The Good, Bad and Ugly Reasons Why Hollywood Doesn’t Produce Westerns Anymore

Remember your last trip to the movie theater? We bet you were spoilt for choice. There was probably at least one superhero flick on offer as well as a rom-com or two. You may even have plumped for the biopic or the critically acclaimed indie movie – paired, of course, with delicious buttery popcorn. But whether you’re a frequent flyer or just go to the theater for special occasions, it’s unlikely you’ll have seen a Western on the big screen recently. Why isn’t Hollywood producing them anymore? Well, turns out that there are some rather sad reasons.

There have been a handful of critically acclaimed Westerns over the past couple of decades, but they’re few and far between. Take Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit, for example. A remake of a film originally starring iconic Western figure John Wayne, it made millions and even received a Best Picture Academy Award nomination.

Going a bit further back, the Kevin Costner-starring Dances with Wolves was also a big success. And although many Westerns have scooped Oscars, Dances with Wolves still has the most. It was nominated in 12 categories and ultimately earned seven of those gold statuettes – including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Score. The epic also took a domestic gross of $184 million. Not too shabby!

But not all Westerns break big at the box office – even if they do come with the critical stamp of approval. In 2007 Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck got good write-ups for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Apparently, though, the movie didn’t even earn its $30 million budget back.

And some Westerns sit at the very bottom of the pile as both critical and financial disasters. The 1999 movie Wild Wild West – while admittedly more of a Western/sci-fi than a true Western – was a complete and utter disaster. It was so hated by reviewers, in fact, that suddenly Will Smith movies stopped being dead certs. Could that be why Hollywood has fallen out of love with cowboys?

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It didn’t exactly help that there was another huge flop for the genre in 2013. The Lone Ranger was an attempt to bring back the iconic pop culture character from the past… and it completely failed. Yes, even though the movie starred Johnny Depp – usually a big box-office draw – it reportedly made a mere $89 million domestically on a budget of $215 million. Ouch.

Still, some love remains for the genre. And you have to go all the way back to the 1920s to find the beginnings of it all. Director John Ford is one of the people credited with creating the whole concept of Westerns. As movie buffs know, Ford has the classics The Iron Horse and Stagecoach within his oeuvre.

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Ford’s works were popular, too, although it probably helped that today’s vast array of distractions largely didn’t exist in the early 20th century. So, the movie theater became one place to escape, and the Westerns presented an image of the country that people very much wanted to see. The heroes of Ford films were solitary but noble figures defending their families and societies. It’s perhaps no surprise that many men of the era wanted nothing more than to be like these brave protagonists.

Interestingly, though, John Ford’s legacy is tied up with that of another John. The man in question was born in 1907 under the name Marion Robert Morrison, although you’ll know him as cinematic icon John Wayne. And Wayne teamed up with Ford for many Westerns – including Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers.

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Not all of these films presented Wayne’s rough, gruff characters as good people. In Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers, Wayne plays an ex-Confederate soldier named Ethan whose niece is abducted by the Comanche Nation. And so Ethan goes in search of his relative – though not to rescue her. Instead, he aims to kill his niece, as he doesn’t want her living with Native Americans. Yikes.

The message of The Searchers is still debated to this day. In 2020 journalist Steve Rose wrote for The Guardian, “In its defense, the film hardly portrays Ethan as a hero. He’s clearly a psycho as well as a racist haunted by past traumas – ultimately becoming the ‘savage’ he views the Native Americans to be. So, you could argue The Searchers is more a study of racism than a racist movie. But is that good enough?” And does this checkered legacy explain why Hollywood isn’t producing Westerns nowadays?

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Well, not all Westerns follow the same formula. Take High Noon, for instance, which came out in 1952 at the height of the “Red Scare.” Interestingly, the film’s writer, Carl Foreman, had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee at one point, although he refused to give names of potential communists. And, ultimately, fans have interpreted the movie as having rather a left-wing subtext.

