GREAT AMERICAN HOME IMPROVEMENT THE OLD SCHOOL BASEMENT BAR

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From the desk of Contributing Editor, Eli M. Getson–

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Our Grandparent’s generation got it right, man– the fully loaded, properly-appointed basement bar. via here

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Like a lot of us affected by the ongoing economic instability, I’ve had to tighten the purse strings a bit lately.  Simply put– I’m spending more time at home, and less dough on going out.  That said, my penchant for enjoying a stiff drink with friends has inspired me to bring back something my Grandparent’s generation held sacred and all had– the basement bar.  Let us be clear before anyone reads on– this is not about having an additional fridge stocked with Corona you bought from Costco, a jumbo bag of chips, and a few crappy bean bags that reek of stale beer from your frat house days.  That’s the JV approach, and not an atmosphere where anyone serious about drinking and socializing wants to hang. In short– it is not a bar.

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Can I pour you a tall, stiff one?  Does anyone wear a tie at home anymore, let alone in their basement? Circa 1965– via here

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The home bar craze started post WWII, as more Americans realized the dream of home ownership (late 1940’s to early 1970’s being my unofficial Golden Years).  As families migrated more and more to the suburbs, they found themselves enjoying entertaining at home.  Probably because as first-time home owners, they truly busted their asses to get into a house– saving every nickel (they’d never even consider defaulting on a mortgage), and when they finally settled on their dream house, they were truly proud of it, and wanted to show it off to friends and family alike.  Also restaurants and bars were still largely urban back then.  It would be many years before the suburbs were teaming with every silly “TGI– what is that ridiculous friggin’ costume” restaurant/bar franchise.  The other great thing back then– the “politically correct” culture of today was not around to stop grownups from socializing– sans kids. Back in the day, entertaining the children  was what the TV upstairs was made for.  With the kiddies safely locked away watching Rawhide, the adults were free to to enjoy top-shelf spirits, Chesterfield smoky treats, and boozy, adult conversation in the privacy of their own homes– truly paradise on earth.

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Circa 1949– Glamour gal, Eileen Howe, having a drink on New Year’s Eve in Samuel Spiegel’s home bar.  Photo by Peter Stackpole for LIFE magazine.

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When done correctly, an evening hosted in a properly appointed basement bar could be a classy affair– not unlike heading to that swank supper club you loved.  Couples coming over on a Friday night to knock back a few and actually got dressed up for the occasion– not in cocktail dresses and suits, but certainly never in shorts and t-shirts (that was only for the summertime outdoor bar by the pool). During the holidays, festive apparel was not out of the question– in fact, it was expected.  It was time to get out those Christmas plaid pants you had been holding back all year!  Having their own bar also trained American men (as well as women and children) to master another key skill which has been largely lost– mixing a killer cocktail.  In my humble opinion, every gent should know how to make three drinks well, in no particular order– Martini (both gin and vodka), Manhattan, and at one umbrella drink for summer months.  Back in the day every suburban dad had this down cold– and I knew many whose repertoires were much larger (like in the hundreds), and had no issues making gems like Grasshoppers, the Sloe Gin Fizz, Fuzzy Navels, Blue Hawaii’s, etc.  My own mother made a wicked Rum Punch (after two of these the party really got going).

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Circa 1942– Bud Abbott biting a bottletop off a bottle while his wife sits on the other side of bar at home.  Photo by John Florea for LIFE magazine.

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The key to this cocktail madness was a fully stocked bar.  You had to have everything imaginable– from obscure stuff like cocktail onions, to every flavor of liquor DeKuyper made.  Who knew they made flavors like blackberry– who knew! This along with lemons, limes, olives, bitters, soda, tonic, etc. meant you were “fully stocked”.  On an aside many of us probably owe our first buzzes to those DeKuyper guys-Crème de Menthe and Peach Schnapps were a party favorites in Junior High.  Having a well worn copy of Mr. Boston’s Official Bartenders Guide was also a must.  You never wanted to be caught with your pants down should some fetching new housewife asked you for a Sazerac or Pimm’s Cup.

