoke, and it may have traveled quite some distance in the meanwhile.
A better approach is to look at all the earliest mentions of “dive” as a whole and try to find a pattern there. If we do that, it actually seems much more likely that Buffalo was indeed their epicenter. From 1857 until 1870, the hundred-odd appearances I’ve been able to find are almost all from cities around the Great Lakes: Chicago and Buffalo, of course, but also Detroit (1858), Cleveland (1861), Milwaukee (1862) and a few others. Beginning in 1865, there are a small handful of appearances elsewhere—New York City; San Francisco; Leavenworth, Kansas; Glasgow, Scotland (of all places)—but it is clearly still a regionalism. And of those Great Lakes mentions, more than half are from Buffalo, even though it was by no means the largest city in the region (Chicago already dwarfed the others). That suggests that it had been in use in Buffalo longer; that it had become common parlance there.
Buffalo was perfectly placed to disseminate any piece of slang. In the 1840s and 1850s, it was the chokepoint, the place through which a huge part of America’s trade had to pass. The way things worked, all the amazingly fertile grain-lands that surrounded the Great Lakes shipped their harvests by sail or steam to Buffalo, where the cargoes were transferred to canal boats, hauled along the Erie Canal to the Hudson River, and floated down to New York. From there they were sent all around the world. That meant that for some nine months of the year Buffalo was full of sailors and stevedores and towpath-men and all the other rugged laborers that powered the system, many of whom were in constant motion to Detroit and Chicago and the other lakeside ports.
But there’s another, stronger, reason I believe Buffalo gets this one, and that’s rooted both in the specific geography of Dug’s and in what went on there.
According to the Buffalo Commercial of September 11, 1858, the previous evening one John Short was arrested with a pair of stolen boots at “‘Dug’s,’ a colored dive on Commercial street.” This was the first time that William Douglas’ place was mentioned in the press by name (the first record of it being called explicitly “Dug’s Dive” is in 1860). It had already been open for some time, though: the Buffalo City Directory for 1855 has William Douglas (elsewhere it’s spelled “Douglass”) occupying a “recess” at the corner of Commercial and Water streets.
In 1874, he told a reporter who popped into Dug’s that he had been there “thirty or forty years, I guess,” and in fact an 1848 newspaper item mentions a black-owned “doggery” (one of the terms that “dive” would render obsolete) almost in the same spot, which may well have been his. If he’s the same William Douglas who was sent to jail in Buffalo for robbery in 1843, the bar would have opened after that since the report of his arrest mentions no other means of support. Douglas’ absence from the Directory before 1855 is essentially meaningless: the lower one descended the social ladder, the less conscientious the compilers of these things got about including everyone, particularly if that everyone was black. Even after 1855, some years Douglas made it in and some he didn’t.
The Commercial Slip was a short canal connecting the end of the Erie Canal with Buffalo Harbor. It had a towpath on either side, just three or four feet above the surface of the water, to allow men and horses to pull canal boats along it. Up a steep bank on the slip’s western side ran Commercial Street. Between the street and the slip were two strips of brick buildings whose backs overlooked the water. Because of the steep canal bank, their first floors opened on the street and their basements, around back, opened out on the towpath. One of these strips was known as the “Union Block.” Douglas’ “recess” was there, in one of the basement spaces. The only way to get there was from the towpath. In the dark, it was a bit tricky.
One evening in 1874, a local reporter got a policeman to show him around Buffalo’s “lower depths.” Dug’s was of course on the agenda. At a certain spot on Commercial Street, the policeman cautioned the reporter and his party to look out and “began to disappear in the darkness below.” Peering after him, the reporter wrote, “we could dimly discern a narrow stairway descending to the tow-path.” They followed. The handrail was low, the “staircase was steep and the boards wet and slippery.” They made it to the bottom, “much to [their] relief,” and stumbled along the dark, narrow path a few yards until they came to an open doorway. They went in, descended four or five more steps, and they were in Dug’s.
To get to Dug’s, in other words, one had to almost literally dive. This was particularly true when the canal was in flood, which happened fairly often in winter. On one of those occasions, another reporter found two feet or more of water in the place, reaching up almost to the stovetop, where “three enormous rats had taken refuge.” A large black man was sitting on a table above the waters holding a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other, taking a pensive drink and surveying the damage. That was probably Dug himself.
Dug’s wasn’t the only black drinking joint on that towpath, although it was the oldest and best known. Indeed, it was, to quote the Buffalo Republic from 1860, “the head quarters of the colored people” in that key regional crossroads. It may even have been a stop on the Underground Railroad—with it right on the water and Canada just over there, where better? In any case, it was universally known among the black population of the Great Lakes, or at least the traveling portion of it. Anyone who had dived to get to Dug’s would have remembered it, and as places like it sprung up in the new cities of the Midwest they would have taken its name by analogy.
