Tea Party Winners: Debra E. Marvin's winner is: Kathleen, Jennifer Hudson Taylor's winner of her MacGregor Legacy series is Chris Granville and second winner is Britney Adams for the plaque and For Love or Country novel:, Angela K. Couch's winner is: , Carrie Fancett Pagels's winner per random.org is Beverly Duell-Moore for a copy of BCB and second winner for colonial goodies is: Carrie Moore Gould, Denise Weimer's winner: Janet Marie Dowell, Shannon McNear's winner is: Adriann Harris, Pegg Thomas's winner is: Susan C

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

In Ye Olden Days: If Colonial Tavern Walls Could Talk

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.


  1. Interesting post, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing your research. I included a tavern in my novel 'The Everlasting Mountains' (currently out of print)that existed during the Revolutionary War period in Frederick, Maryland. I discovered it while pouring through some old books in our local library's archive. It was simply called 'Mrs. Charlton's Tavern', and was a meeting place for the men in the town.

  2. Visited City Tavern is Philly last summer which has been authentically restored through old plans they found. The food is wonderful, and you can practically see our Founding Fathers taking their suppers or having a pint of ale as they discussed the business at hand: the Declaration. (as pictured in the movie "John Adams").
    I needed a tavern set on the Mohawk frontier, and you've offered a wealth of info for the details-- Thanks, Jennifer!

  3. Rita, I hope to get up to MD sometime and go sight-seeing. It sounds like a beautiful place!

    Pat, You're welcome. Hope it was helpful. I hope to write a review on this resource book I'm using. I just bought it a few months ago and I'm really enjoying it.

  4. I've always had a fondness for old taverns and you've sure shed some interesting light on them here. Recently I was in City Tavern in Philly and it was such a fascinating place. BIG, with a ballroom on the 2nd floor. This would have been considered quite posh. But I can imagine the things that went on there nevertheless;) Thanks for such a great post!

  5. You're welcome, Laura. I think they can be used in historical fiction as a great setup and in a number of ways.

  6. Your post in particular caught my eye since today I was editing a scene just outside a tavern. I was reminded of a tavern I visited briefly in Rhode Island as part of my research. My story is too early for this particular tavern to be included (the building would have been there but would only have been a residence). Here's the link to the history http://www.whitehorsetavern.us/history.htm. This is the oldest tavern in America.

  7. This is great information, Jennifer. I'm especially glad to know there were all levels of taverns reflecting all levels of 18C society. It helps me feel I've crossed my eyes and dotted my tees (hee hee) concerning the tavern in my WIP.

  8. Lynn, It looks so nice and elegant. I'd love to visit there.

    Lori, Me too! I wanted to make sure a tavern would suite the plan I have in mind for my next book. Sometimes we get these crazy ideas and they are just schemes if research won't allow us to pull them off.

  9. http://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/1903/8032/1/umi-umd-5167.pdf This is a link to an excellent dissertation that includes a little discussion of public places. There was another master's thesis or dissertation done only on the differences between taverns and ordinaries in Virginia and I will try to find the link for that for CACW. Thanks so much for this article, Jennifer. I enjoyed it very much.

  10. Its quite facinating to visit the Pink House in Charleston as it is quite small.

  11. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Thanks for bringing us this article about taverns, Jennifer. I learned a lot from your post. It was interesting to see the items learned about in the will and excavation.

    I have a 17th century ancestor from Massachusetts who was a tavern keeper and was surprised when I learned that towns had an ordinance that there must be a tavern there for travelers. They were also frequented on Musket Day/Training Day.

  13. We ate lunch at a tavern near Monticello many years ago. It was rustic, a log structure, and served chicken. I think that was your choice, chicken. No silverware to eat it with either! The waitresses were in period costume (sort of) and it was fun.

  14. At the taverns in CW they also were reported, in general during colonial times, to serve you a specific meal that day, period. If you go to one of the "taverns" there now you can order like at a restaurant but back in the day, it was whatever was prepared. So if you did not want Mrs. Watson's meat pie you might want to visit another tavern where seafood was being served!

  15. There was one tavern we ate at in CW and I loved it!. The food was delicious and they dressed costumes, had people come around to tables and entertain guests with music. Candles were lit at each table. Did I say I loved it?

  16. Great post, Jennifer! Now I'm thinking of how I can work a tavern scene into my next book..... :-)


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