As we close out a tough year, what we need to do going forward is create a greater sense of community spirit, and give people a place to gather, exchange ideas, maybe get a little buzzed, and definitely have some laughs– and if anyone says this what is Starbucks is for, I will reach through the internet mself and strangle you.  I ask you– Is there be no more relevant or better atmosphere than our own homes, in a great bar, which we built ourselves?

–Eli M Getson

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1960′s basement bar boozin’ with buddies.

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Related TSY Posts:

Bottoms Up! | A Love Affair with Taverns, Bars & Pubs

Back to the Future | A Retro Hi Fi in a Dark & Cozy Man Cave

Groovy Home Built from Salvaged Finds | The 1970s Artist Abode of John Holmes

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32 thoughts on “GREAT AMERICAN HOME IMPROVEMENT THE OLD SCHOOL BASEMENT BAR

  1. Wonderful. I’m continually amazed at the varied yet poignant topics you discuss. This one brought back memories of me often being “hired” as bartender for my folks’ parties. They even had me wear a vest and tie, if I recall.

    • Thanks, Chris.

      We like to run the gamut of epic history, culture and style– and Eli has definitely been a great addition to the crew (now two).

      Best,

      JP

    • Chris-I was in the same position, I got a copy of Mr. Boston’s when I was 12 to bone up on mixology for my parents parties. Thanks for the memories.

  2. My mom and dad were avid entertainers, like almost every weekend (and parents of 6 kids). Although they didn’t have a home bar, per se, (nor a basement) everyone generally congregated in the kitchen area which had a bar and stools. My dad was a fabulous cook. These parties would go on until the wee hours, with my dad and uncle usually crashed on the couches while their wives had those last cigarettes and drinks at about 4 or 5 am. I recall mixing a drink or two for the guests, usually a ginger ale and 7 Crown or 4 Roses. Good memories and they instilled a love of entertaining friends, which my wife and I do regularly.

  3. It’s hard to say what I remember more fondly – my uncle Bill’s basement bar thick with smoke from his ever-present Viceroy and tiki themed cigarette lighter or my grandfather’s beer tapped refrigerator? I’m glad to have grown up when I did. Thanks to uncle Bill, I still drink Canadian Club and long for 12oz returnables in a waxy box. Like my grandfather, that refrigerator and Buckhorn beer are long gone. Thanks for another wonderful post.

  4. These photos blew me away. I’ve just recently discovered the Yard, and I’m absolutely loving it.

    Here in Australia, we are largely basement-less (I’ve never seen one, and I’m 40 years old), and the basement bar has been replaced by The Shed.

    Not as sophisticated perhaps, but a good Shed always has at least a beer fridge, TV, good couch, radio and bar stools. A place to get away from the wife…blokes only.

    I’ve known some old diggers who had spent more time in The Shed than they had in the house. Wish I had some photos to share.

  5. Pingback: Back to the Future | A Retro Hi Fi in a Dark & Cozy Man Cave « The Selvedge Yard

  6. Pingback: BOTTOMS UP! | A LOVE AFFAIR WITH TAVERNS, BARS & PUBS « The Selvedge Yard

  7. My grandparents had one in their basement, next to the Brunswick pool table with 2″ slate top. Mahogany Cube lighter, leather sofas next to the bar, and a turntable that folded out of the wall with a mirrored cabinet to hold the vinyl below. The television was also built into the wall, and this was all 1960s. There was a working fireplace next to the pool table as well.

    The whole damn basement was furnished with drop ceilings, an entire 15 foot wall in mirror, porcelain greyhound, and carpet.

    You could literally live down there. My grandpa got Alzheimer’s when I was about 11 and had to move out of the house. They gave the pool table away to whoever came to move it out of the basement.

    I miss that house dearly.

