Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dive Right In

I love it when I'm inspired to write by other bloggers!

Boak and Bailey have a post up about Becky's Dive Bar, a London pub that operated in the 1960s, 70s and perhaps into the early 80s. Becky's, apparently, was rather well known for offering hard-to-find British beer from across the U.K—a trend that was well ahead of its time. As cool as that is, what strikes me is the use of the word Dive in the bar's name. Today, a bar or restaurant may use that term rather tongue-and-cheekly, to denote that it's a laid back place—and perhaps a bit gritty—where patrons can leave their sport coats at the door and laugh a little louder than normal, or in some cases as the the re-gentrified hipster hangout. That's all a gimmick to sell Pabst Blue Ribbon. A true dive bar, on the other hand, is probably not what most reputable establishments would want to be associated with—with its customers paying more attention to the ice in the bottom of their glass than the world around them. So when, and why, did dives, dive off the deep end, so to speak? According to the most accurate source of information known to man, the multi-volume, Oxford English Dictionary–Second Edition, a dive is defined as:
An illegal drinking-den, or other disreputable place of resort, often situated in a cellar, basement, or other half-concealed place, into which frequenters may 'dive' without observation.
The Palais Royale—
Albany's diviest of dives.
Photo by Dan Nester
It also references the colloquialism's first known use, from a July 6th, 1871 New York Herald article describing "One of the gayly decorated dives where young ladies... dispense refreshments to thirsty souls." That doesn't sound too bad—gayly decorated, young ladies, thirsty souls, I can dig that. Things take a turn for the worse, however, a little over a decade later when an 1883 Harper's Magazine writer, H. H. Kane, uses the phrase in a more negative light, associating the word with drug addiction, "...Those who frequent the opium-smoking dives."


It seems like this is where dive begins begins to be connected to the seedier-side of society. Jacob A. Riis' 1890 essay, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York supports this notion. Riis dedicates an entire chapter to the police raids against the underground (litterally and figuratively) "stale-beer dives" of New York City. Stale-beer dives were exactly that—grimey, underworld establishments that sold stale and spoiled beer for pennies. The city outlawed the sale of spoiled beer, hence the raids, and soon headlines trumpeted the death of the stale-beer dive. The dives themselves, were a bit more resilient than that, and instead of rolling over for dead, they adopted a new suffix, one with a  more nautical theme. In 1887, The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania based journal The American, uses the phrase "sailor's-dive" when reporting on the Hawaiian Rebellions and King Kalakaua's predilection for banjo playing in such places. Francis Hopkins Smith, the American author, architect and engineer, mentions that one of his character—Muffles the Bar-Keep—from his 1903 novel The Underdoghad at one time worked as a "dish-washer in a sailor's dive," before rising the ranks to become one-third owner of the Shady Side Inn, just outside the Bronx. So, either the Shady Side Inn didn't see many sailors or it was a notch, or perhaps notches, above a dive?

At some point after the turn of the century dives become, well just dives. No longer did they need to be supported by another word. Yes, there are references to places being simply known as dives prior to this, but the early 20th-century was the golden-age, a renaissance, for the word dive. Dive had finely come into its own. In his 1909 book The Wretches of Povertyville, author I.L. Nascher differentiates, by chapter title, between the beer-soaked, gambling and prostitution houses of New York City's Bowery, as "Dives and Dens," and the beer-soaked, flop houses and soup kitchens he refers to as "Haunts and Homes." The dive-y edges blur a bit in Dr. Nascher's book, but in any case, he's less than flattering when it comes to the denizens of lower Manhattan. In the very first paragraph of Povertyville, Nascher states:
There is no sharp dividing line between the respectable saloon and the dive, between the clean music hall and the vicious concert hall, between the reputable bar-room and the disreputable dance hall. There is a wide differnce between the extremes, but there are many grades between them.
Is it me or is the good doctor a bit biased?

By the 1920s the speakeasy—the hubs of flappers, gangsters, jazz and illegal hooch—would surmount the dive as the go-to, underground watering-hole, for a few years. The repeal of  Prohibition and the increasing pressure of the Great Depression, would soon bring back the dive in force. With despair comes drink, and with drink comes the dive. The dive began its move from the city to the suburbs, into every town across the country. For every town hall and fire station, there also sprouted a hole-in-the wall bar. The demand by returning GIs for exotic, Polynesian cocktails in the post-war 1940s and 50s, left out-of-style and dreary Tiki-bars still dolling out shots into the 1970s. Whiskey dens, gin joints and beer houses now dot the country—places with names like The Silver Slipper, Eddie's, the Savoy Lounge and Palais Royale. The dive—named or unnamed—is, and honestly was, always around. The Vegas lounge, the biker bar, the dusty Texas roadhouse, and the signless club in Brooklyn can all thank that gayly decorated place somewhere in New York City, for letting those young ladies dispense their refreshments to so many thirsty souls—and I thank them, too.


  1. Brilliant, and some great book recommendations, too. Thanks!

    1. Thanks! I want to get more into Underdog myself!

  2. Biased. Bias is a verb, and someone cannot be it.