One of the many things I love about this city is the ease with which one can travel through time. New Orleans doesn’t throw anything away and so documents, newspapers, journals, letters, insurance maps, city directories, etc., all end up in archival collections which are open to the public. Anyone can go and suddenly you’re in the 1840’s, physically holding a bail bond signed by Marie Laveau or staring at Rose Nicaud’s permit to operate a coffee stand at stall #16 in the French Market. When I come across a claim or a story or a legend I want it to be true; I want Adelina Patti to have saved the French Opera House (she did); I want Antoine Peychaud to have invented the cocktail (he didn’t); I want the Pharmacie Français to be the first pharmacy building in the United States (it is) and I want everything they say about Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop to be true - but like so much else...it just....isn’t.
The owners of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop have only been making the claim to be The Oldest Bar In The U.S.A. since Katrina. Prior to that, their claim was a little different. When I began working for Magic Tours in 2005 their ghost tour was leaving from The Blacksmith Shop. At that time The Blacksmith Shop was claiming to be “the oldest building in the United States to house a bar.” After Katrina they began selling t-shirts with the phrase “The oldest bar in the U.S.A.” and every carriage driver in the city backed it up. I never questioned the “oldest building” claim (didn’t feel I had a reason to) but this new claim struck a chord with me. I am a volunteer for the New Orleans City Archives since the mid-1990’s and I did a two-year project for them which ended up being one of the most rewarding and enlightening things I’ve ever done.
There was a cartography firm called Sanborn that made maps and surveys in cities around the country for use in fire insurance. (Click here for more information on Sanborn Maps.) Their documentation is very thorough and extremely complete - detailing the buildings, their addresses (and in New Orleans they include the buildings' old and new addresses, which is valuable when one is researching a building prior to the address renumbering in 1895), their construction, who owned them and (most importantly) how they were used. I processed the Sanborn survey of 1897 for the City Archives; in fact, they said I could keep the photocopies of the Sanborn file they sent me and they are still in my library and I still refer to them frequently. According to that directory, the building that is now Lafitte’s Blacksmith was owned by a C. Mongo and served as a combination oyster shop and cobbler. In rooting around in other records I found that the property had a dependancy to the side where the courtyard is which was demolished around 1910 and that the oyster shop was in the outbuilding while the building which still stands on the corner served as the cobbler shop. (Attached is a photo taken circa 1895 which shows the outbuilding at the side - notice both the outbuilding and the main building each feature vitrines [display windows] - it's a shame that the sign on the main building is unreadable.)
So in 2006 when Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop's bar-back, Darryl, began wearing a t-shirt with the claim to the oldest bar in the United States, I questioned it and he got a little defensive and simply said that the claim was true. I spoke to the manager and told him about the Sanborn maps and questioned how they could claim to be the oldest bar in the country since 1772 when they also claim to have been a blacksmith shop in the Lafitte era and that I have records that show it was a cobbler shop in 1897. He got so defensive that he banned me from the bar. (Luckily I was in good with the bartenders and they didn’t enforce it, since he wasn’t there at night anyway. I did, however, decide against pressing the issue.) In fact, their own website claims that the Lafitte Brothers used the building between 1772 and 1791. An interesting claim considering Pierre Laffite (the Laffite boys spelled their name Laffite) didn’t even come to Louisiana until 1803 (he was a refugee from San Domingue) and Jean followed after him later. Plus - it was a bar AND a blacksmith shop at the same time???
As for when the building became a bar - the first record of a barroom permit for that address is in 1933 when Mary Collins, Thomas Caplinger and Harold Bartell opened a restaurant there called “Café Lafitte.” And yes, it was an actual restaurant, not just a saloon. In his 1945 dining guide Scoop Kennedy describes the restaurant as serving steaks, fried oysters, liver and onions and roast beef. Of course, Café Lafitte was later “exiled” and became the gay bar. Business licenses for that location prior to 1933 range from groceries to shoemakers to dentists. The 1842 city directory lists two dentists, GUIROUD and VALENCOURT, practicing in that building. Dentists! Who knew?
So what, then, is the oldest bar in the United States? The White Horse Tavern in Newport, R.I. can trace their liquor licenses to 1702, although not continuously. From 1895 to 1957 it served as a boarding house. As for the oldest bar in New Orleans, The Old Absinthe House has been serving liquor at least since the 1880’s and is probably the oldest continuing operating bar in the city. In fact, they operated an annex at the corner of St. Ann and Chartres in a building that once stood where the current Muriel’s building was built later.
|Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, circa 1895|
Note the small building to the left of the main building.
|Branch of the Absinthe House, corner St. Ann & Chartres, circa 1880|
Demolished circa 1900 to build the current Muriel's Restaurant.