If you visit an old-fashioned pub, you may see a metal or wooden rail along at ankle height around the bar. These rails emerged by the late Nineteenth Century. Why did they become popular? Wayne Curtis of the magazine Inbibe explains that they were footrests that encouraged drinkers to relax while standing, and therefore buy more drinks:
Foot rails are both altruistic and mercenary. They’re altruistic because they’re installed for the comfort of the drinker. They’re mercenary because the more comfortable drinkers are, the more they’ll spend. A modest investment in a foot rail can evidently lead to a pleasing return.
Turns out, humans aren’t really designed to stand for long periods with feet flat on the floor. This contributes to stress on the spine, and you can feel it in your lower back. A foot rail allows us to redistribute the load on our feet—first one foot, then the other—and alter the tilt of our spines. “Bartenders were probably the first ergonomics experts on the planet,” write the authors of Deskbound, a 2016 book about the hazards of the sedentary life. “A standing-height drinking table that you can lean on, with a place to rest your foot? Genius.”
But brief lunchtime visits to bars faded away as a common practice, and so did this piece of furniture designed to facilitate standing:
Foot rails faded in importance for a simple reason: The workingman’s saloon, where one knocked back a shot or two and then quickly returned to work, were replaced by bars where people lingered. “Belly up to the bar” was not a facile metaphor, but a reasonably exact description of what one did. Then barkeeps found that if they added stools, people would linger and order more. (See: “mercenary.”) Today, the foot rail persists in a feral fashion, sometimes inconveniently. The legs of bar stools bump into them; the feet of customers can get entangled when dethroning, especially if tipsy.
This is an interesting hypothesis. But I'd like to suggest another. While composing this blog post, I selected the above photo, which describes the brass sheet in front of the foot rail as a "spit trough". Googling around led me to learn that some bars used to have troughs where customers could spit or pee without leaving their chosen spot. Sam Sessa wrote in 2010 for the Baltimore Sun that:
If the pub was packed full of people and you were lucky enough to have a spot at the bar, you weren't going to want to risk losing it by walking to the bathroom. But when nature calls, sooner or later, you have to pick up the phone.
What to do?
To solve the problem, bars began installing impromptu urinals underneath the bars. They were stainless steal troughs with a faucet at one end and a drain at the other. That way, the beer could go in one end and out the other at the same time.