First aired on The Sunday Edition (3/7/11)
When most people think of bars and taverns, a mental collage of clinking glasses, baskets of fried food, and spirited conversation shouted over jukebox jams is likely to pop up. But Toronto-based writer Christine Sismondo associates neighbourhood watering holes with a grander concept: nation-building.
Whatever you call them -- pubs, taprooms, grog shops -- bars have played a key role in the formation of American society, she says.
In her new book America Walks into a Bar, Sismondo traces the fascinating origins of the American tavern from England to New England and reveals that even the Puritans enjoyed their "Beere." The local boozer was often a communal meeting place that stood in for institutions that had yet to make it over from the old country.
"There were no courthouses in America at the time, there were no town halls," Sismondo told The Sunday Edition's guest host Jim Brown during a recent interview.
"Occasionally the tavern was even used as a substitute for the church... [For] any town business, if it was cold, you would go to the tavern because the tavern was the place which was warm because that's where everyone was and the body heat kept it warm all the time."
In fact, Sismondo, who is also a humanities lecturer at York University, discovered that throughout U.S. history, pints and politics have been paired as closely as as beer and pretzels. The American Revolution, for example, was sparked in taverns and beer halls, where the American patriots recruited members and spread their message.
Decades later, John Wilkes Booth conspired with his associates in Surratt Tavern near Washington, D.C., to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. The bar continued to play a role in shaping American life, morality and popular culture through the 20th century and beyond &mdash from the Whiskey Rebellion to the temperance movement to Prohibition.
"William James says it best, I think: 'alcohol expands...alcohol says yes!'" Sismondo said. "So you've got this space where people are kind of getting a little loose, they're getting close, they're bonding with each other and sometimes [are getting] angry. Some people get wound up and that's where they took action."
America Walks into a Bar
Buy this book at:
From Oxford University Press:
"When George Washington bade farewell to his officers, he did so in New York's Fraunces Tavern. When Andrew Jackson planned his defense of New Orleans against the British in 1815, he met Jean Lafitte in a grog shop. And when John Wilkes Booth plotted with his accomplices to carry out a certain assassination, they gathered in Surratt Tavern. In America Walks into a Bar, Christine Sismondo recounts the rich and fascinating history of an institution often reviled, yet always central to American life."