Why Did It Take America So Long to Have Female Bartenders?
We try to figure out why women were systematically excluded from working behind the bar in the U.S.
On Oct. 17, 1891, “Colonel” William Heyward, owner of the Standard Buffet at 231 Broadway in New York City, across the street from the old Post Office (now replaced by City Hall Park), explained to his head bartender that he was going to replace the latter’s subordinates with a quartet of barmaids brought in from London and asked him to train them in the intricacies of American mixology and supervise their work.
Nobody in the world was better fitted to that task than the man before him. William Schmidt, alias “the Only William,” was the most celebrated bartender and mixologist in America, a consummate artist at mixing drinks and, equally important, an eloquent and precise explainer of the intricacies of his art. Indeed, at the time, he was on the verge of publishing The Flowing Bowl, his landmark book dedicated to the topic.
With William’s tutelage and recipes and the charm and brisk efficiency characteristic of British barmaids, the Standard Buffet would be packing them in with a trowel. There was only one problem: William would have none of it. “He could not afford to endanger his professional standing by consenting to work as [the barmaids’] director,” he told the Colonel. That same night, his last at the bar, he told his regulars simply, “I will not stand behind the bar with a lady.”
He was a little more voluble to the press, as was his wont. “English barmaids can draw ale, but do you think that all of them put together could mix a ‘La Premier’ that would be fit to drink? And how about a ‘Life Prolonger,’ ‘Anticipation,’ ‘Sweet Recollections,’ Brain Dusters’ and ‘Canary Birds.’ Could they mix them?”
Now, this was as fair as it was strictly grammatical, which is to say not much. No barman in America would be able to mix those drinks either, not unless William taught him, since they were all his original creations and none had as yet appeared in print. But playing fair was not the traditional American way when it came to women and bars.
In England, when one entered an alehouse, coffeehouse, tavern, or inn—anywhere drinks were sold across a bar—it was customary since time immemorial to see a woman behind that bar. She pulled the pints of ale, opened the bottles of wine, poured the drams of brandy, rum or gin and even mixed the Punch, Gin Twist and other typical English drinks.
In fact, it was women who made the first experiment in modern bartending possible, when James Ashley decided that all the Punch sold at his new London Coffee House would be mixed to order in front of his customers, and that he would sell it in quantities as small as a “tiff” (basically, a juice glass). Ashley was the host, but his head barkeeper, Mrs. Gaywood (alas her first name has yet to be uncovered), and her crew of young women did all the actual mixing and serving of drinks, and collected all the money for it. That was in 1731.
Yet when the next major advance in the art occurred, which saw ice incorporated into the drinks and a far greater variety of individual beverages mixed to order, women were almost entirely absent. That took place in America, in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. There, women had been excluded from behind the bar since Colonial days. Certainly, by the beginning of the nineteenth century the barmaid was, as one American who came across them in England noted in 1826, “a character rarely known in the United States.” Where one was found, what’s more, it was generally considered to speak badly for both her character and that of the bar. That taboo—sometimes, in some places made explicit by law, otherwise “merely” customary—lasted until the 1960s as a general matter, albeit with ever more frequent exceptions, and it still lingers to this day in dark, festering little pockets of the bar world.
Unfortunately, bartending as a profession hasn’t received the historical study warranted by its longstanding importance in daily life (and here I’m not just talking about mine). I know of no book dedicated to this precise historical conundrum—why were there no barmaids in America?—and at this remove it remains a riddle. At the time, even Schmidt, the most floridly articulate of nineteenth-century bartenders, when pressed to justify his belief that “it was wrong to intrust [sic] ladies with the tools of his trade,” could only offer the tautology, “I don’t think that their place is behind the bar” because “behind the bar is no place for a woman,” and mutter darkly that “I doubt that any barmaid will ever succeed in making a good mixed drink.”
It would have been good if one of the journalists who seemingly hung on William’s every word had persuaded him to expound on those reasons. For the first, the idea that behind the bar is no place for a woman, he would have probably said something like this:
“Here in America our bars are rather rough places, even the fanciest ones, and always have been. There’s drinking, of course, and you know how that makes men act, and there’s usually some gambling going on, whether it’s euchre or faro tables or just dicing for drinks. There’s smoking and spitting and Lord knows there’s foul language and all kinds of other swinish behavior, from pissing in the cuspidors to passing out drunk on the floor to gut-puking and worse. And that isn’t the worst of it—there’s also the fisticuffs and the flying chairs and the gunplay. People get shot in our bars. We don’t want to subject women to that, or any of these things.” (Okay, he wouldn’t have mentioned the pissing and the puking, but no doubt he would have thought about them.)
