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SEVEN: Drinking Places PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wolfgang Schivelbusch   
Wednesday, 20 February 2013 00:00

Throughout history drinking alcohol has meant creating social bonds. The oldest drinking rites were demonstrations of the fellowship built up among participants. The guest offered a drink of welcome is being symbolically accepted as a part of his host's household. Drinking to someone's health, making toasts, fraternity drinking, drinking in rounds unite participants at least for the duration of their drinking. In no situation is this archaic meaning clearer than in the public drinking place. Here a set of rules and regulations holds sway different from any found outside in normal middle-class life. As an American sociological study puts it: "Public drinking places are 'open regions': those who are present, acquainted or not, have the right to engage others in conversational interaction and the duty to accept the overtures of sociability proffered to them. While many, and perhaps the majority, of conventional settings customarily limit the extent of contact among strangers, sociability is the most general rule in the public drinking place. Although the bar is typically populated primarily by strangers, interaction is available to all those who choose to enter. The physical door through which one enters a drinking establishment is a symbolic door as well, for those who come through it declare by entering that unless they put forth evidence to the contrary, they will be open for conversation with unacquainted others for the duration of their stay. Whatever their age, sex, or apparent position, their biographical blemishes or physical stigmas, all who enter are immediately vested with the status of an open person, open both in having the right to make contact with the others present and in the general obligation of being open to others who may contact them." If this general openness on the part of guests marks the bar or pub as an archaic territory, it remains at the same time a thoroughly modern one, in that the drinks served in it must still be paid for. The barkeeper or publican is not a host, but a merchant. The clientele may for a while suspend the principle of exchange as they embrace and offer one another drinks. But for the barkeeper "host"—apart from any momentary rushes of similar largesse—these "guests" are still customers, served as long as they can still pay.

(The Round Table of Jobst Tetzel, painting from Tetzel's guest book.)

(A page from the register of the Drinking Fraternity of the Students
of Jena.)

Households that sold their surplus of homemade beer or wine
advertised the fact by hanging a bundle of brushwood, a broom, or a
wreath, mounted upon a pole outside their house. Out of this very
primitive form (our illustration dates from the thirteenth century)
there gradually evolved over the centuries the artistic signs that still
hang to this day outside old inns in Germany.

The conflicting character of the bar, the site of an almost symbolic repeal of the laws of exchange yet at the same time a commercial establishment like any other, can be traced to a long historical process of commercialized hospitality. Before inns, hotels, restaurants, and taverns assumed their present form, various other intermediary forms came and went. Out of the pure hospitality that still prevailed in the early Middle Ages, there arose in the later Middle Ages a transitional form of hospitality in the guest trade run by the corporative estates. The inns for merchants in the great fair- and trading-cities, the so-called merchants' courts, were part of this phenomenon. As for early forms of the tavern, these included urban "drinking rooms," which were also run by the corporative estates and could be called prototypes of the later clubs and associations. The city fathers and the individual guilds would meet in these drinking parlors for certain purposes (release of apprentices, funeral feasts, weddings, etc.) as well as when councils were held to discuss the affairs of their own groups and of the city. A drinking code comparable to that of student fraternities prevailed at these meetings.

The public drinking place developed along a quite different line than these associationlike corporative establishments. It was a product of the money economy and of expanded foreign trade, both forces that pulled the rug out from under the older hospitality, replacing it with a "paying-guest trade." Three services were available to the clientele: room, board, and a place to drink. For ages these had existed under one roof; travelers as a rule were offered not only a bed, but also food and drink. Even today this is true of the better hotels, which contain a restaurant and a bar. But for a long time there have also existed special types of establishments to fulfill the separate needs of the guest trade. For eating there was the restaurant (earlier the eating house or "cookshop"), for staying overnight the hotel (earlier the inn), for drinking the pub or bar (earlier the alehouse or tavern). Originally all these sites were barely distinguishable from a private household. Indeed, they started out as private households that simply made whatever surpluses they may have had (of rooms, food, drink) available to strangers, for a price. Only gradually did the guesthouse begin to be commercialized. From the changes in the interior of the public house or tavern, we can see how a once thoroughly private setting gradually was transformed to meet the requirements of a commercial drinking place. This physical transformation took place around the hub of the tavern, the counter.


The Coming of Counters and Bars

Originally the restaurant was identical with the kitchen of the house. The kitchen was more than just the place where food was prepared; it was an all-purpose room. The social life of the restaurant took place around the open hearth—where the food was also prepared—even as late as the eighteenth century. A separate area for guests existed only in the large inns and only for upper-class travelers. The innkeeper's family, the help, and guests mingled in this all-purpose room, or, to put it another way, the guest, for the length of his stay, became part of the innkeeper's family, the only difference being that he paid for the privilege.

The more professionally an inn was run, the larger its "guest room" or restaurant, which no longer functioned as a kitchen. The cooking was relegated to a separate space. The only trace left of it in the restaurant was the open hearth and the (now merely decorative) pots, pans, and crockery on the walls.

