I was about to graduate from college when I pinned my first dollar bill on a bar wall, marking it with my name and finding a place for it amongst the many others. I didn’t truly understand then, but I was taking part in a time-honored tradition. For at least 150 years if not more, the ceilings of bars across the United States have been adorned with such tacked-on dollar bills, creating an unusual but powerful visual effect.
If you’ve wondered, as I have, how this tradition began, you’re not the only one. But the answer is murky.
How It All (May Have) Started
Theories abound as to the start of this tradition. According to the United States Bartender’s Guild, the practice may have originated with Gold Rush-era miners who arrived in California after 1849. Looking for a safe place to stow their cash, miners hoping to strike it rich would “write their names on their ‘Get Home’ money and staple it to the ceiling of the local bar” as a back-up plan. Perhaps some miners never returned. After all, during this period, one in 12 miners died going to or from the mines, claims historian Kevin Starr in his book California: A History.
But historian Christine Sismondo, author of America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops, thinks the explanation isn’t so simple.
“I’m suspicious of many of the stories that all sound the same, about somebody stuck a dollar bill up for when they came back from the mines, or somebody stuck a bill up before they went out fishing,” she says. After all, the first dollar bill was issued by the treasury in 1862, right in between the gold rushes in California in 1848 and Alaska in 1896. “It represents a fair bit of money, up until a certain point,” notes Sismondo, meaning it’s unlikely people would have left behind this kind of valuable. “I feel like [it had] to have been started after a dollar bill was a relatively low unit of currency.”
Plus, some of the watering holes that take part in this tradition date back only half a century. Perhaps, despite the aforementioned lore, the practice is relatively modern. That would be in line with another popular theory, which suggests the dollars are connected to the “short snorter” tradition popular with pilots during the early to mid-20th century.
According to the Air Mobility Command Museum, short snorters were paper currency that had been autographed by people a pilot flew with or met elsewhere. “If someone signed your short snorter and you couldn’t produce it upon request, you owed him a dollar or a drink—a short snort,” reads the museum website.
At any rate, a number of bars and restaurants gleefully take part in the dollar-bills-on-the-ceiling tradition today. At these haunts, it’s common to find cash from other countries—some no longer used as legal tender—and the habit has persisted even despite the decline in cash usage. The custom certainly came in handy during the pandemic, when many spots peeled the bills off their walls and ceilings to help support staff and charities.
Sismondo thinks each bar and restaurant likely has its own reason for their dollar-on-the-ceiling tradition. “It just seems to me there’s a little bit of tall tale stuff happening in some of the origin stories,” she says.
The Salty Dawg Saloon (Homer, Alaska)
Before there was the town of Homer, Alaska, there was the cabin that became the Salty Dawg Saloon. Built in 1897, it served over the years as a post office and a grocery store. In 1957, it opened it as a bar, which it has remained ever since. The territory joined the United States in 1959 and, after an earthquake, the humble cabin was moved to its current location. Apart from its storied history, what most visitors love about the bar is the adornment of dollar bills that plaster the walls and ceiling.
Here’s the bar’s explanation: Years ago, if a customer came into some extra cash, they would hang a dollar with their name or another person’s name. “It would be like a drink for the future, when maybe you didn’t have any money,” says Jean Murphy, the manager of the Salty Dawg Saloon. “That was a long time ago when drinks were much cheaper,” she adds. Murphy speculates that the practice started around the time of the bar’s opening. It’s only continued over the years.
“Every year we have to pick back the dollars that are covering the life rings, windows, doors and some of the artwork,” she says. “We use the money for charitable donations.”
The Under-the-Hill Saloon (Natchez, Mississippi)
In 1975, Andre Farish Sr. opened The Under-the-Hill Saloon in Natchez, Mississippi. But the operation’s brick structure, situated on the Mississippi River, is one of the oldest buildings in town, dating to the 1800s. Over the years, it was frequented by a wild cast of characters, from riverboat captains to thieves. Even Mark Twain was allegedly a one-time patron. In addition to the assorted knickknacks that cover the walls, crumpled bills decorate the ceiling. So how did it start?
“Some silly young kid did it one day,” says Andre Farish Jr., who currently owns the establishment. The practice caught on. “People are kind of like cattle,” the younger Farish said by way of explanation. “It just blossomed from there.”
The cash also serves a purpose: “We take money down and buy food and cook it and have a party a couple of times a year.”
The Original Owl Bar & Cafe (San Antonio, New Mexico)
Open since 1945, The Original Owl Bar & Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico, started as a mercantile selling sandwiches to the scientists that worked at Los Alamos, the test site of the atomic bomb. These days, though, visitors come for the famous green chile cheeseburgers and to leave dollar bills on the walls, as generations before them have done.
“I would say 45 years ago, it all started with [a] businessman,” explains owner Janice Argabright. “He attached his card on top of a dollar bill on the wall. He kept telling my mom, ‘You just wait and see. I’m going to get a lot of business from this.’”
The man did, in fact, get a lot of phone calls. But he also started a tradition. “Since then, the customers started leaving messages,” Argabright says. “They wrote their names on the bills. Then they started leaving messages like ‘happy birthday’ to whoever.”
Every year, The Owl takes down many of the bills to donate to charity. The pandemic didn’t slow down the dollar bills. “Even during the pandemic, we did to-go orders and the people had to come in and get their orders, and they would all leave a dollar bill.”
The big takeaway? The next time you find yourself at a watering hole with dollar bills decking the walls or ceiling, inquire with staff as to why. You might be in for an interesting story.
Last Updated: May 9, 2023