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54 5. Saloons and the Archaeology of Leisure Between 1993 and 2000 archaeologists examined the locations of four saloons in Virginia City, retrieving roughly three hundred thousand artifacts . The diversity of excavated businesses allows for an unprecedented opportunity for comparison as archaeologists considered how people in the nineteenth century spent their leisure time. Archaeologists working anywhere else on this topic must consider Kelly Dixon’s definitive treatment of the subject, Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City. Under the direction of Don Hardesty, Dixon excavated two of the saloons and had access to the collections from two previous projects , giving her a unique perspective into a western icon. Virginia City archaeologists excavated a German-owned theater saloon , a shooting gallery and bar, an African American establishment, and one serving an Irish clientele. Artifacts included the predictably large number of bottles, bones, and plates—all four establishments served meals as well as drinks—but differences in the range of material culture reveal a great deal about the diversity of the places. An assessment of the saloon of the Wild West also presents an opportunity to cast new light on what has become an international icon. Saloons were some of the first businesses established after the 1859 Comstock strike, and the institution has remained an essential, local cornerstone for the subsequent 150 years. During Virginia City and Gold Hill’s heyday in the 1870s, residents often boasted that they had one hundred bars. The claim was a way for people to identify themselves as harder drinking than those living in any other place, but the assertion was not radically different from the sort of things other mining towns maintained. It is not difficult to imagine the intended subtext: Comstockers hoped to be seen as manlier than those living elsewhere. In fact, the fluctuating number of saloons for each customer was usually around one bar for every 160 men, and that approached the average for the nation.1 The four excavated saloons underscore the diverse types of business- 55 Saloons and the Archaeology of Leisure es that operated in Virginia City. John Piper’s Old Corner Bar, founded in 1860, was one of the more highly regarded one-bit saloons in town. At first the German immigrant’s simple wooden buildings stood on the southwest corner of Union and B Streets in the center of town. It burned during an 1863 fire that devastated the entire block, after which Piper moved his business across the street to the northwest corner of the intersection . There he built a two-story brick structure, reserving the first- floor corner for his saloon and leasing the remaining space for offices and other enterprises. He subsequently operated from that location for the next twenty years. The building was damaged in the fire of 1875, but Piper reopened it by 1877. A fire in 1883 closed the Old Corner Bar, and it did not reopen again until 2009. After 1883 the space was used for storage until Dixon excavated it in 1997 and 1998. Tourism boosters tout Piper’s business as a theater saloon, but it was not associated with Piper ’s Opera House until after 1877. The entrepreneur purchased Maguire ’s Opera House in 1867, but that facility, which burned in 1875, was two blocks downhill from the Old Corner. For the majority of its years of operation, the Old Corner Bar was simply a dignified place with affordable prices.2 William A. G. Brown, a freeborn African American from Massachusetts , arrived in Virginia City in the early 1860s. He worked as a bootblack , a term for a street shoe polisher, for at least a year until roughly 1864, when he opened his own establishment, which he called the Boston Saloon. The name may have referred to his hometown—the record is unclear about whether he was actually from Boston—or it may have been a reference to a city known as the bastion of freedom and liberty, a powerful symbol used by the abolitionist movement. Brown operated his business on North B Street for a brief time before moving it to South D Street by at least 1866. It stayed at that location until shortly before the fire of 1875, which destroyed the place. Approximately thirty thousand artifacts emerged during the 2000 excavation of the site. The D Street location of the Boston Saloon was in the center of what the community now calls the red-light district. It was, in fact...


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MARC Record
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