The film’s director, Fred Zinnemann, claimed otherwise. But in 1972 that didn’t stop Wayne from telling Playboy that he considered High Noon to be “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” He added, “I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of the country.” Oof.

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If you’re assuming that politics is to blame for the Western’s demise, however, then think again. After all, many famous flicks in the genre were altogether more lighthearted fare. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid could even be seen as essentially a buddy movie. But although the Robert Redford and Paul Newman starrer is a classic, it was a hard sell. Yes, even though The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly had come out just three years prior to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Western was already considered to be in its last days.

Of course, the Western genre remains an important part of American cinema. To give one example, Clint Eastwood’s performance as the Man with No Name is iconic even today. But Westerns themselves have largely faded out of the public eye in the 21st century. So, what happened? And why did they disappear?

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Well, there are several reasons why Westerns fell out of favor – many of them very complicated. So, let’s start with one of the obvious factors: these movies are incredibly expensive to film. Yep, it costs a whole load of money to make a place look like it’s in the Old West. And that’s not even getting into the price of purchasing, feeding and caring for horses – one of the most important staples of the genre.

Did you know that one of the more recent Westerns – 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma – actually ran out of money before the film was even finished? The writers even changed the script to make this fact a plot point. The actual town the characters inhabited was also notably a low-budget, underdeveloped effort. But sadly it was all to no avail, as upon release the flick wasn’t exactly a hit.

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So, money is a problem. What else? Well, you have to take into account the tastes of audiences across the planet – and not everyone likes the Western concept. China, for instance, is now a huge movie market, but people there don’t go for Westerns in the same way that Americans do. After all, it’s not their country’s history being shown on screen.

In 2013 Michael Agresta of The Atlantic wrote about what he called “the rejection of cowboy movies by international audiences.” There, he explained, “Even as filmmakers have become more interested in incorporating a diversity of viewpoints, they have hit against what appears a global demographic ceiling.”

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Westerns are also largely a genre both designed and made for white male Americans, Agresta claimed. And as the world changes, many people want more diversity in their movies. The journalist went on, “If the genre in this era can be said to have a unifying aim, it’s to divest itself and its audiences of a strictly white, male, heterosexual perspective on history – and by extension, on present-day conflicts.”

Still, some Westerns have bucked this trend. Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 blood-splattered Django Unchained, which starred Jamie Foxx as a black ex-slave turned bounty hunter, was a big success. The New York Times explained why that may be, writing, “Django Unchained is pulpy, digressive, jokey, giddily brutal and ferociously profane. But it is also a troubling and important movie about slavery and racism.”

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And the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain – directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee – was, if you remember, about two young cowboys who fall in love. Many therefore referred to the flick as a “gay cowboy movie,” but it was still essentially a Western. The production also made the point that homosexuality has always existed in American history.

Other Westerns aren’t seen as quite so progressive, however. For example, when The Lone Ranger was released in 2013, it sparked a lot of controversy. Why? Well, Johnny Depp – who, of course, is white – appears on screen as the Native American Tonto. Naturally, this led people to debate whether it was offensive for an actor to portray someone of a different race.

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Time magazine interviewed people on both sides of the issue following the movie’s release. And Comanche chairman Wallace Coffey said that he liked the film, adding, “It was a very realistic portrayal of a Native American. It’s got drama, and it’s got a lot of comedy. It fits right in with Comanche culture because we are well known as a humorous people.”

Holding the opposite view was Adrienne Keene, author of the blog Native Appropriations, who disliked the stereotypes used in the movie. The writer told Time, “It would have been really cool and powerful if Tonto was just another guy who happened to be Indian [and] if they didn’t have to go into the whole mystical, spiritual fantasy element.”

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The article pointed out that Depp did believe he had Native American ancestry back in his family tree and that the Comanche tribe had made him an honorary member. Coffey also told Time that he hoped more Native Americans would be involved in any Lone Ranger sequels. But because the original movie was ultimately a flop, these follow-ups never happened.