Around 1800 the restaurant became separated from the innkeeper's private rooms. It became the commercial space in which the clientele was served. Yet compared to other types of business premises, it still retained an aura of relative privacy, resembling a pleasant parlor that just happened to be open to the public. This was because it was not yet equipped with what had been a permanent feature of the retail trade since the late Middle Ages: a counter marking the concrete boundary across which buyers and sellers dealt with one another. Goods were passed over the counter to enter the possession of the buyer as soon as he laid the required money on it.

The space shown in the drawing Village Inn (p. 198) and in Taste (pp.
196-97) by Adrien von Ostade, is kitchen, guest room, and living
room rolled into one for the innkeeper's family. Everything centers on
the hearth, the only one in the house. This is still true of the country
inn in Rowlandson's early-nineteenth-century drawing (top, p. 199),
though here things are already clearly arranged in a new way: the
serving staff is now in evidence, as are the guests' places at a table
prepared for them. In the background the actual kitchen and the space
for the beer tap are already separated by a partition from the area
reserved for guests. An urban variant on this transition from kitchen
to restaurant is shown in the eighteenth-century illustration of the
Parisian establishment Ramponneau (bottom, p. 199). Kitchen and
restaurant still form a single spatial unit, but both are already clearly
marked off from one another by a divider through which the food and
drink customers have ordered is received by the waiters. From the
number of tables in the guests' area it is apparent how much business
has expanded, thus necessitating this new spatial arrangement.
Finally, in both of Cruikshank's illustrations (pp. 200, 201) we see
how the "gin palace," a completely new type of drinking place,
responded to the increased volume in patronage. The counter, already
visible at the Ramponneau, where it still plays a rather minor role,
now assumes a central place in the activity, as a sort of traffic island
or nodal point at which business is transacted. The restaurant with
seating arrangements, if it still exists at all, is separate from the bar,
and reached by a small staircase (Parlour Upstairs, p. 200). Customers
normally do their drinking standing up at the bar (p. 201).
Restaurants were transformed by these conditions only in England
and the United States, the bastions of capitalism. In Germany the bar
never quite caught on to this degree. Karl Kautsky had the
Gemiitlichkeit of German taverns in mind when he wrote of English
bars in 1891: "The English tavern is merely a shop in which spirits
are sold; it is set up so that no one could possibly feel tempted to
linger longer than necessary to empty a glass, which one does, in fact,
while standing at the service counter. In such a place there is not a
trace of camaraderie or exchange of ideas."

The counter first appeared in English restaurants at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and in Anglo-American regions it was known as the bar. With this new piece of furniture the restaurant once and for all shed its cozy private character. The bar, like the counter, was never found in private households. Restaurants would now be divided into two areas—the space behind the counter where the innkeeper did his business, and the actual restaurant. But the counter-turned-bar soon took on another significance besides the purely commercial one. Standing at this bar became the typical way of having a drink in such an establishment, which itself eventually became known as a "bar." The reason for this was the physical proximity of the tavern-keeper and the fact that the bar was not only a counter but the location of the taps for drinks. Physical proximity to the bar clearly stirred atavistic memories of the tavernkeeper's original role as host—in total contrast to the commercial significance of the bar as a counter, that is, a counting place where money changed hands.

The fact that the bar first made its way into the big-city drinking houses of England, the so-called gin places, at the start of the nineteenth century marks it as a genuine product of the Industrial Revolution. In this respect it could be compared to distilled spirits, or be termed their architectural equivalent. If because of its high alcohol content liquor sped up the inebriation process, the bar sped up, i.e., shortened, the length of a drinker's stay in the bar. Liquor is not consumed slowly in long sips, but abruptly "tossed off." The process is so quick that it can be performed standing up. Because of their bars, the gin places that were springing up like mushrooms in Manchester and other English industrial cities at the start of the nineteenth century resembled factory assembly lines. One such establishment in Manchester served over 400 customers in an hour. In a single week the fourteen largest gin palaces in London served 270,000 guests—almost a metropolis unto itself. Thus it seems no exaggeration to characterize the bar as a traffic innovation, or as the historians Gorham and Dunnett have written, "a solution to a traffic problem just as much as Haussmann's Place de l'Etoile or a Woolworth store are practical solutions." The bar introduced a qualitative innovation to the traffic flow of the gin palace. It sped up drinking, just as the railroad sped up travel and the mechanical loom sped up textile production.

However, only in England and the United States did bars and saloons change so thoroughly. Since the nineteenth century the Anglo-American drinking saloon has been called simply a "bar": bar and public drinking space had merged.

On the Continent and particularly in Germany the bar, that is, the actual bar behind which the bartender stands, never acquired this exact significance. Compared to the long American bar, the German bar-counter is a mere stump. The French bar is halfway between these two extremes—the lesson being that one of the ways to gauge the extent to which commercialism has saturated a given culture is by the length of its bars. The bar functioned mainly as a place from which to serve drinks, rinse glasses, etc. While drinking at a bar is normal in England and the United States, in Germany it has become the unspoken prerogative of regulars only. To this day people in German Kneipen (taverns) drink at tables. The prevailing atmosphere is one which even the English language calls Gemiitlichkeit.


Our valuable member Wolfgang Schivelbusch has been with us since Tuesday, 19 February 2013.

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