  8. Back in the ’50s and ’60s I think every single issue of every home improvement or DIY magazine had at least one article on building or improving your basement bar. I remember a few of these that my friends parents had – ours was a strictly non-drinking house – and a few great parties those parents hosted. It was far cooler to have your High School after prom party in a nice cozy basement bar than out in the sticks at a wide spot in the road. One family had not only a great bar, but had a juke box and enough floor space for a dozen or so (friendly) couples to dance! It was the tail end of your golden age, but the fundamentals were all there.

  9. I remember the honey colored pine paneling in the basement. 7 kids and my dad was always calling one of us to “come help down stairs” that was the code word for dad is happy and we can come down and play with the grown up’s. Never will I have fonder memories than the ones in the basement of our row home outside Philadelphia . The smells of the cigars , the laughter of friends and family. The hugs and kisses that never stopped. Moreover, our never ending respect for our parents and all they gave us.

  10. I wish I had photos of the now rennovated-over Bavarian (?) masterpiece that was my parents basement — thick carved oak 5-ft bar and mirrored back-bar with stainless sinks, glass washer and keg tap, orange / black twist long-shag carpeting (that also covered the bar front), white stucco walls with dark oak paneling. All dimly lit by black iron carriage lamps with orange flicker bulbs.

    It was someone’s vision of escape from the pastoral suburban bliss of East Grand Rapids, Michigan, ca.1948. And just the place for a 15-year old kid to get up to no good and build a little character…

    • TSY readers-thanks so much for sharing your memories. I wrote this piece because of my own memories of my Grandfather’s basement bar in Allentown, PA. The mounted deer heads, the kegs of Genese or Schafer, the neon signs, the Wild Turkey and Jack, the smell of pipe smoke and Cherry Tiperillos, and the laughter of my Grandfather, Grandmother and their friends after a day hunting, fishing, or just for no reason at all.

  11. It’s really cool reading everyone’s basement memories, thanks for sharing. The sights, sounds and smells that we carry with us when we have incredible experiences making living so rich.

    Best,

    JP

  12. In suburban Southern California, we don’t have basements, so our backyard patios will have to do. My parents were kids in the 40s and 50s, but I do remember them having a bar that sat 4 in our living room in the 70s. My dad retired in 2002, and a few years later he got to building his dream bar\bbq. He even set-up a (sort of) how-to blog about his project at handymaned(dot)blogspot(dot)com. As you can see, he hasn’t posted since 2008, and then only averaged a post every 6 months, but it was 6 months worth of info per post.

  13. Eli,

    I love your comments about how parents back then didn’t have to do the so-called politically correct thing and force themselves to place more importance on entertaining their kids than on enjoying a little grown up time.

    Because I had my daughter at such a young age (19), I was a bit “selfish” according to today’s parenting standards. In the evenings, relaxation and social time with friends was more important to me than shadowing my daughter’s every move with pseudo-positive commentary and tending to her every whim. Rather, she was off to bed at a decent hour and I had a few cocktails with friends. No harm there. She grew up more well-adjusted than most kids today, I tell ya.

    Take a peek at this link: http://texasflycaster.com/tag/fly-bar/. An acquaintance of mine built a bar in his lovely back yard last summer and posted photos of its party debut. I’m in a few of them. There are too many ball caps (security blankets) for my taste, but overall, I think he made a good attempt at capturing the essence of what you describe here.

    I wish I could live in The Selvedge Yard. Tee hee.

    -R

  14. Reading this fantastic post I had flashbacks to my Uncle’s basement bar and the evening gatherings he hosted. I’m not sure why but he had an entire wall covered in purple velour, but the adults sure had a great time while I played connect 4 with my cousins upstairs.

  15. great post. we do need to bring this back.

    question: is bud drinking a High Life? It sure looks like it . . . and that, well, that is just amazing.

  16. Eli – Wonderful memories run amuck. Both of my grandparents had basement bars – complete with bench seating, wood paneled walls, asbestos checkerboard tile floors, and vintage mirrors and landscape pictures. As a kid we used to go downstairs to play pool, but always ended up “exploring” the decor and gadgets in the room.
    Our favorite was a battery powered plastic hand on wheels that activated when the weight of a glass was set in its palm. It would slowly roll down the bar until one lucky drinker relieved the palm of its cargo.
    Thanks for the kick.

