What everyone seems to remember most is how fun and lively she was, the “saloon historian” who made a career out of elevating the importance of the lowly and mundane. Madelon Powers, the vivacious professor and former chair of the history department of the University of New Orleans, passed away in mid-April after a struggle with cancer, but her contributions to both the field of alcohol and drug history, as well as in the lives of her many students, will live on through her writing and a new UNO scholarship founded in her name.
Powers was a child of California. She moved between Davis and Los Angeles before receiving her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate from UC Berkeley. A nontraditional student, twenty-seven years lapsed between when she received her high school diploma in 1964 and her doctorate in 1991. She came to UNO in 1992, and the popular publication of her dissertation as Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon, 1870-1920 by the University of Chicago Press in 1998, cemented her reputation as a leading urban social historian who transformed the lives of ordinary drinkers into a definitive work of American history.
Powers railed against the idea that the barroom was an inappropriate locus for historical research. For too long, as she argued in the introduction to Faces Along the Bar, scholars who studied the working class focused almost exclusively on labor history. They analyzed union development, lockouts and strikes to the exclusion of social and cultural pursuits – including spending time at the saloon. And those that did write about late-nineteenth-century drinking habits focused far too heavily on the temperance movement. This, she explained, was mostly because of the wealth of materials that temperance activists had left to the archives. “The working-class drinkers’ side is often lost beneath an avalanche of antidrink propaganda and prejudice,” she complained.
But Powers also believed that urban social history’s exclusion of the saloon was because of the “antidrug prejudices” of most “temperate, respectable” academics. Historians were too often “uncomfortable with the world of barrooms and booze which they find distasteful and alien,” she wrote. “Unlike the workplace, the church, the family, and other more ‘worthy’ spheres of working-class life, the barroom is to them the black sheep of laborers’ institutions.”
(This is an interesting perspective today, when more people complain about the binge-drinking culture of academia, rather than its puritanical streak.)
Nonetheless, it was this environment of historical neglect that pushed Powers to show how saloongoers from across the country “promoted the process of community building in urban America from 1870 and 1920.” Piecing together an archive from eyewitness accounts, artists’ visual records, statements of saloonkeepers and their trade associations, testimonies culled from other records, and documents from the local and state government agencies charged with regulating the bar trade, Powers was able to show the “more complicated and meaningful dimensions of drink culture in American working-class history.”
In this sense, Powers serves as a model for us all. Her work did what Points contributing editor Bob Beach has argued is continually necessary for the field. She raised from an untraditional archive the voices of actual drug users and brought them and their experiences to life. In doing so, Powers readmitted the common people of the past – the drinkers, gamblers, bartenders and drunks – back into the historical record. Her work showed the larger meaning and purpose of the saloon, but also of the ordinary people who frequented its space.
Powers taught at UNO for twenty years, until her retirement in 2011. She was an active member of the Women’s Studies faculty and served as chair of the history department from 2008 to 2011. As a nontraditional student herself, she was particularly generous toward undergraduates following a similar path, especially those who returned to college later in life. She was also a popular and lively lecturer, with overwhelmingly positive reviews on ratemyprofessors.com. Students commented on her joie de vivre and sense of humor, and words like “funny” and “interesting” come up repeatedly, as did comments on how nice she was, how engaging she made her lectures, and how meaningfully she got her students to care about the past. One student wrote that Powers “rocked her world.” Another, in a very 2005-era euphemism, simply called her the “bomb.com.”
Madelon Powers was never a traditional historian. She was far too much fun for that. “As a regular myself in neighborhood bars in San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, and now New Orleans,” she wrote in Faces Along the Bar, “I have long been aware of the sense of camaraderie which develops among people who come to regard a particular establishment as their personal club.” The community that surrounded Madelon Powers – in her department, in her home, and at her favorite watering hole – was a very lucky group indeed. And for the community here at Points, she will be very dearly missed.