“Women, High Living, and Diamonds” for Omaha’s Bartenders

Omaha in 1886 boasted about 150 saloons manned by a host of bartenders who ministered to the city’s thirst for beer and hard liquor. The Omaha Bee on September 26, 1886, noted the “many things, interesting and curious, that might be written about the Omaha bartenders.”

Emanuel Wolfe photographed these bartenders and customers in Neligh about 1907-17. RG2836-783


The Bee noted that each saloon usually employed two men behind the bar. However, “not more than a score . . . are first-class bar tenders.”

A first-class bartender, according to the Bee, should have a number of attributes. “He must not only be a machine, [but] an accurate machine at that–able to compound a list of drinks as long as your arm—putting together the proper ingredients in the proper proportions. He must he a close student of human nature, affable and agreeable under all circumstances and at all times. . . . If a customer is sleepy and stupid, the man behind the bar must possess the ability to give him a decoction which shall open his eyes and make him feel wide awake and ready for business; if he, on the other hand, [is] unable to sleep and in need of rest, the bartender must call to his aid the magic of his art and give him something to soothe his nerves and insure him a night of sweet sleep.”

Bartenders were not paid high salaries, noted the Bee. “Twenty dollars a week is the amount earned by the majority of Omaha’s best drink-mixers. A few are paid $100 a month and one or two perhaps a trifle over that amount.”

Although wages were not high, bartenders had the reputation of spending freely. They were said to be “well-dressed, gentlemanly fellows, who live well and know how to spend their money. A bartender who saves his money is a very rare exception. The majority of this class of men prefer to spend it on women, high living and diamonds.” – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications


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