And as you may already have guessed, plenty of vintage Westerns seem unsavory when viewed through a modern lens. In his 2020 review of The Searchers for The Guardian, Steve Rose wrote, “The plot contrives to demonize [Native Americans] from the outset by barely identifying them as individuals and having them kidnap innocent white girls – thus affording Wayne and co a patch of moral high ground they don’t really deserve. Running through the film is a deep-seated paranoia about racial purity.”

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Then there’s Wayne himself, whose legacy was tarnished by his own hand – or, rather, mouth. Back in 1971, he damned himself for future generations by telling Playboy magazine, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” Even 50 years ago, this bold statement was shocking.

That wasn’t all Wayne said to provoke ire, either. He used a homophobic slur when talking about the “perverted” movie Midnight Cowboy, for instance. And regarding Native Americans, he declared, “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

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Understandably, it’s hard to keep a genre going strong when one of the people most associated with it was a self-confessed white supremacist. Yet there are some other, less serious reasons why the Western is in decline as well. For one, tastes have simply changed. When Westerns first hit movie theaters, the moon landings were a long way off. Now, though, things that were once sci-fi concepts are everyday parts of life.

Everything changed when the Space Race kicked off in the late ’50s. Suddenly, there was a new frontier. And the movie Toy Story 2 – which features as its main characters a cowboy doll and an astronaut toy – neatly points this out. Pixar lovers may recall that Woody’s Western-themed franchise was replaced by space-age playthings “once the astronauts went up.”

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Of course, some filmmakers have attempted to cross over the two concepts and make space Westerns. One of the most famous and beloved films of all time, Star Wars, could even be seen as part of the genre. It has themes in common with the traditional Western, anyway. And, of course, there’s also a lot of desert for the heroes and villains to traverse.

You could argue that George Lucas even seemed to work references to some of his favorite Western scenes into Star Wars. The shootout between Han and Greedo, for example, is extremely similar to a moment from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Han himself also has a very cowboy look to his costume.

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Still, not all crossover attempts have been anywhere near as successful as Star Wars. Cowboys & Aliens – featuring exactly what the name suggests – was released in 2011 to little acclaim. And despite boasting a cast that included both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, the flick was a flop with audiences, too.

Perhaps that’s because moviegoers’ tastes have changed in yet another way. These days, films are meant to be zippy and thrilling, and Westerns generally just aren’t that fast-paced. After all, there were no airplanes or motorbikes in the Old West, meaning everyone had to get where they were going by slow trains or on horseback.

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Westerns also don’t have the same scope and spectacle that, say, your average superhero movie does. And CGI opened doors that were firmly closed before. Most people – especially kids – want to see space aliens and wizards battling it out with colorful weapons rather than watching men firing slow-loading guns at each other.

But in addition to all those things, there’s also the fact that movie-going itself is in some jeopardy. Now, television is a major competitor when it comes to storytelling. Instead of heading to a megaplex to see a film, you can simply sit down at home and binge-watch hour after hour of your favorite series.

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Massive blockbusters still drive in the crowds, of course, but smaller stories appear better suited to TV. Perhaps the Western will find another life there? Well, so far, the jury’s out. Deadwood was one modern-day Western show that was highly critically acclaimed, but it was still canceled after three seasons.

You could argue, however, that television provides a good place for Western/sci-fi crossovers such as the much-lauded Westworld. The massively popular The Walking Dead franchise has also been labeled as basically a Western with zombies. And Firefly – Joss Whedon’s space cowboy show – still has a cult following to this day.

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So, it remains to be seen whether the Western will ever rise again – on the big screen or the small. And if it doesn’t, movie fans can still rest assured that the tropes of the genre live on in other movies. Take away the black suit, and Batman is essentially a vigilante cowboy – just not in the same way that John Wayne was.

How accurate are vintage Westerns, anyway? Did American frontier barrelhouses actually have two-way doors? And what did cowboys really get up to after a long day in the fields? Well, saddle up, partner, because these 40 photographs are about to reveal the rootin’-tootin’ reality of the Old West’s many watering holes.

