I'm researching colonial taverns for my next novel, and one thing I've discovered is that there is no limit to what might have occurred in a tavern. They ranged from reputable establishments for local officials' meetings and a night's lodging and food for weary travelers, to houses of offensive prostitution, drinking, gaming and gambling.
In the 17th century, laws were established to curb lewd behavior and licenses were required. Strict enforcement was in effect, but varied from town to town. Most of these tavern laws reflected those being passed simultaneously in England. Ordinances were passed to limit the amount of time local patrons could be in a tavern in an attempt to limit drinking.
For example, in New England, Massachussets, an ordinance passed prohibiting citizens from visiting a tavern longer than an hour, not past 9 pm or sunset, and they could not drink more than one-half pint at one sitting. The exception to these laws were travelers who were obviously exempt.
Written descriptions and various paintings leave us with a glimpse of how some of these first colonial taverns looked. Most were of large, but plain rooms lit by candle sticks and a wall sconce. Activity centered around one long wooden table, men sitting on wooden stools, and bread trenchers for plates.
An archaeological excavation of a Cape Cod tavern operating 1690-1740 revealed that the first floor of the building consisted of two public rooms on each side of the chimney. Other items escavated on the site, consisted of wine bottles and glasses, English coins, ceramics imported from England, salt-glazed stoneware, and locally made redware. Other site excavations have produced and an assortment of pottery shards, drinking equipment, kitchen and eating utensils.
George Plimn of Philadelphia owned a small tavern/inn. When he died in 1773, he left a small estate of 54 pounds. His public rooms consisted of a walnut desk and table with six chairs, a nest of drawers, fireplace equipment, a pair of fire buckets, four framed pictures, trade tools, pewter measures, four case bottles, a keg, and three glasses, a pair of scales and measures, a pistol, and a brass lock for the desk. The majority of his investments were in 60 gallons of rum stored in the cellar. His back rooms were simply furnished with a bed and table for guests.
As towns grew in population and taverns multiplied in number, these laws relaxed and so did the enforcement of them by the mid to late18th century. Urban taverns were often rental spaces with the tavern keeper living there and operating business, while rural taverns were most likely operated in the owner's home. Unlike rural places, tavern keeping provided an individual a middle occupation and a steadier income than agriculture and many other labors.
Tavern keepers varied in how well they did, and it depended upon one's business management skills and how he invested his funds, as well as the nature of his clientele. For instance, one tavern keeper in Philadelphia owned two horses and cows, 60 ounces of silver objects, a traveling chair and three slaves in 1791, while another tavern keeper in the same city had only one cow, and no silver or slaves.
Small taverns were called grog shops, slop shops, and tippling houses, and were clustered along the docks of colonial port cities. They catered to transient seamen, and day laborers, and served beverages under the counter to servants, apprentices, and were houses of ill-repute for prostitution. Unlike in earlier colonial days, these taverns frequently operated without a license and many of their keepers were former sailors. These taverns were also the place for drunken brawls and physical violence.
Taverns in the middle part of the cities and in better areas of town were centered around economic life, daily business transactions, mercantile exchange, used as the site of auctions for goods, property and slaves. In fact, until local government had their own headquarters, they often held business meetings in taverns.
In Charleston, one of the largest rooms in John Gordon's tavern was leased on a yearly basis by the South Carolina Colony Court. Gorden repaired and enlarged the chamber for their use and in 1752 appealed for higher rent.
The first image above is of a colonial tavern still standing in Charleston, SC. It's now called the Pink House and has been restored as an art gallery. Not only was it once known as a tavern, but many say that prostitution took place here as well. The second image is a close up to give you a better view.
"Early American Taverns: For the Entertainment of Friends and Strangers" by Kym S. Rice for Fraunces Tavern Museum.