The Bar-Maid Show: 1871

The Bar Maid

The Bar Maid


The Great National Exhibition at Woolwich.

Women on Show—Tapsters Selecting Their Help—How it is Done

[Correspondence of the New York Herald.]

London, September 20. John Bull is never truly, absolutely and irredeemably ridiculous and beastly save when he sets about enjoying himself. Just now he is enjoying himself near London on the occasion given by the shrewd keeper of a gin-mill, who gathers grist to the said mill by a “barmaid show,” which is greater than the dog show or the cat show, or even all the baby shows together.


Is an institution in London. Boniface discovered it, reared it tenderly and now regards it with the warmest affection. The barmaid of the nineteenth century, as seen in London, is, in one sense, the most attractive of women. Gay, affable, well-looking, dressed like a lady and bejeweled like a Duchess, she listens to the silliest stuff with the sweetest grace and prattles suggestive nonsense to every man in her dominion. In the bygone days when sand glistened on the floor and men ate furtively in gloomy boxes, when the waiter was a bully and the landlord eyed every visitor with suspicion, there was still some comfort in the thought that freedom might be regained on the threshold. Far otherwise is it now. You may be able to withstand the works of art that fill the awkward corners of the room; you may not care to gaze on the pictorial ferocities that glare on you from every side; you may resist the agile suavity of the flames, but there is no escape form the lady at the bar. Here young Rusticus is spellbound. Here the cosmopolitan lingers in easy satisfaction. Here the swift-going city man can spare five minutes. And when departure is made of all the glories of the place, the one feature not soon forgotten is that pretty, saucy, civil, bedizened designer who made every man think himself the favorite. Like most attractions in this world, one little maid must not be looked at too closely.


Is a smile less pleasing because it has a professional universality? You must remember that it does not pretend to be other than it is. You see half a hundred men enjoying the same favor, and if you don’t like it the fact argues your own susceptibility and proves the potency of the charm; and this is the very result for which mine host has bargained.


He sought out this little lady from a hundred others who sent him their “Cartes de visite,” a hundred letters of recommendation and a hundred hymns of self-praise, couched in very bad English and lamentably deficient in orthography. I have heard of landlords who submitted a score of portraits to their best customers, and their verdict decided the competition. I have head of customers who sought ingratiation into favor by pleading that they voted for the lady and won her the appointment after a most exciting contest. Doubtless something of this kind will be rife in London the next week or two. Of course you have heard of the fourteen-day contest which we have had at Woolwich.


It has been of far more national import than the sanguinary contest at Aldershot, and has not cost a millionth part of the money. The attendance of the public has been greater and their satisfaction far more intense. You can always calculate on English happiness wherever you give physical delights. Give them plenty to eat and drink and dance and sing, and when all is over feed them again and you must succeed. This is just what the originator of the great barmaid contest proposed to himself to do, and in some sort he has done it. He advertised for fifty barmaids who had been twelve months engaged in smiling; who could show their aptitude for business by receipts of custom; who were prepared to be stared at by whatever man might find eighteen pence for railway fare and as much else as they liked to spend; who by attire, courtesy and all the other harmless blandishments might succeed in filling the money-box, and go home contented with a £20 watch and the chance of a three weeks ovation. I don’t know


When there is no barmaid contest, and even with it I don’t think anybody was ever there twice. It is distressingly dreary and ugly beyond description. In such a place the gardens must be the universal resort. There is a feeble attempt at beauty all over those two acres. At night the trees are illuminated with tawdry-colored little pots, which dimly reflect the asthmatic light afforded by murky lamps. There are strange appliances for testing the biceps; there are swings in which you find the London girl whirling irrespective of effect; there are little lakes with sham ships which are set on fire every night, and a sham city in the background which is stormed on special occasions and taken with great eclat. But there are three places to which all comers invariably betake themselves: The dance board, the ballroom and the maze…I betook myself to


I saw a young lady at every bar, looking as beautiful as paint and powder could make her. Now smiling, now looking sad, suggesting to you how neglected you were. The tall ones walking up and down, the short ones sitting on high chairs—all intent on making you captive and snatching the voting paper which you carried in your hand. I have often observed how sheepishly men look when they find a hundred female eyes upon them. Here, in this room, the men all hung about the door. They had paid sixpence to come in, and yet could get no further. One gentleman I noticed—tall, self-possessed, wholly unconcerned. He stayed not a moment at the door, swept the room at a glance and sauntered on. Everybody envied his nonchalance and wondered admiringly as he looked from one competitor to the other, took all their invitations as matters of course and smoked with gentle benignity. Whether the honor of the English nation was deemed to be endangered by the stranger I cannot say, but very soon a small band of half a dozen ventured on a march. I glided in the rear.


