Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Old West Myth vs. Reality -by Devon Matthews


Today I’m revisiting one of my favorite topics—the myth versus the reality of the Old West.
 
As writers of western romance, we try to keep our facts straight and base our stories in reality, to give our readers a real taste of what it was like back in the Old West. But, as hard as we try, our efforts often fall short because we’ve been influenced all our lives by what we’ve seen on the big screen and tv—the romanticized west.
 
In the movies and even most of the books we read, we see our hero shove through the batwings (swinging doors) of some saloon—usually a nice, clean saloon. He bellies up to the bar and orders a drink. In the corner, a piano player is pounding out a lively tune while gaily dressed saloon girls engage the patrons. The bartender serves our hero a shot in a clean glass from a nicely labeled bottle of whiskey. After quickly tossing back the drink, our hero then flips the bartender a gold coin and carries his bottle to one of the poker tables, where a game is already in progress. After some interesting conversation back and forth, the game usually turns into a shootout and the result is several dead bodies lying on the floor. Sound familiar?
 
In reality, until the late 1800’s, when the railroads, mining camps, and cattle drives brought prosperity to the west, a typical saloon was neither large, nicely decorated, nor was it anything even approaching clean. More often, sawdust covered the floors, which absorbed everything from tobacco juice, blood, beer, and spilled liquor. The sawdust also disguised and soaked up the more unpleasant odors of urine and vomit. Nice, huh? Rather than a piano in the corner, you were just as likely to find a barber chair. In providing barber services, the saloons gave the more pious and wife-fearing patrons a respectable reason to walk through the doors.
 
Let’s go back to the image of our hero flipping the bartender a gold coin. In reality, drinks and other goods and services were often purchased with gold dust, especially in the numerous mining camps. Where gold dust was the coin of the realm, there followed some very inventive practices of stealing it. An unscrupulous bartender, intent on taking more than his fair share, would rub grease or thick liniment into his hair. Pinching into a sack of gold dust always left some clinging to fingers, especially if they were sticky with grease. The bartender had only to swipe his fingers through his hair to capture the extra grains. Later, the bartender washed his hair and all those precious grains of gold settled right to the bottom of the pan. There was another, easier method and here’s my heroine from the second book of my gold camp series (still in progress) to explain.
 
    She tossed her leather pouch on the counter. “Dry your hands before you go pinching inside my poke, Smitty.”
    The bartender glared at her long and hard, then snatched the filthy towel draped over his shoulder and swiped it over his hands.
    Susannah was aware of the bowl of water Smitty kept under the bar. A common practice among unscrupulous barkeeps and shop owners in gold country. Gold dust clung to wet fingers. After “pinching” someone’s dust for payment, it was an easy trick to slip one’s hand down to the bowl and release the extra grains with a quick dip in the water.
 
A slick trick, indeed. Which brings us back to the sawdust on the floors. Wherever there were drunken miners, there was a lot of gold dust spilled. Sawdust disguised the gold dropped on the floor. After a big night, the saloon workers simply swept up the sawdust and extracted the gold.
 

Now, about that poker game our hero joined. Most saloons were small, with only enough room for a couple of tables. Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, prior to the 1870’s, poker was not the most popular game and was rarely played. More likely, you'd find our early cowhands and gamblers playing Faro, also known as Bucking the Tiger. Players, or punters, as they were called, played against the dealer, much like our modern day Blackjack. Some of the more famous names who were Faro dealers at one time or another included Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson. Ben Thompson owned several gaming operations in and around Austin, and these included Faro.
 
Okay. We have our hero in the saloon; he’s paid for his drink and taken a seat at one of the gaming tables. So let’s take a closer look at that drink in his hand. While it’s true that good bourbon whiskey was available throughout the west in certain establishments, more than likely our hero was served something entirely different. Tarantula Juice, Coffin Varnish, and Stagger Soup were common concoctions sold as whiskey. These were often made with cheap watered-down alcohol, colored to look like whiskey with whatever was on hand, including old shoes, tobacco, molasses, or burnt sugar. Wait a minute. Old shoes? Really? To give the whiskey an extra kick, hot peppers and even rattlesnake heads (which tainted the mixture in pretty short order) were tossed in. Anyone thirsty? Ugh. So, next time you have your hero walk into a saloon for a drink, have him ask for the good stuff from a real distillery in Kentucky or Pennsylvania. One brand of rye whiskey that was top shelf and, as the stories go, favored by even the discerning Doc Holliday, was Old Overholt, which is still around today.
 
