Barmaid as Sex Object

Detail from the cover of London Pub Guide, 1968.
Detail from the cover of London Pub Guide, 1968.

In, we think, around 1970, Cyril Hughes entered and won a competition in left-wing magazine The New Statesman. His contribution was this couplet:

Not turning taps, but pulling pumps,
Gives barmaids splendid busts and rumps.

It is very much a product of the era when sexy barmaids were a marketing asset, and entered the beer geek’s arsenal of ‘beer quotations’ fairly promptly.

Beric Watson, first publisher of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, made it the basis of his preface to a 1971 book called Hand-Pulled Beer and Buxom Barmaids; Christopher Hutt quoted it in his The Death of the English Pub (1973); as did Richard Boston; and Michael Jackson, too. It was generally used as an illustration of the all round earthy splendidness of traditional draught beer, as opposed to the sterile coldness of big brewery keg.

In 1975, The Daily Mirror quoted Watson as a representative of CAMRA saying: “Pulling pints develops the chest muscles… Girls who serve beer from a pump are going to wind up with better bosoms than those who press a button or throw a switch.” The response from Watney Mann? “We can produce barmaids any time with busts of more than 38 inches–without them ever having pulled a pump.”(ADDED 17/10/2012.)

Michael Jackson expanded further upon the subject in 1976:

…there are two basic types of barmaid: surrogate mothers and surrogate bedmates. The types are quite distinct, though the pub-goer who drinks too much may eventually confuse them, especially if the barmaid in question is of the buxom mould characteristic to her occupation. Not only does beer inflame lust if taken to excess: heavy-beer drinkers are often male-chauvinists. In the days when Nice Girls Didn’t, it was popularly thought that barmaids did… Now that Nice Girls are out of style, so are blousy barmaids. Happily, there are still a few pubs which bulge with anachronisms.

The English Pub

Michael! Eew! (And let’s not bring Freud to bear on those opening lines…) It does seem to be true, however, that the role of barmaid was, in the nineteenth century, not so far removed from that of a sex worker, specifically a clip joint hostess:

Barmaids are a seductive study — a charming institution. Barmaids are born, otherwise they fail… B begins barmaid and B begins beautiful, but it does not therefore follow that all barmaids are beautiful — some are even plain… See the custom a good barmaid attracts!… how clever she is, and what a talanet she shows in making these swells provide her with… chains, rings, brooches, lockets and bracelets… what jealousies and heartburnings she causes among the golden youth by her guileless indecision in the matter of “Sundays out!”.

Fife Herald, 15 February 1872.

Do women working behind bars still feel the gaze of horny, half-legless customers? Probably, but less often, and it’s no doubt more discreetly done. Are they still expected to flirt? If so, then it’s more often couched these days in terms of ‘providing a welcome’, and male bar staff are expected to perform, too. Do publicans still hire  bar staff based on how they look? We suspect that the answer is yes, sometimes, but that having the right hairstyle might have become more important than large breasts.

Pete Brown’s appreciation of a barmaid in Wales suggests that in some places, however, the idea of the ‘sexy barmaid’ lives on, and that where it does, male customers, and male beer writers, are still paying attention.

18 thoughts on “Barmaid as Sex Object”

  1. What other roles do barpeople provide? In Ireland they have also traditionally been undertakers. Hangmen were often barmen. Pierrepoint became against capital punishment after hanging one of his own customers.

  2. Bar staff clearly do still get hired on grounds of aesthetics in some establishments, where often this quality overrides all others. Thankfully though its getting rarer.

    Bar maids/men should be clean, friendly & hopefully knowledgeable, two heads or other double appendages are optional..

  3. Back in the late 90s, a restuarant in Kirkcaldy where my mate was Head Chef got into a spot of bother, as did the local paper, because they ran a job ad asking for ‘attractive’ bar and waiting staff.

    And it was only at the start of the 90s that Tennent’s decided to get rid of their Lager Lovelies. http://www.cannyscot.com/

    I think the sexualisation of barmaids may have been partly down to misguided peer pressure. Excessive beer drinking on a Friday and Saturday used to be a male and working class pastime and if you weren’t making overtly sexual comments about the barmaids then you were obviously gay and therefore not a true working class male. Very sad but thankfully those time are mostly in the past although I’m sure they still exist in some isolated pockets of misery and disdain.

  4. For what it’s worth, my Father always offered me the following advice –
    “When you start to fancy the barmaid go home – you’ve had enough.”
    He knew whereof he spoke, as he got to know my Mother when they were working together in my Grandfather’s pub…….

  5. If John Clarke is reading this (which he probably will be) he will remember the occasion when one of my friends mentioned in a write-up of a pub crawl that a barmaid in the Royal Oak in Didsbury had “stunning pre-Raphaelite hair”. Which indeed she did.

  6. It’s always going to be the case with men that, no matter where it is – a pub, bar, sandwich shop or shoe shop – if a lady in there is worth a little comment, she’ll get it. I means that in the most honest sense. Yes, introducing alcohol to the mix enhances this….it’s a tinderbox, a pub, really.

  7. Dave — good question! Pierrepont’s other job was extra-curricular, though, and surely it only counts if the pub is the shopfront from the additional service in question?

    Phil — I guess there’s room for debate over what friendly means. Some might suggest that refusing to enter into flirtatious banter is ‘unfriendly’…

    Mark — the ******* in Walthamstow had a clever trick: they put up posters advertising for bar staff only in the ladies toilet, and so had an entirely female staff without *actively* saying they were after ‘barmaids’. (Probably still breaks the rules, though.)

    Curmudgeon — in answer to your first question, the answer is probably yes. When I was a teenaged waiter, I used to hate serving hen parties. I was all pimples, and wearing a candy strip shirt and pink bow tie, but they were too drunk too care. *shudder*

    Alan — “I prefer 1952” — well, you can’t say he’s insincere.

  8. I’m intrigued by those pump handles – they look rather short by contemporary standards, although that may just be because the ‘handle’ part is shorter. Anyone recognise them?

    (OK, so this wasn’t the first thing my eye fell on… hang on, does that sound even worse? Nerd or lech? What a choice!)

  9. I walked past a fast food joint near Charing Cross station last week known for its Bratwurst and saw they were advertising for staff.

    “All CVs must be accompanied by a photo.”

    There goes my dream of selling tasty German snacks.

  10. Just to be clear, my comments about the barmaid in Wales were part of the picture I was painting of the pub, its clientele and the dynamics of the relationship between the two. Her appearance was totally relevant to that. There’s a rather large difference between noticing that a person is attractive, and leching over her, and I hope you’re not trying to imply any blurring between the two on my part.

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