50 YEARS ON THE JOB
Bragging rights: Female bartender might be Pa.’s first ‘From the old days’: Regulars to reunite for celebration
NORRISTOWN»If you’ve stopped by for a drink at Coletti’s Town Tavern anytime in the last half century there’s a good chance the person who poured it and served it to you was Elsie Jaggers.
The diminutive, easygoing woman has been working at Coletti’s since 1966, when she started out as a cook because a woman wasn’t allowed to mix drinks in Pennsylvania at the time, unless she was the wife or daughter of the saloon proprietor.
The successful post-World War II efforts by male-only bartenders’ unions to establish state laws banning women from behind the bar were revoked in Pennsylvania in 1968, giving Jaggers entry onto the brave new frontier of bar keeping.
And now she’s been the resident mixologist at Coletti’s from the era of Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, and counting.
Jaggers wasn’t exactly keen on earning her notoriety as a trailblazer in the late ’60s. Her motivation to tend bar came from her boss, who was only too happy to provide immediate on-the-job training.
“Charlie, the owner, put me right in behind the bar making drinks because he needed a bartender,” Jaggers recalled. “He’d say, ‘Go make me a martini, make me a Manhattan,’ and that’s how I learned how to mix drinks.”
The demand has changed dramatically since then. There’s not a lot of call for Jaggers to razzle-dazzle patrons with much jig-
ger expertise these days, but she can still whip up a brandy Alexander with the best of them, male or female.
“It’s a neighborhood bar now ... It’s mostly just beer and shots,” she said.
Because she started bartending two days before the revolutionary law took hold in 1968, Jaggers figured she has bragging rights as the first female bartender in the state.
On Sunday, she is set to be honored with a 50th anniversary party by her boss, Sam Ngov, a Norristown native and high school grad who bought the bar 13 years ago from Charles Coletti, whose grandfather, Pat Coletti, opened the bar at the corner of West Marshall and Astor streets in the Prohibition-era year of 1922.
Ngov was delighted that Jaggers came with the sale of the business.
“I felt great about her staying on because the customers just love her,” he said.
Former Coletti’s regulars from the long-gone Alan Wood Steel Co., Lukens Steel and Stroehmann bakery in Conshohocken and Schmidt’s brewery in Norristown were invited to the party, Ngov said.
“We texted everybody we could think of from the old days to come back and say hello,” he noted. “They all moved away years ago.”
“It’s mostly word of mouth,” added Jaggers, who used to
walk to work when she lived on Lafayette Street.
Then she drove herself for a while but gave up driving 40 years ago.
“I just decided I didn’t want to drive anymore,” she said matter-of-factly.
Most of the time her daughter will drive her to work from the East Norriton home they share, and Ngov will drive her home.
Although the atmosphere at Coletti’s and the surrounding neighborhood has changed dramatically since 1968, Jaggers said one thing has kept her on the job all these years.
“I enjoy people,” she said. “It was like Cheers in here at one time. Everybody knew everybody. Now they sort of have their own groups. They interact with one another, but not like before. Things are different now, but I still love it here.”
Like many jobs, bartending can be tough on the body at any age, with constant standing, bending, and reaching.
But Jaggers limits her shifts to three or four hours and never has any problems, she allowed.
“It gets me out of the house and keeps me from going stale,” she said, as a longtime customer walked by and gave her a hug.
“It’s just an amazing thing she does behind the bar,” Ron Ronca said. “She’s been working here 50 years. How often do you see something like that? She’s a wonderful lady.”
Elsie Jaggers serves up a Coors Lite to Coletti’s Town Tavern owner Sam Ngov as customer John Nelk looks on.