The Colonial American Tavern

In 1760, John Adams, who was distinctively irritable, wrote that the taverns of the day have become “the eternal Haunt, of loose disorderly People of the same Town, which renders them offensive and unfit for the Entertainment of a Traveler of the least delicacy… Young People are tempted to waste their Time and Money, and to acquire habits of Intemperance and Idleness that … reduce many of them to Beggary, and Vice, and lead some of them at last to Prisons and the Gallows.” Well, that was one opinion from a man who was in essence a Massachusetts Puritan, uneasy in crowds, contemptuous of idleness, and in spite of his “Founding Father” status, somewhat suspicious of democracy. On the other hand, Henry David Thoreau wrote that, “The tavern will compete favorably with the church. The church is the place where prayers and sermons are delivered, but the tavern is where they are to take effect, and if the former are good, the latter cannot be bad.”

White Horse Tavern, Newport, Rhode Island est. 1673

Like Taverns or not, which, by-the-way were also known as “Inns,” “Ordinaries,” “Tippling Houses,” “Licensed Houses,” “Public Houses,” “Ale-Houses,” “Pubs,” “Wagon Stands,” “Dram Shops,” “Grog Shops,” and “Slog Shops,” they were an integral part of Colonial society. In addition to their recognized purpose, they also served as post offices, banks, public notice bulletin boards, meeting places, centers of political discussion, and places of social entertainment. During the time of the American Revolution there were between one and two thousand inns and taverns in the English colonies. Of that number, approximately twenty-one still exist as taverns, while many others have been converted to private residences, and countless others have been destroyed.

Initially, an inn was solely an establishment where a traveler could find sleeping accommodations, while a pub (public house) provided food, drink, and socialization. Gradually, those demarcations blurred, and the names became interchangeable. Colonial laws, dictated that adequate food and drink be available for customers as well as customers’ horses, and a listing of expenses for room, board, and stabling prominently displayed. However, those laws did not specify nor require specific standards of operation. As a result, only the more expensive taverns whose patrons were of the wealthier class kept a consistent supply of good food and drink, while the lower class taverns that generally served the lower and working classes, mainly served home brew or home distilled rot-gut, and food that was barely edible at best. Consequently, inns and taverns ran the full gamut from elegantly genteel and polished establishments to seedy, cramped hovels with fleas, vermin, and rancid food.

A traveler who stayed in an inn on the road from Bethlehem to Reading, Pennsylvania wrote in 1773, “It was the dirtiest House, without exception in the Province. Every room swarming with Buggs… If I did not pray all Night, I surely watched, as Sleep was entirely banished from my eyes; tho I enclosed myself in a Circle of Candle grease it did not save me from the devourations,”

In all inns, regardless of class, it was not uncommon for travelers to not only share a room, but also the bed, often with complete strangers. As more lodgers arrived and a bed reached its capacity, mattress pallets would be placed on the floor of the room to accommodate additional guests. Because of this, most inns could not accommodate women. Women rarely traveled alone, but even when traveling with their husbands or other family members, they were often required to take advantage of the hospitality of private houses in the area. In most cases, all they had to do is ask to be accommodated for the night and they would be given room and board. Virginia Colony actually had a hospitality law, which was socially enforced, and records indicate that young newlyweds on their honeymoon travels would stop for the night at the nearest plantation in the evening. It was not considered an imposition at all, and journals indicate that plantation owners would often station one of their servants by the highway to invite travelers to stay the night in exchange for the latest news or a discussionof topical events.

Hugh Jones wrote of Virginia’s hospitality in 1724: “No people can entertain their friends with better cheer and welcome, and strangers and travelers here are treated in the most free, plentiful and hospitable manner so that few inns or ordinaries on the roads are sufficient.

While couples and families might have availed themselves of Virginia hospitality for lodging, it was the inn and taverns that attracted travelers and local townsfolk for an evening of convivial food, drink, and entertainment. Many taverns provided “gambols” or games of chance or skill, as well as entertainment by balladeers and minstrels. A tavern keeper’s pride was generally the punch that he served, which was usually a closely held secret house recipe.

Several original colonial taverns from before or during the time of the American Revolution still exist, and in most cases they endeavor to provide twenty-first century patrons with an authentic eighteenth century tavern experience. Fortunately, none of the taverns on the following list are in the category of the poor traveler who stayed at the inn somewhere between Bethlehem and Reading. If you are anywhere in the area, these are certainly worthy of a visit:

The White Horse Tavern (est. 1673) Newport, RI

King George II Inn (est. 1681 as Ferry House) Bristol, PA

Muzzy Tavern then Buckman Tavern (est. 1713) Lexington, MA

Colonial Inn (est. 1716) Concord, MA

Howe’s Tavern (est. 1716) Sudbury, MA [Now Longfellow’s Wayside Inn]

Raleigh Tavern (est. 1717) Williamsburg, VA

The Three Tun Tavern (est. 1723) Mount Holly, NY [Now Mill Street Hotel and Tavern]

Munroe Tavern (est. 1735) Lexington, MA

Golden Plough Tavern (est. 1741) York, PA

Admiral Vernon Inn (est. 1745) Malvern, PA [Now General Warren Inne]

Wright Tavern (est. 1747) Concord, MA

Casparus Mabie House (est. 1755) [Now Old ’76 House]

Hartwell Tavern (est. 1756) Lincoln, MA

Captain Daniel Packer Inne (est. 1756) Mystic, CT

Hitchcock Tavern (est. 1760) West Springfield, MA [Now Ye Olde Tavern]

Fraunces Tavern (est. 1762) New York, NY

Crafts Tavern (est. 1771) Sturbridge, MA [Now Public House Historic Inn]

City Tavern (est. 1773) Philadelphia, PA

Griswold Inn (est. 1776) Essex, CT

Warren Tavern (est. 1780) Charlestown, MA

Gadsby’s Tavern (est. 1785) Alexandria, VA