Very soon a maiden nodded to me with a gayety that nothing but acquaintance could justify. I felt certain I did not know a woman in England, but there was no mistake about this business. She hailed me and held out her hand, and now I saw one of my graces of the maze. Here was I entrapped at the very start. How could I refuse my vote? And yet I didn’t care for painted women. Retreat I felt would be mean, and unconditional surrender the veriest cowardice. I looked furtively around and spied the other creation of the toilet table, and responded boldly to the challenge. I then found that the room was getting to be crowded and I was getting to be courageous. I kept my vote until I saw every maid in the room, and I kept I even after that. I listened to the braying of the band, and saw the mob getting into sling. How they danced and whirled, and jumped and fell, and jostled, was astonishing enough until I saw how they consumed meat and drink.


Was engaged in when they were free from the uproarious hurly-burly which they call callisthenic exercise. And then it was that I discovered the commercial cunning of the gentlemen who contrived the rout. For six hours there was nothing other thought of but drinking and dancing. The receipts must have been enormous. Everybody was too happy to be critical, and votes were given with the most reckless profusion. But all must catch the 12 o’clock train, and such a bundle of


I never saw in my life. Here were all the barmaids, in all their paint and silks and satins and jewels, jumbled up with noisy tipsters and over-fed young blades and girls of the period, and waiters and fiddlers, and dandies, and city clerks, and tourists and what not. And in this chaos of community they come to London and get home somehow; and for the majority the thing is done, not to be repeated. But for the maids they go on for fourteen days, seeing this, always and nothing other ever, and, of course, preserving womanly feeling and cherishing womanly honor, and looking for homage and getting it from every addle-pated fool with half a crown in his pocket. I don’t know that among the signs of the times a great proof of national degradation is to be found than such a show of women as I beheld at Woolwich.

San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 12 November 1871: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: This was not, as one might suppose, from the tut-tutting, the only bar-maid contest held, either at Woolwich or elsewhere. (They were frequently advertised in connection with Beautiful Baby Contests.) The latest example one can find was held in 1889.

Mrs Daffodil is uncertain as to whether the fastidious narrator above was more appalled by the painted and powdered bar-maids or by their oglers. Such a “contest” seemed to arouse not only the voyeur—journalists seemed to emphasise that point—but also the moralists’ ire.



In his last London letter to the New York Mail, Justin McCarthy has the following paragraphs:

You have baby shows in the States, I believe? Did we borrow the idea from you? But did you ever have a bar-maid show? We have one here just now, at the North Woolwich Gardens, a sort of lower-class Cremorne. There is an exhibition of bar-maids—a competition of bar-maids—and the award of prizes to the best and the prettiest. I don’t know who the judges are, by whom this modern British version of the judgment of Paris is to be carried out, and I should not care to make their acquaintance.

The whole thing is disgraceful to us. It is a vulgar and brutal piece of business, with a flavor of lewdness under the vulgarity. The British bar-maid is a peculiar sort of person. She is plump, pretty, pert and supercilious, and rude to the general public, but full of smiles and smirks and winks for the Champagne Charleys who flirt with her, call her by her Christian name, address her as my dear, pay her coarse compliments on her good looks, and chuck her under the chin when opportunity offers. One can easily imagine what a Bar-maid Show will be, and what class of man will be there to see, and what kind of criticism he will indulge in.

I think the British snob who flirts with bar-maids is the very vulgarest human creature in existence. I think the British bar-maid is often perhaps a much better, purer girl than she seems or than her admirers appear to consider her.

But a show of bar-maids to a mob of grinning Champagne Charleys is an exhibition which does little credit to London civilization. I only know of one other species of feminine show which can follow this without proving an anticlimax, and that I suppose will come next.

The Urbana [OH] Union 6 December 1871: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



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