In the other cities, though, “dive” is just another synonym for “rum hole,” “den,” “crib,” “rum cellar,” “gin cellar,” “drinking hell,” “diving bell” “sewerage and sinkhole,” “groggery”—all the various names applied to the places the poor and outcast gathered to solace their existences with drink and whatever else it took. In Buffalo, however, it has an actual meaning of its own; a reason to be coined and, through the fame of Dug’s Dive, a platform from which it could spread, first to other places in town—that the first white “dives” are found in Buffalo is no coincidence: by 1858, the term must have been around long enough there to become generic—and then to the other cities in the region. Buffalo didn’t invent the dive, but I’m pretty sure it named it.
Having established the where, the when and the who, it remains to establish the what—the nature of the institution that Buffalo named.
Dug’s Dive, like the vast majority of the early black dives, was a full-service operation. Dug himself, born in East Tennessee “sixteen years before the War of 1812” (as he used to tell people) and “many years a slave” (as his obituary noted), was both host and cook.
Douglas’s cooking was not elaborate, nor particularly sanitary, but “what the victuals lack in variety and cleanliness they make up in quantity and solidity.” He specialized in things like ham hashed up with garlic and onions, pigs feet and corned beef; as for “pastries and other dainties,” at Dug’s they were “completely ignored and never included in the bill of fare.” Elsewhere, they did a little better: the Hot Cat, open from the 1890s until the early 1900s in the part of New Orleans that would become known as Storyville, offered not only “fried fish, pork chops [and] ‘crackling bread,’” but also “‘Washington pie,’” a layered sponge cake with a jelly or cream filling, all served at five cents an order.
Where Douglas truly excelled was at the hosting: dark-complected and large to the point of rotundity, he had “such an air of comfort, content and jolly good nature,” according to the reporter who had made the dive to his place that night in 1874, “that you can scarcely help feeling a liking for him.” He was one of those people who knew everybody, and whom everybody knew. The fact that he remained in business for some thirty years or more, when most lowdown bars of the time came and went in three or four, testifies to the power of personality in these matters. You go to a dive not because of the services, but because of the people. In these circumstances, charisma beats cleanliness any day.
Before we get to the other services, we should talk about dirt. Despite their reputations, some dives were neat and cleanly: Nathaniel Parker Willis found the early, and famous (it had been written about by Charles Dickens) proto-dive kept by Pete Williams in the Five Points of New York “very clean and cheerful . . . a spacious room with a low ceiling, excessively whitewashed, nicely sanded and well lit” (the sand was like the sawdust used in later saloons: it soaked up spills and was easily swept out). Others were not. Dug’s was, alas, one of the filthy ones; its verminous condition being remarked on by many of those who wrote about it. In that, it was far from alone: with poverty came dirt; with basements came bugs and rats. In general, though, when dives get mentioned in police reports and other such loaded contexts, it’s worth bearing in mind that it cost the writer nothing to throw in a “filthy” or an “unsanitary,” whatever the actual state of the place’s sanitation. After all, it was expected.
These dives were of course saloons, although not fancy ones: Dug’s, for example, had little more than a “crazy” (which is to say rickety and crooked) bar, some “dingy” bottles and a mess of cracked and chipped glassware. Dug’s bartenders were usually female. In the 1870s, one of his daughters, Bella, kept her own establishment a few doors down form his; we can assume that she got her start working behind his bar. In general, you were far more likely to find a woman in charge of a dive or behind its bar than you were at a higher-class saloon. In a dive, if you could do a job you did it.
The liquors dispensed varied. Pete Williams’ place was famous for its Port Wine Sangarees, a delectable drink by any standard. The Pig Ankle, across the street from the Hot Cat in New Orleans, made a specialty of “Coke,” not the drink we know by that name but rather “a mixture of the cheapest California claret, water and cocaine.” (“It makes a drunk come quick” was the popular verdict. I shouldn’t wonder.) Cocaine was also popular among the women who patronized the riverfront dives in Memphis at the time (it was, after all, still legal). Mostly, however, the drinks were beer, gin—in the America of the day, that would be a Dutch-style product, thick and malty—and the cheap, generally adulterated whiskey known to the trade, when being polite, as “negro whiskey” (this was made from raw grain alcohol that had been thrown in a charred barrel for a couple of weeks to take on some color). There was little fancy mixology going on, outside of perhaps a Hot Toddy in winter.
