How Dive Bars Got Their Name
The origin of a 200 year old tradition.
The term “Dive bar”brings to mind various images, depending on what you have seen or heard. Many used to call this type of establishment a “hole in the wall”, where using the terminology of the day, the riff raff would hang out to drink, gamble, and find prostitutes. Older movies would often show preachers outside of these places telling the sinners to repent. “Dive bar” is considered a colloquial term used in the United States to describe a low income neighborhood bar where the local folks get together to drink and or socialize. Dive bar can also refer to a bar or pub that is disreputable, in poor condition, seedy, sinister, disreputable or considered a detriment or blight in the community.
It’s often thought of as the type of place where respectable people did not frequent, at least during the light of day. On old 1950’s black and white television shows such a Peter Gunn, you might see a detective seeking information from a bar that is in what is considered as a dangerous part of town, where the criminal element might hang out. According to Wikepedia, a 1961 dictionary defined a "dive “a disreputable resort for drinking or entertainment."
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary indicates a dive bar was once considered as a place of ill repute, an illegal drinking establishment that was located in a basement where patrons could dive in without being noticed. The term was coined in the 1800's but today such an establishment might be called the neighborhood “nip joint, " which might be entered through a side door, basement or even on the top floor of an old building. There was a time when many of these locations were hidden in plain sight.
To the outside world, walking or driving by, all that would be noticed is a dilapidated building that used to be a retail or grocery store. Those who frequented such places would “dive” in and out with little fanfare during the hours of operation, Some people considered these illegal business worse than what was once considered a house of ill repute. No liquor lisence, occupancy certificate, or inspection by local government yet for those who enjoyed them, dive bars were the place to be.
Real dive bars did not have signs advertising their business as some were located inside of homes in residential neighborhoods. You only knew them because you would see lots of cars parked nearby or heard some wife complaining that her husband was at that dive again. For those who enjoyed themselves at these “holes in the wall “ think of a less classy version of the establishment “Cheers” from the popular television show.
After a hard day at work, or dealing with the pressures of life, those who would frequent the old school dive bars were perhaps thinking something along the lines of the lyrics of the Cheers theme song. “ Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came, you want to be where everybody knows your name’” Once these men and women had dived through the doors of their bar or pub of choice, they were away from all their troubles, they could let their hair down and be themselves.
Certainly there were on occasion fights, knives and guns drawn, angry spouses showing and even police raids and even death from time to time as this comes with the territory. I’ve been told that many of these dive bars were shut down by the police, only to reopen in a new location. Some would start back up in the same spot, once things settled down. Perhaps, there was a home or old building near you where people quietly dived in and out of with little fanfare. They drank and conducted themselves in a manner where their activity went unnoticed by those around them. The nip joint, AKA hole in the wall came, and it went without any problems. You didn’t even know it existed with you and your neighbors.
Today there are world wide legal establishments, complete with liquor lisence that consider themselves as dive bars. They are street level and no one has to sneak in or out, or fear a raid. This shifts the meaning of the term somewhat but for many in older generations, a dive bar will always be considered as that hole in the wall, without a liquor lisence where thry and others dives in and out of while building fond memories.