Remembering Pool Halls: “Dens of Depravity”

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Photo: Pool hall. Elkins, West Virginia, June 1939; Vachon, John, US Farm Security Administration
Photo: Pool hall. Elkins, West Virginia, June 1939; Vachon, John, US Farm Security Administration

Place sixteen ivory balls atop an oversized felt lined table, throw in a few sticks, dim the lights and add a handful of chairs along the walls and what was a vacant storefront is instantly transformed into what many respectable members of society deemed a “den of depravity” not too long ago.

Though these establishments went by many names, including stag bars, jakes, and snooker halls, they were known throughout most of Appalachia simply as “pool halls”.

Despite the fact that their beginnings were fairly innocent, it didn’t take long for what began as a simple meeting place for people to participate in the indoor game of billiards to develop a reputation for being a social ill and a stigma to upstanding communities.

Known for drinking, card playing and for several forms of gambling, local clergy from a century past often lamented against the evils which took place inside pool halls and children were barred from even entering these establishments in many US states.

“When I was a young girl, my parents told me and my friends that we weren’t even allowed to walk on the same side of the street as a poolhall… because the only type of people who hung around these places were ‘drones’ and rough men,” recalled one Appalachian woman.

In the years that followed, pool halls earned the dubious title of “beer joints” and several localities deemed them such a distaste that local ordinances were passed barring their operation; some state constitutions were even amended to clarify that operating such an establishment was not a right in the state, making it easier for towns to ban them from operating.

Though often despised by the more gentille members of a community, pools halls and beer gardens flourished, especially in Appalachia where “rough” working men found the free flowing alcohol, competition, and revelry to be a pleasant escape from an otherwise difficult life.

Photo: Pool hall. Elkins, West Virginia, June 1939; Vachon, John, US Farm Security Administration
Photo: Pool hall. Elkins, West Virginia, June 1939; Vachon, John, US Farm Security Administration

Billiards had grown to popularity in England during the 1800s as a gentleman game; however, by the early-1900s in America the game’s reputation had fallen considerably and it was widely believed that the pool was a gateway to laziness, gambling, smoking, alcoholism and philandering.

Many from a near-century ago recall America’s pool halls of yesteryear as being places of extreme carnality.

One woman wrote, “I remember that no woman or girl would ever dream of going into one”; others remember them as being far less wild.

“My grandfather owned a pool hall… he had a sign on the wall that said ‘The language you use with your mother in the room is the language you will use here.'” recalled another individual.

The dark reputation of pool halls continued for decades following the Second World War well into the age of arcades.

Though there were 830 pool halls in Chicago alone a century ago, for better or worse, it appears that the age of pool halls has reached its end.  These days Internet gaming and a host of other factors have all but silenced this seedy piece of American folklife; however, some still remember the age of pool sharks, hustlers, and cue balls.

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