Now, what about that shootout at the poker table, where our hero is the last man standing? In reality, shootouts were much rarer than the movies would have us believe. While many men, including Wild Bill Hickok, Morgan Earp, Warren Earp, and Wes Hardin, died from gunshots inside a saloon, gun ordinances helped curtail much of the violence. Many of the towns in the Old West had gun ordinances that required you to leave your weapon with the sheriff, your hotel clerk, or even the bartender of the local saloon. Some saloons required you to check your gun at the door. As always, there were those who sidestepped the rules by carrying their guns concealed.
 
So there you have it, a few more tidbits to tuck away in your arsenal of Old West realities. And now a question. Which do you prefer for your entertainment (books and movies), the romanticized version of the Old West, or would you rather have the reality?

Happy reading and writing!
Devon

Devon's web site
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*Photos courtesy of the Public Domain via Wikipedia.

24 comments:

Kathleen said...

Devon, you ol' iconoclast you. How dare you shatter our dearly held notions about the Old West? ;-)

This is all fascinating stuff. I'd never heard about cheap whiskey being "flavored" with rattlesnake heads. Ick! No wonder drinkers got into saloon fights! :-D

Your question is a toughie. I suspect that if writers portrayed th Old West as it really was and not as our romantic souls want to see it, the stories might be dreadfully dull. More writers are working in bits and pieces of reality among the Hollywood-type legends, though, and I think that's a good thing. (You're one of those writers who incorporates just enough reality -- as in the snippet you posted -- to keep things interesting and educational while not "turning off" readers who want a rip-roaring story about the kinds of characters they've always imagined populating the Wild West. Good on ya!)

Caroline Clemmons said...

Devon, great post! I prefer reality, though I'm not sure about readers who are not writers. I do romanticize a bit in my books, but try very diligently to be true to history. One thing that always bothers me is the heroine who bathes every day after a hard day's work. Really? No plumbing and she has to carry and heat water to bathe afte an exhausting day? I think more probably she'd have a sponge bath daily except one real bath on Saturday night to prepare for church (if she's even close enough to attend.) We can't use our hygiene standards for historic novels.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Kathleen, you are always a fun person! Love your comments here and on Facebook.

Lyn Horner said...

Interesting glimpses of the real Old West, Devon. I guess I'm like most western romance fans and writers. I enjoy a blend of reality and romantic fiction. It's no fun escaping to a different time period if it's all drudgery, dirt and boredom.

Kathleen said...

Caroline, you hit one of my pet peeves, too: personal hygiene. For a lot of folks, bathtubs (even galvanized or copper tubs that could do double duty for laundry) were luxuries. When homesteaders and cowboys wanted (or more likely, were forced into taking) a real bath, they dove into a river or creek. Imagine that experience in the winter! Even in summer, natural water sources can be REALLY cold. Toting and heating water for a nice, hot bath after a long, hard day? Forget it. The West must have been a ... um ... "fragrant" place. :-D

Devon Matthews said...

Kathleen, I agree with Caroline, you're always such a pleasure! You've made my day with your comment about striking a balance in my writing. Thank you! :o)

Now here's my answer to the question I posed at the end of the post. As much as I enjoy the down and dirty grit of reality sprinkled into my westerns, I still want the romanticized hero and heroine--at least to a certain extent. I want a larger-than-life hero, darn it! We NEED another John Wayne in Hollywood.

Devon Matthews said...

Nope, we can't stick to reality in our historical westerns when it comes to hygiene, I agree. But here's something I keep in mind. When I was growing up here in the hills, before we had running water, we only took a full-blown bath in a big, galvanized wash tub once a week because hauling and heating water was so much work. But we didn'g go around dirty and smelly. We washed--sponge baths--every day. We wouldn't have been allowed to get into bed otherwise. We even washed our hair fairly often as that didn't require much water and could be done in a small wash pan--just a small amount of water to wet and suds, then the rest of the bucket to rinse. :o) Something I rarely ever see mentioned in historicals is what people did about their teeth. Did they brush? There were toothbrushes and powders back then, but we never see our heroes and heroines using them. (note to self--show someone brushing teeth in current wip)

Devon Matthews said...

I'm with you, Lyn. I want to see some reality. I want to see my characters sweat and toil, but if this is all we had it would wear us down pretty quickly. So, yay for Romance! :o)

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Hi Devon,
Really enjoyed your post. I must admit I pick reality. I find it all so fascinating. But with all my research for my novels there always comes a time when I can't find the historical accuracy I'm striving for. So I must make it up. My only hope is that I've absorbed enough historical tidbits that I can do this convincingly. But I agree that we are all influenced by movies and tv. Cliches creep into my work so easily. The only way around that is to research the reality.

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Hi Devon,
I pick reality because I find it so fascinating. But as a writer sometimes you have to make something up. I just hope that I've researched enough to make my guess plausible.