  17. Fantastic post!!!

    As the middle aged daughter raised by two wonderful “cocktail generation” parents, as well as grandparents and eccentric great aunts who would dip their fingers in their martinis for my sisters and i to taste, it is wonderful to read all of this. It really was all about revelry and joy and hospitality and sharing.
    Things today seem so ridiculous compared to the glamour I remember. Can you imagine any of the people in those photos insisting that their guests remove their shoes before entering the house???

    We now live in a small suburban house built in the late 1940′s, complete with wood paneled basement bar, etc. The old wallpaper featuring martini glasses, seals, limes and roosters is still there. We continue to host many awesome little gatherings down there, while our kids are upstairs in bed!

    Thanks again!

  18. YES! Great post! Perhaps there’s something in the air (or is it the bourbon?) as I had the very same home-bar-party instinct, and it led me to found a weekly guys-only happy hour at my apt. As my cohort ages and we get married, have kids, slug it out at the office, etc., happy hour has been an amazing forum for us to compare notes on life, love and the pursuit of happiness. Much laughter has been had, and yes, some tears have been shed. On weekends, plans with friends almost always begin with a cocktail or two mixed from the home bar. The winter drink of choice, particularly for the ladies, has been my Lemon Ginger Julep: 2 shots bourbon, dash of bitters, 1.5 shots of homemade lemon simple syrup, grate fresh ginger, ice, serve, enjoy. Cheers!

  19. My wife and I are currently shopping for our new house in suburban Chicago, and we REFUSE to even look at a home without a basement. Why? Because I want to finish it, if it’s not finished already. Why? Because, so help me, if I have to leave the city for the burbs, I am going to have my own personal bar.

    This article is fantastic, and provides some insight into some of the cheesy yet amazing old basement bars we’ve stumbled across in our search for a home. I sometimes forget that people of that older generation were so…let’s say “reasonable” towards the bottle, because growing up in the 1980s/1990s no one seemed to have one of these in their basement.

    This article just triggered a memory…I seem to recall there being a bar in the basement of my parents’ first house, left by the prior owners and unceremoniously buried underneath boxes, blankets, and odd junk. It just never occurred to me until now, 20+ years later, that it was indeed a bar. What were they thinking? What a horrible waste!

    I will re-read this article after my house is bought and my bar goes in. I will do my booze-inclined forefathers-in-home-consumption proud.

  20. Holy shit Bud Abbott, nice. Some of my best childhood memories were of falling asleep with the dog in my neighbours downstairs bar while my parents and their mates got slowly plastered. I want my kids to have the same memories, heee. Life is so sweet when drinking with friends.

    Excellent post and commenter stories!

  21. Nice post. Takes me back to my senior prom in Holmdel, NJ, in May 1973. After the prom a group of us went over to my friend’s uncle’s house and hung out in the basement bar. We just drank soda, but it was our first real taste of freedom, staying up late, doing what we wanted to do. It was a great night, now a fond memory. Thanks.

  22. This is a good post. In the SFV where I was raised I remember some home fully stocked bars but not too many, in fact they were rare. For one we had no basements. My parents did stock plenty of the common cocktail boozes. As we got older we would water down the whiskey for the Jr. High buzz. Garages were common shop- entertainment and drinking facilities. There were kegs in refrigerators with a tapper on the door, the ping pong table some pool tables. Many would drink schmooze and wrench on their hot rods, family car or motorcycles on any summer, spring or fall evening.
    My folks were ‘professionals’ (Dad was an engineer a Hughes Aircraft) so they would have bridge parties or just party parties and have their cocktails and wieners or some other horderves. I remember Mom getting pissed because the folks up in the cull de sac brought their polka records (horrors!!) to a neighborhood sou-re, Frank, Dino and Vic Damon please.

  23. I just found this blog today. This is the best post of any type I’ve read anywhere in years. Now I’m going to go home and build a bar.

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