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40. Orient Saloon – Bisbee, Arizona (1903)

The dapper suits. The sea of fine hats. The gambling table transfixing almost every eye in the room. If those clues are anything to go by, it seems there could be some real money at play here. And with precious metals in abundance at the time, there was plenty of cash to be had in boomtown Bisbee. Who’s for another game, then?

39. Table Bluff Hotel and Saloon – Table Bluff, California (1889)

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Out in the frontier, men had to graft every which way they could to get by. And Seth Kinman, the man responsible for these magnificently assembled – yet somewhat freaky – chairs, did just that. The hunter-come-craftsman took his work all the way to the top, in fact, even presenting one such perch – made of wapiti antlers – to President Lincoln.

38. Wyatt Earp’s Northern Saloon – Tonopah, Nevada (1903)

A fabled jack-of-all-trades, Wyatt Earp was known far and wide across the American West – and not primarily for his barrelhouses. The frontiersman, you see, also grafted as a hustler and a fugitive before becoming – no kidding – an officer of the law. But perhaps the most legendary chapter of the man’s life was his role in the shootout at the O.K. Corral, a brief but bloody clash in which several men lost their lives.

37. Matt H. Kerais’ Tavern – Kenosha, Wisconsin (1890s-1900s)

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It’s a tale as old as time – or at least as old as drinking dens. A small, local joint, the same faces in there every night. The barman knows each drinker’s tipple of choice. But then the familiar routine is interrupted as an outsider walks in. And how is this bold interloper greeted? By a scene not too dissimilar to the one pictured here, perhaps, the room a chorus of steely glares, suspicion and stale spilled liquor.

36. The Arcade Saloon – Eldora, Colorado (1898)

With a new mineshaft recently sunk nearby, Eldora, Colorado, started to grind into gear in the last decade of the 19th century. And with more and more workers rolling through, all the crucial amenities they required – including drinking dens – soon followed. By early 1898, in fact, one paper reported that the settlement “already [had] six flourishing saloons, with the prospects of a dozen more within a few days,” according to website Western Mining History.

35. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (1890)

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At the start of the 19th century, cowboys were still fairly few and far between across the American West. But as the citizens of the nation’s industrialized north hankered more and more for steaks, burgers and all things cow, business boomed. And by the 1870s, the U.S. – from its northern border right down to the Deep South – was littered with cattle and their keepers.

34. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (1915)

Though this shot was taken in 1915, towards the tail end of the Old West era, it’s still every bit the quintessential scene. Yes, from the various games tables sat cheek by jowl to the dubious gents donning wide-brimmed hats, this composition reeks of frontier life. Some eagle-eyed viewers may even be able to make out the Buffalo Bill ad pinned to the rear wall – a flyer for the showman’s latest Wild West-themed production.

33. Unknown Saloon – Ehrenburg, Arizona Territory (c.1911)

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Automobiles were presumably still quite a foreign sight to most Arizonans in the early 1910s. Perhaps, then, these rural kids didn’t yet trust the horseless carriage and its technology; that might even explain their positioning a fair way off from the vehicle. On the other hand, maybe a knowing parent had warned them from putting their grubby mitts all over the gleaming – and presumably very pricey – motorcar.

32. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (1890s)

Not only is the name of this watering hole unknown, but so are the town and state in which it stood. And with Old West saloons famed for their widespread uniformity, this could well be anywhere from Arizona to Alaska. Barrelhouses, after all, didn’t need flash and fanfare to survive; they just had to offer refuge and refreshment and the money would start rolling in.

31. Unknown Saloon – Seattle, Washington (c.1918)

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As one wily Wikimedia Commons contributor has pointed out, the Evergreen State banned the consumption of alcohol in the mid-1910s. But this photo is dated towards the end of that decade, which would make it a Prohibition-Era shot. Perhaps this Seattle saloon was really a speakeasy, then. Or maybe there was no alcohol on the premises and the bottles were just for show. Or, to embrace a simpler – though admittedly less fun – explanation, it could be that this image has been incorrectly dated.