The black dives generally featured a back room where there was gambling: dice, faro, poker, whatever. This was hardly unusual: most of America’s cities at the time had vice districts where gambling was tolerated, for a price. In the dives, it wasn’t always honest and it tended to drive a good deal of violence, but it also did that in the fancy uptown places where rich white men gambled. The other driver of violence was prostitution, an almost universal feature of the dive.
In an economy that created very few opportunities for women to earn a living wage, and a society that fetishized an unrealistic and hypocritical concept of “woman’s honor,” prostitution flourished. It was not confined to basements and canal-banks. In New York City, an 1870 guide to the members of the profession listed “parlor houses”—genteel brothels—at numbers 47, 101, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 111, 119, 121, 122, 123, 126, 128, 130, 132, 134, 138, 140, 142 and 146 West 27th Street. That was just one street of many.
These places were rarely raided. The dives, however, saw frequent police harassment. Perhaps they didn’t pay the police as much to keep them off their backs. There was usually a stated reason, but sometimes there wasn’t—the very fact that a bunch of black people were drinking together was often enough to prompt a raid. For black America, it was always Prohibition. But there’s another issue. In most of the black dives, a portion of the clientele was white. Some of the whites were gamblers or skells like John Short, the guy with the stolen boots. But many were regular working men. That bothered the powers that be—why would a respectable white tradesman “degrade” himself by hanging out with people like these? But what bothered them far more was the fact that many of the women found in the black dives were also white. Whenever this phenomenon came to public notice, it would trigger calls for “clearing out” the dives, as if they were so many nests of scorpions. The police would come and the newspapers would write about the “soiled doves” who had been “rescued.”
Yet while it’s certain that a great many scenes of degradation and desperation took place in, or at least took start in, places such as Dug’s, not all of the women hanging around there were doing so in a professional capacity. The fascinating 1914 Report on the Social Evil Conditions of Newark, New Jersey, which surveyed the commercial sex trade in that city, found in the city’s saloons a distressing (to the authors) number of what the professionals called “charity girls”: girls who were “eager for excitement and the company of men.”
As the Newark report found, the charity girls would “frequent some of the cafes and the rear rooms of the saloons to listen to the music and form acquaintances with men.” This brings us to the final amenity offered by the black dives: going back to the days of Pete Williams and the Five Points, they had music. African-American music. The music that gave birth to ragtime; to jazz; to rock and roll. That was the one thing no fancy white saloon, no matter how well appointed; no matter how skilled the bartenders or how old the imported brandy, could compete with.
In 1897, a reporter for the New York Sun visited one of the black dives along the levee in Memphis. There, he entered at the ground floor, was asked to check his weapons at a table and searched to make sure—the table was thick with neatly organized revolvers, knives and straight razors—and then allowed to descend to the “hold;” the basement. There he found a back room with gambling, a lot of beer and cocaine, and a “piano pounder” and his “weak-toned” instrument. As he “hammered out” the music, singers belted out “songs indescribably vulgar . . . sung to beautiful and catchy music” and “dancers of perfect grace” swung their bodies and beat their feet in time. “The performers are not paid by the divekeepers,” he adds. “they dance and sing because they like to, and because they like to be applauded.” Their dancing was beautiful, he concluded. Vulgar, but beautiful. (He concluded his piece with a description of a song he heard in one of the dives about Joe Turney, High Sheriff of Tennessee, taking a man to the penitentiary in Nashville. The words were simple, he wrote, but the music was “beautiful and sad almost to weirdness.” A few years later, W.C. Handy rewrote the words to avoid antagonizing white people and published it as the “Joe Turner Blues.” Our anonymous journalist’s description of it is the earliest description of a blues song yet found.)
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the descriptions we have of the early black dives and what went on with them are observed through white eyes, and are hostile, or at best neutral ones at that. But even then, it is clear that the dives were places where, if you were willing to surrender your status and your privilege, you could find enough community, excitement, and even beauty to get you through the hard, hard slog that is life in this vale of tears. Nobody judged you in a dive. You didn’t have to strive or achieve or project a successful front. You could just be yourself.
Over the years, the dives lost most of their illegal activities and lost their explicit identification with African Americans. The beer got colder, the whiskey better, and the music—well, while there’s nothing like live music played by people who really know what they’re doing, a good jukebox will do in a pinch. But the DNA of the modern dive still has a great deal of Dug’s in it. The one thing you still can’t do in a true dive is judge the person sitting on the stool next to you else. After all, you’re in there too. So next time you’re at Mary’s House of Connection, the Stumble Inn, or the Auld Sod, play something slow and churchy on the jukebox, order a shot of rye and raise a toast to William “Dug” Douglas of Buffalo, New York, the man who, if he didn’t quite invent the American dive bar, at least set its institutional tone and gave it its name.