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Kristy! I like the reality, too, but I also need to have a big dose of romanticism thrown in to make the realism palatable. I hope you enjoyed the post. Thanks for stopping by! :o)

Ciara Gold said...

What a great discussion and an excellent post, Devon. I love when I learn something new and I surely did reading your post. As for the discussion, I agree with the masses. Of course, that's why they call it fiction. So we can bend the truth a bit to make it more palatable but dose our stories with enough of the real thing to be plausible.

Ellen O'Connell said...

I tend to come down on the side of reality, but am with the majority - reality does need to be tempered enough to let the story be romantic.

I've mentioned tooth brushing in my stories. One thing I came across in research is that among the basics Civil War soldiers carried was a toothbrush (and either tooth powder or more commonly toothpaste - in a pot).

Devon Matthews said...

Ciara, I'm so happy you picked up something new in the post! Looks like we're all pretty much agreed about what we want from our western entertainment. :o) Thanks for stopping by, sweetie.

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Ellen. Which books had the tooth brushing in them? I've read your westerns and, I hate to admit it but, I can't recall that. You just told me something I didn't know--about the toothpaste. I knew about the powders, of course, but didn't realize they had paste back then. Good to know. Wonder if it was mint flavored. Thanks so much for the info and for stopping in. :o)



Alison E. Bruce said...

When I was doing some research last summer, I came across a great demonstration of how to have a "bath" and wash your hair with two pans of water. It's all in the order that you take care of business. I went looking for it again and all I found was a naked model in cowboy boots, squatting over a wash tub, with one hand possibly washing himself. ;)

I make use of baths in UNDER A TEXAS STAR, but only in hotels or bath houses, and not everyday. It starts as an obstacle that Marly has to avoid - since she's masquerading as a boy and can't very well use a public bath.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Evidently, the use of toothpaste dates back to ancient Egypt ("Toothpaste most likely originated in China, Egypt, and India more than 6,000 years ago. In China, twigs and bones were mashed and mixed with water, salt, and flower petals to form a thick paste.")

My aunt used to brush with baking soda. At the turn of the 19th Century, brushing with charcoal or burnt bread was popular.

But back to the original question, I prefer real history as a backdrop, but I only require that the plot be believable, not realistic. Even when describing a real event, storytellers select their material to best serve their story.

Then there's the translation issue. We know that things would have been smaller, dirtier and duller than portrayed in the movies, but that's relative to our standards of cleanliness etc. To a hand coming off the trail, that small saloon might seem bigger, the girls prettier and the whiskey better tasting than they really were. If we describe the place from his point of view, our readers can fill in the details -- grittier or romanticized -- depending on their knowledge and preferences.


Devon Matthews said...

Alison, thanks for the toothpaste info. The way teeth are (not) addressed in historical novels, you'd think toothpaste was a recent invention. I hear ya on painting a general picture and letting the reader's imagination fill in the details. Thanks for coming by. You're always a pleasure. :o)

Jacquie Rogers said...

Confession: I rarely read description. That's probably why it's so hard for me to write it. So no, I'm not a fan of reality, but I'm a big fan of plausibility.

I tend to sugar-coat because for one thing, I don't want to have to stop the story and explain stuff, and for another, I write light and I want my readers to have a good time. You just don't do that with psoriasis and the like.

Yesterday, I went to the doctor and he asked if I had any more books out. I was surprised he read my books! Then he told me that my books were a vacation for his brain. Maybe he said that to make me feel better. It did, but I think the steroids helped a whole lot, too. LOL.

Ron Scheer said...

I wouldn't know how to take a comment like that. Vacation for his brain?

Ron Scheer said...

Thanks, Devon. Great post. I am more interested in history than I believe a lot of western readers are. If it's not historical, it's not plausible for me and ruins the romance. I don't think reality and romance have to be at odds, even as they aren't today.

Devon Matthews said...

Jacquie, I've found that reality can be hilarious, it all depends on the context. ;o)

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Ron! Welcome! I agree. I want lots of realism in my westerns. But I do think we tend to gloss over or simply omit some things to make them more palatable to today's readers.

So nice to see you here! :o)

Rain Trueax said...

This was interesting. As for which I'd prefer, I guess a mix as a romance is a bit of a fairy tale with its guaranteed happily ever after. I try to get some details right like what kind of gun, look at history books for the average in a town I am setting activity, but I don't get carried away with putting in everything I know or expect it all to be there in a book I buy. The real deal history can be saved for something like here with a blog as a way to stay grounded that it wasn't all romanticized like a John Wayne western might imply-- but yeah, I need my wayne fixes every so often ;).