30. Military Plaza Saloon – San Antonio, Texas (1876)

Just one year after this photograph was taken, San Antonio joined America’s ever-widening web of railways. And as the great iron horse charged deeper into Texas, it carried with it settlers from both distant and neighboring corners of the union. Today, a century-and-a-half later, the city remains a melting pot of cultures from all over North and Central America.

29. Unknown Saloon – Everett, Washington (1907)

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This Washington State saloon seems to boast all the necessary ingredients for a fruitful night of R&R. Four spittoons line the floor, ready to catch any tobacco-laced spittle that might be shot at them. A bar rail sustains that prized bar-side stance: leg cocked, glass raised. And the ratio of barmen to patrons seems set to surely guarantee speedy service – providing the purveyors themselves don’t drink the place dry!

28. Billy The Mugs Saloon – Seattle, Washington (c.1895)

Newcomers started filtering into America’s Pacific Northwest in the mid-19th century. There, they struck up a remarkably amicable relationship with the region’s existing Native American peoples. Yes, outsiders got along so handsomely with one of the area’s chiefs that they even adopted his title for their settlement. And what, you ask, was that indigenous commander’s name? Seattle, of course.

27. Long Branch Saloon – Dodge City, Kansas (1870-1885)

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Is there any town as fabled for mischief and misbehavior as Kansas’ Dodge City? Though the settlement’s legends of lawlessness were built in part thanks to sensationalized press reports, it did also see its fair share of foul play. For roughly 12 months in the early 1870s, in fact, the community had no real legal infrastructure – and saw almost 20 verified murders in that short period. A good time to “get outta Dodge,” it seems…

26. Unknown Saloon – Arizona (1895)

From the first decades of the 19th century right up to the 1910s, the card game faro was hosted in every Old West gambling house worth its salt. Imported from France, the flutter became a fan favorite of the American frontier thanks to its speed, simplicity and generous odds. The chances of punters winning big were so great, in fact, that American casinos soon struck the punt from their rosters.

25. Gunn House Saloon – Sonora, California (1898)

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At first glance this Golden State saloon seems the picture of Old West simplicity, with card games and community spirit ruling supreme. But a closer look reveals the scene’s cutting-edge facilities: electric lights dangle from the ceiling, and that structure on the right-hand wall may well be a telephone. The close of the 19th century, it seems, signalled the arrival of a new modernity to Sonora.

24. Perley McBride’s Shop – Unknown State (1906)

The 1944 dictionary Western Words defines “loafing” as, “Keepin’ ‘bout as busy as a hibernatin’ bear.” Of course, this colorful farmer’s phrase is far from complimentary. The signage adorning this saloon, then, must have sent a clear message to its readers: idleness and vagrancy has no place in this fine establishment.

23. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (Unknown Date)

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The archetypal cowboy get-up takes center stage here with five cattlemen sporting waistcoats, neckties and fringed leather chaps. And with gloves peeking out of pockets and hats still firmly donned, it seems as though these gents have just walked straight in off the fields. In fact, it appears that these rough-and-ready herdsmen were so eager for their tipples that they couldn’t even wait for the camera to complete its exposure – hence the blurred beverages.

22. Shamrock Saloon – Hazen, Nevada (1905)

As intrepid explorers established new outposts across the American frontier, they often christened a new site by erecting a saloon. And as the largest – or even the only – permanent structure in a new town, the drinking den would offer far more than refreshments. Yes, barrelhouses also served as muster stations for more official local duties, doubling up as legal forums, administrative centers and even places of worship.

21. The Klondyke Dance Hall and Saloon – Seattle, Washington (1909)

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With machismo in abundance, the saloons of Old West America were frequently more of a boys’ club than a family affair. In fact, local ladies were typically barred from entering most watering holes. Certain establishments, though, such as those that hosted dances, would welcome girls of the community to sip and shimmy their evenings away.

20. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (1927)

Though this image was undoubtedly staged, the feral violence of the Wild West that it depicts was sadly far from fiction. And saloons – where various armed, unruly men rubbed shoulders – often saw a lot of the trouble. Yes, on countless occasions Old West drinking houses erupted into anarchy, with the evening’s chit-chat giving way to quarrels, scuffles and shootings.

19. Circle City Saloon – Nome, Alaska (1902)

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As of 1898 citizens of Nome, Alaska, shared their town with barely a few other souls. But just one year on, the site’s residents numbered nearly 30,000. And what was it that triggered this machine-gun growth? Well, the discovery of gold nearby inspired hordes of keen prospectors to race into town brandishing pans and pickaxes.

18. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (1895)

A primitive type of 3D photography, stereographs – such as the one pictured here – were captured by a device capable of dual exposures. The neighboring images it produced would then be inserted into a curious pair of spectacles. And as the viewer looked closer, the two images would line up in their mind and appear as a single richly textured shot. Clever stuff, right?

17. Unknown Courthouse and Saloon – Langtry, Texas (1900)

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Where else – other than the Wild West, of course – could you find a courtroom dishing out both “ice beers” and legal sentences simultaneously? In this snap, taken at the turn of the 20th century, Judge Roy Bean convicts a rustler for his crimes. All from the comfort of a saloon porch, order in the land “west of the Pecos” is upheld.

16. Unknown Saloon – Klondike, Alaska (Early 1900s)

If this Wild West snap seems too good to be true, then that’s probably because it is. There’s the image’s peculiarly neat composition for starters, with every face in the room perfectly visible. And then there’s the crispness of the capture. A real drunken scuffle would have surely triggered enough movement to disrupt the exposure – yet there’s not a hint of blur in sight here. All in all, then, this liquor-laced quarrel appears to be largely fictional.

15. J. W. Swart’s Saloon – Charleston, Arizona (1885)

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The phrase, “You get what you pay for” is especially true of Old West alcohol. Yes, the liquor sold for next to nothing – just 25 cents could often buy you a couple of glasses of whiskey – but the quality was far from premium. In truth, drink purveyors would maximize their earnings by bulking out their booze with anything they could find, even turning to chili powder and harmful chemicals.

14. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (1890s)

It’s a rare treat to spot someone smiling in a frontier-era photograph. The exposure time of old cameras meant donning the same expression for quite some time, after all. Rather than straining for a smirk, then, many subjects tended to simply relax their faces. That said, the most committedly chirpy souls would still sustain hearty grins for as long as necessary – just look at the chap with the cane pictured here.

13. Dew Drop Inn Saloon – Unknown State (c.1900)

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Forget what the movies taught you; the majority of Old West saloons didn’t even have swinging “batwing” doors. Though a perfect prop for on-screen cowboy capers, cafe doors proved quite impractical in the real American frontier. And the few watering holes that did boast those iconic entry gates also tended to have a larger second set – to lock up safely at night.

12. Toll Gate Saloon – Black Hawk, Colorado (1897)

After prospectors struck lucky in the region, Black Hawk swiftly grew to become the main thoroughfare for Colorado’s quarried riches. And with natural resources abundant, settlers looking to start over – and strike rich, of course – soon followed. Before long, then, the outpost had swelled into one of the Centennial State’s very first metropolises.

11. Wild West Bar – Unknown State (1900s)

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With a drink in his hand, a six-shooter on his waist and the best part of an entire large mammal on his legs, this herdsman was really living the rootin’-tootin’ American dream. And note the right arm sat atop the bar, a fan-favorite posture for Old West drinkers. Some prolific saloon-goers, it’s said, depended so dearly on that stock stance that they could even accrue hard, dead blisters on the crooks of their forearms.

