Kelly J. Dixon. Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2005. xxiii + 219 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87417-608-7.
Reviewed by R. Scott Baxter (Past Forward, Inc.)
Published on H-Urban (January, 2006)
Boomtown Saloons sets out to dispel some of the myths and highlight the realities of saloon life and the role of saloons that existed during the nineteenth-century mining boom on the Comstock, the mining district centered around Virginia City, Nevada. This often-glorified period of American history has been riddled with misinterpretations, exaggerations, and outright lies concerning daily life. Dixon uses archaeology as a corrective to much of what has been written about Comstock saloons, and provides a balanced interpretation of saloon life based on both historical documents and physical objects. This volume focuses on the data provided by several years of excavation and research carried out at four Virginia City saloons. Each saloon served a distinctly different clientele, cutting across Virginia City's citizenry, from rich to poor, African-American to Irish. These excavations were directed by Kelly J. Dixon and Donald L. Hardesty, both anthropologists at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Dixon's book is geared toward the general public, with a scarcity of technical jargon and a straightforward, lively writing style. The text would also serve well in an introductory archaeology course. The volume introduces historical figures who once lived in Virginia City and imaginatively animates their personal stories. It artfully draws together archaeology and history in a series of factual and fictional interpretations concerning the daily lives of saloon patrons, keepers, and their families. The book's value to the professional researcher lies in the bibliography, which pulls together much of the contemporary and current literature concerning both the Comstock and saloons.
Dixon uses historical fiction to bring life to the material culture associated with the saloons. Using historical documentation as the foundation for her interpretations, Dixon composes vignettes of the daily lives of historical characters associated with the saloons under study. Into these vignettes she injects objects recovered by the archaeological excavations. Fragments of stemware are broken no more, becoming glasses in the hands of Irish patrons at one saloon. A pipe stem grows whole and is clenched between the teeth of a patron at another. A child's toy tea cup once again joins the party. Plaster fragments become part of a wall, providing the setting for some of these vignettes. With these interpretations, Dixon avoids the "wild and woolly" portrait often painted of saloon culture. Instead she focuses on the daily life of the patrons, the proprietors, and their families going through their daily routine.
The field methodology outlined in the introduction is a bit dated, though this may be due to the fact that excavations were initiated over a decade ago. The discussion of artifact analysis and interpretation are very thorough, including such up-to-date analytical procedures as DNA analysis and forensic ballistics. The text also delves into other currently popular themes in anthropology, including status, ethnic, and gender studies.
Perhaps the author's most important contribution is her ability to draw the layperson into the realm of archaeology. In a style harkening back to James Deetz' In Small Things Forgotten, texts such as this entice the general public into the world of the past.
. James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (New York : Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1996).
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R. Scott Baxter. Review of Dixon, Kelly J., Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City.
H-Urban, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.