There is some truth in this. American bars were rough. The American propensity to haul out a gun and say it with lead is nothing new, and even a marble palace of mixology such as San Francisco’s Bank Exchange Saloon, the home of Pisco Punch, had the occasional shooting, like when someone put a bullet through Joseph Hayes’ brain at 7:30 one Monday evening in 1888 (nobody didn’t see nuttin’). As for the smoking and spitting and swearing and gambling and whatnot, well, sure.
But men smoked in England, gambled there, drank and behaved badly there and the barmaids managed to take it in stride. (Fine, the spitting was a purely American thing, caused by our habit of chewing on plugs of tobacco.) And if there was less shooting, there was still some. And back in the eighteenth century, when every would-be gentleman carried a lethal little stabbing sword at all times, English bars had witnessed a shocking amount of bloodshed, and the barmaids managed to survive that well enough.
But you didn’t have to go all the way to England to find female bartenders thriving. America is a big place and American women are plenty tough and determined. Despite custom and law and all those men, some women always found their way behind the bar.
A thorough examination of the lives and careers of these pioneers deserves a whole book, not a couple of paragraphs in a drink column, and I hope one day soon they will get one.
In the meanwhile, a few names that would have to be included.
One would need to begin with Catherine “Kitty” Hustler (1762-1832), who was immortalized (as “Betty Flanagan”) by James Fenimore Cooper in his 1821 novel, The Spy, set during the Revolution in the so-called Neutral Ground that lay in Westchester County, New York, between the British lines and the American ones to their north. Born Catherine Cherry in Pennsylvania, she married Thomas Hustler, a Continental soldier, in 1777 and—the important part—supposedly kept a tavern in the Neutral Ground (that part is hard to document, understandably), where she either invented or helped to spread that quintessential American drink: the cocktail. She was keeping a tavern outside Buffalo when Cooper met her in the 1810s.
Then there’s Martha King Niblo (1802-1851). Born in New York City to a porterhouse-keeper, she grew up in the trade (one of the only sanctioned paths for women to work behind the bar was as part of a family business, a fact which, in the 1850s, led Fritz Adolphy, a St. Louis beer-garden proprietor, to legally adopt all 90 of his barmaids when the city fathers moved to get rid of them). When her husband, William Niblo, opened “Niblo’s Garden,” an outdoor space dedicated to music, relaxation and refreshments north of the city in what is now SoHo, Martha ran the bar. She may also have invented the mighty Sherry Cobbler, one of the most popular drinks of the nineteenth century. She certainly took a large hand in popularizing it.
San Francisco would deserve a chapter of its own, covering everything from the saloon where, as a British traveler found in 1853, “three comely-looking American girls tend bar, and are deep in the mystery of making rum punches, brandy smashers and gin cocktails,” to—well, you could take your pick. San Francisco in the early days was a wide-open town, where standard American norms and taboos were very much open to renegotiation and, in 1852, of the 127 retail liquor establishments listed in the City Directory, 20 were kept by women. Now, the majority of these were in the “Barbary Coast,” the city’s rowdy vice district, and were probably, let us say, extended-service establishments. But they also included bars like Mrs. Waters’ Arcade, which featured concerts, Mrs. Whitney’s large saloon, on Commercial Street, and above all Ellen Moon’s Cottage, on California Street. Mrs. Moon, a Welshwoman who came to the city from Australia, was something of a local fixture, running first the Cottage and then the much-beloved Ivy Green, on Merchant Street, until her suicide in the 1863.
One could go on: Why shouldn’t there be some recognition of women, such as Christiana Berresheim, in 1911 the oldest barmaid in Massachusetts and the only one in Boston; the “smart, dashing” Kate McMillen of Cincinnati; or even poor Jane Robinson, shot to death behind the bar of her and her husband’s saloon in Dennison, Ohio, in 1882?
Of course, these are the rare exception; their names only recoverable now with much digging, but they were known in their day and are enough to have proven to someone like William that women could do the job. Nor were those bad conditions William and his ilk deplored immutable. That is proved handily by the experience of one San Francisco saloonkeeper who, in 1886, installed behind the bar of his large establishment on Fourth Street a young woman who was ready “with a demure look and a condescending smile for the highly respectable habitués of the place, and a mixed air of superiority and indifference for ordinary ‘drunks’ and loudly dressed ‘dudes.’”