10. Brunswick Saloon – Telluride, Colorado (c.1900)

This scene – complete with telephone lines, metal chimneys and even clean wooden pavements – seems one of relative affluence. But for the town of Telluride, Colorado, hard times lay ahead. Into the first decades of the 20th century, the settlement’s precious metals drastically dwindled in value, you see. And it would take generations for the once-prosperous community to bounce back.

9. Various Saloons – Rawhide, Unknown State (Unknown Date)

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For the myriad hopefuls eager to forge new lives in the American frontier, a bothersome obstacle first had to be traversed: getting there. And before trains were carved across the country, wagon trains were the preferred mode of transport for most budding settlers. But thanks to violent weather, frequent bloody encounters and the spread of crippling infections, many thousands perished on those treacherous trips.

8. Road House Saloon – Bluff City, Alaska (c.1906)

The Wild West wasn’t all dust-caked cowboys and sprawling, sun-bleached earth; it stretched right up to the icy wilds of Alaska. As the frontier era drew to a close further south, in fact, numerous pioneers – hoping to keep the glory days alive – headed up to America’s Last Frontier. In other words, they did as the state’s slogan now promises and headed “north to the future.”

7. Behling Bros. Pool Room – Concord, Michigan (1890-1910)

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The much-replicated cowboy kit of chaps, caps and checkered shirts is nowhere to be seen in this old pool-hall snap. Instead, various other Old West garbs are showcased – with everything from sharp waistcoats to grubby dungarees in sight. There was more to frontier-era fashion than simply denim and leather, after all; outfit choices would vary greatly depending on a person’s wealth and occupation.

6. John Hoffman & Co. Saloon & Grocery – Unknown State (Unknown Date)

In the good old days of saloons – or bad, depending on your morals – every aspect of the business was up to the whim of the proprietor. Barrelhouse owners could keep the place open just an hour a week or simply never close their doors. A shady history of violence, theft and general chicanery? Nobody’s asking! So long as the drinking den’s keeper paid their dues to the state authorities, the liquor could keep on flowing – no matter the consequences.

5. Santos Saloon – Turlock, California (c.1908)

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The first decades of the 1800s saw many states intensify their output of hard liquor. And with saloons across the Old West flogging that potent product in droves, the American public soon suffered from a plague of debilitating drunkenness. Only a dozen or two years later did the European penchant for beer fully stake its claim on U.S. citizens.

4. “Temporary” Saloon – Turlock, California (c.1908)

Picture the scene… You’re a few days into a long journey on horseback. The Golden State is earning its title; with the sun beating down, you’re hot, exhausted and positively parched. And then you’re greeted by this miraculous sight: a saloon carving its way across the countryside, conjuring visions of shelter and sustenance. But the dream soon becomes a nightmare; this drinking den isn’t serving until it reaches the town of Turlock. Despairing, you soldier on…

3. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (Unknown Date)

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Conquerors of both snow and sun, buffalo used to blanket the U.S. landscape from border to border. But as an onslaught of trigger-happy settlers pressed farther into the American West, bison populations were decimated. And having previously relied on the mammals for everything from food to fashion, it was Native American groups who were hit the hardest by this cull.

2. Charlie Binder’s Saloon – Ann Arbor, Michigan (1880)

As well as being rich in liquor and crime, Old West saloons were also hotbeds of political activity. Yes, drinking dens in the frontier era hosted much backroom statecraft and low-level electioneering. According to a comedian of the time, who was later quoted in The New York Times newspaper, the ingredients for a powerful legislative faction back then were simply, “20 barls uv beer, and 300 yards of bolony.”

1. Unknown Saloon – Round Pond, Oklahoma Territory (1894)

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Would you believe it, the life of a hard-drinking, ragtag prowler of the plains wasn’t for everyone in the Old West. Many decent dwellers of the frontier, you see, longed for civility in their communities. And how did those proper folk hope to obtain it? By ordering an end to those great bastions of immorality, saloons, of course. Even before nationwide prohibition was enforced, then, the drinking dens of yore were already on their way out.

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