Happy hour is an integral part of the American bar scene. But not a lot of us know how it started or where it originated.
According to the Urban Dictionary, happy hour is a period of time, usually on Fridays from 4pm-7pm, when bars, clubs, and restaurants offer specials on many food and beverage items in order to kickstart sales during slower periods of operation. Customers see it as a reward at the end of a long day or a productive workweek. In many cases, happy hour is time that kickstarts a profitable weekend for operators.
The First Happy Hour
Many assume happy hour is a modern invention, but that’s not really the case. It actually started in ancient Athens. That’s right: in addition to worrying about offending Zeus and Hera, ancient Greeks gathered in the late afternoons to enjoy a social period that bore an uncanny resemblance to today’s happy hour. Instead of beer, it’s likely the Greeks shared wine, and their appetizers weren’t beer nuts and peanuts, but likely olives, shrimp, and oysters. This later evolved into siestas, tea time visits, and what we now call happy hour. It’s likely that the Greeks didn’t have a formal name for this time, but simply found it a convenient period for enjoying food and drinks with friends.
The first official use of the phrase “happy hour” is found in Shakespeare’s King Henry V. The phrase is used in Act One and uttered by King Henry himself.
“Therefore, my lords, omit no happy hour / That may give furtherance to our expedition.”
In the United States, many believe happy hour started with the U.S. Navy. Sailors enjoyed a regular block of time during which they got together and did things like watch vaudeville acts, enjoyed boxing matches, and swapped stories. This was also a good time to enjoy a few drinks.
It’s believed that the term “happy hour” was first used in it’s modern sense aboard the U.S.S. Arizona. While President Taft was aboard the Arizona during a time when happy hour was going strong, it’s unclear if he ever enjoyed one of these sessions, though he did report that he found the Arizona to be a very happy ship. It’s worth noting that the drinking portion of the Navy’s happy hour ended in 1914 when a Navy General Order prohibited consuming alcohol on ships.
In the 1920s, more Americans became acquainted with the concept. During Prohibition, the safest way to enjoy good alcohol and a good time was gathering at a local speakeasy after work. When Prohibition ended, the newly formed tradition of gathering for drinks carried on.
The term “happy hour” finally made it’s way into popular culture after The Saturday Evening Post used it in a 1959 article they published about the Cape Canaveral’s missile launches. The article, titled The Men Who Chase Missiles, was all about the daily life of the soldiers who were stationed on the lonely Cape Canaveral base. One of the things the article mentioned was how the men gathered together and enjoyed happy hour. The phrase stuck and today it’s used as a popular marketing term.
How Has Happy Hour Changed?
For a long time, happy hour only took place at the end of the workweek, but that has changed. Today, businesses can arrange for happy hour to take place at any time. Many have found that they’re the most successful when they offer happy hour specials during a time that’s traditionally slow, such as late in the afternoon on Tuesdays. Solid happy hour specials that attract customers include things like unique appetizers, special drinks that can only be ordered during happy hour, and half-priced drinks.
Happy hour has also changed in terms of its traditional times. Instead of just holding it during the mid to late afternoon, times can now include late night or even all-day weekend specials. Many operators have found using a happy hour promotion to be a way to help boost profitability and keep customers happy.