“No ruffianism,” he told a reporter, “no loud swearing or vulgar language, no fights or glass breaking are ever seen or heard in my place nowadays, and I attribute the peaceful and church-like state of things to the presence of my lady bartender, while at the same time I never did a better business.”
This suggests that what was really keeping the women out was the fact that whatever men said, they didn’t want to clean up their behavior and they were keeping the women out so they didn’t have to.
But that’s too simple and puts women on a pedestal. As our Fourth Street saloonkeeper noted, “of course there are girls and girls,” and there were plenty working behind the bar who would, if anything, have encouraged rowdy behavior.
So far we’ve just been talking about women in the “respectable” saloons. There were also plenty of women working in low dives, tough women such as Frances Schultze and her barkeeper, Martha Zutgesell, who beat the hell out of a strike-breaking cop when he tried to drag a striker out of their Chicago saloon in 1903. Or Jane Hynard, Mary Miller and “Bertha,” all hauled in on the same night in 1879 (from separate bars) for breaking the New York Excise law, or Salina Freeman, an African-American bartender from Richmond, who, in 1900, got fined $10 for sparking a five-way rumble in another saloon.
In fact, the further down the socioeconomic scale one goes, the more one is likely to find a woman behind the bar, which—those bars not coincidentally being the most dangerous, although often not by a lot—neatly turns the “no place for a woman” argument on its head.
That leaves us with William’s other argument: that women were incapable of mastering the intricacies of the craft. Here, he did actually attempt to explain what he meant:
“I do not think that a bartender should be merely a beer slinger… I believe that a conscientious bartender, who knows his business, should have a higher aim than simply mixing drinks. It is his privilege to prescribe for his customers the drinks that will suit them best the different hours of the day. The art of properly mixing drinks and calculating their effect is a delicate one, and much too difficult for ladies to learn.”
I’d like to hear what Mrs. Gaywood or Martha King Niblo would have to say to such obvious horseshit. I’m sure Lottie Brummer and her sister Annie, Nellie Lanhan and Maggie Connolly, Col. Haywood’s four barmaids, had a good laugh at it and all or William’s other fulminations. Sure, it took them a little while to get up to speed. But after a week training with one Sam Bergen, who taught them the basic recipes, and another week or two of practice, they did just fine.
“American drinks?” one of them told a reporter from the New York Sun a month into the gig, “Oh, we’ve found them no trouble… American drinks are very easy to make, really. As for cocktails—and those we find are the most common drinks by far—we learned to make them in no time. We’ve also learned all about fizzes, and, in fact, everything that has ever been called for.”
The only thing that gave them any trouble was a popular bit of foolishness known as the Pousse Café, which involved layering various spirits and liqueurs on top of one another in a tiny cordial glass. To be honest, that one gives me more than a little trouble, too. I’ll bet it even vexes a modern bar-master like Jeffrey Morgenthaler or Ivy Mix, maybe just a bit.
And yet Schmidt kept claiming that he wanted women out from behind the bar because they couldn’t mix the drinks. Indeed, years later, he convinced another reporter from the Sun, too lazy to double check thing in the paper’s morgue, that the women actually “gave up in despair” when confronted with orders for the various American drinks, rather than mixing them to their customers’ satisfaction, which is what really happened. (As far as I can determine, the women lasted at the bar until sometime in mid-1892, when Hayward ran into some of his periodic business problems; eventually he and William were reunited.)
So if it wasn’t about mixing drinks, and it wasn’t about protecting the precious flower of American womanhood from the foul atmosphere of the bar, what was the taboo against barmaids about?
Any answer, I think, would have to be sketched out along these lines. During Colonial times, men fell into the job of tending bar, particularly in parts of the country where women were in short supply. With the diminished class system that prevailed over here, it wasn’t seen as a somehow degrading or unmanly service job. It was seen for what it was, a moneymaking job with a fair amount of independence and just enough craft to earn its expert practitioners the respect of a nice-sized chunk of the populace. The more men mystified that craft part of the job by mixing up outlandish concoctions, tossing drinks between cups in long liquid arcs, dashing this and that into the glass with knowing winks, setting things on fire, so on and so forth, the more they could justify their high pay—and their exclusive possession of the job.
Having spent an inordinate amount of time at modern craft cocktail bars, most of which (but, shamefully, not all of which) have no problem at all placing women behind the bar, I can confidently state that they’re fully as capable of mystifying the craft with pointless razzle-dazzle as the men are. And that, I believe, is progress.