Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City

By Smith, Frederick H. | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City


Smith, Frederick H., Southeastern Archaeology


Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City. KELLY J. DIXON. University of Nevada Press, Reno, 2005. xiii + 219 pp., illus., map. $34.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-87417-608-5.

Reviewed by Frederick H. Smith

Hollywood films, television shows, and popular writers have depicted nineteenth-century western saloons as brutal, violent, and debauched places. In Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City, Kelly J. Dixon skillfully uses archaeological evidence to dismantle these somewhat false images of western mining town saloons conjured up in popular media. While rough-and-tumble saloons were certainly part of the urban landscape of western mining towns, Dixon shows they were not the norm. Although popular writers of the nineteenth century correctly recognized the valuable 'contributions saloons made to the social dynamic of western mining towns, Dixon argues they overemphasized the volatile and vile nature of saloon culture for dramatic effect and skewed our understanding of their function. Studying the material culture remains from four saloons in Virginia City, Nevada, Dixon deftly reconstructs the diversity of saloons available to visitors and local residents in Virginia City and highlights the way saloons shaped the social milieu of mid- to late-nineteenth-century western mining towns.

Dixon embraces a comparative perspective on Virginia City saloons that seeks to identify the distinct character of each saloon and showcase the variety of saloons that existed in this frontier setting. However, he is primarily interested in illuminating the spirit of the Boston Saloon, an upscale drinking establishment owned by an African American proprietor who largely catered to Virginia City's African American community. By focusing on the lives of African Americans in Virginia City, Dixon's study adds knowledgeably to our understanding of the diversity of western mining towns and sheds new light on the contributions African Americans made to the settlement of the western United States and how they helped shape the social landscape of nineteenth-century America. Using maps, census records, and other public documents, Dixon creatively reconstructs the social geography of Virginia City and identifies the location of African American households in this diverse urban setting. Dixon shows that African Americans did not concentrate in distinct and segregated African American neighborhoods. Instead, African Americans were integrated into the broader Virginia City community and lived side by side with European immigrants and Americans of European descent. Dixon's study raises important questions about why African Americans, who lived and worked side by side with whites, would seek, or perhaps were forced to seek, separation from the broader community in the leisure sphere at the Boston Saloon.

Dixon's study also makes valuable contributions to Alcohol Studies research. Historians, anthropologists, and folklorists have devoted a great deal of attention to explicating the rise of distinct drinking establishments. Dixon's study offers a rare glimpse inside boomtown saloons that will no doubt add to our understanding of the forces that fueled the popularity of sociable drinking places. Moreover, it raises questions that will attract the interests of alcohol studies researchers in other disciplines who seek archaeological interpretations that may complement their work. What, for example, do boomtown saloons in Virginia City share in common with colonial taverns in New England, Parisian cafés, and Caribbean rum shops? What were the push factors and pull factors that attracted saloon-goers in Virginia City and what needs did these drinking establishments meet for the populace? Moreover, Dixon's study of boomtown saloons complements the work of folklorists of the Wild West, such as Madelon Powers, whose book Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman's Saloon, 1870-1920 details the social and symbolic meaning of these truly American institutions in the nineteenth century. …

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