In the beginning, there was a tavern—literally. In what became the first permanent British outpost on the mainland of North America, Jamestown, the Virginia Company directed workmen to build a tavern before they constructed a church. By the colonial and early national periods, taverns were common, especially in cities and towns, along roads and paths, at the intersections of major thoroughfares, and at ferries. Called "ordinaries" in some places, taverns provided food and drink, lodging, stabling, and news, much as similar institutions had in the Old World.
In these public houses local courts met, commercial and social exchanges occurred, mail arrived, and a variety of contests played out in their rooms and on their grounds. Colonial legislatures often mandated their existence and tried to regulate what went on inside them, in part by requiring keepers to obtain licenses. The keeper was the "master," and after he or she paid a fee and offered a "surety," a bond backed up by others who knew and vouched for the individual, the keeper was responsible for providing particular services and for keeping order. Legislation and local bylaws specified the prices tavern keepers could charge for everything from drink to stabling and the behaviors keepers were not to permit: disorderliness, excessive drinking, gambling, and, at times, loitering by seamen and laborers, and, in some places, visits from African slaves and native Americans.
Also from the beginning, agents of official culture tied tavern regulation—or at least, their attempts at regulation—to economy and social order. They recognized that alcoholic beverages, which had some health benefits, could stimulate fights or worse, and that the frequent games of chance engaged in and feats of prowess displayed at taverns could lead not only to reputations made but also to the ruin of rank and resources. The fears of early American authorities were not unfounded; dire consequences could and did result.
Magistrates rarely achieved the level of control over taverns they sought, however, and contesting over and in taverns among customers, keepers, and authorities became more evident from at least the late seventeenth century onward, especially in urbanizing areas. In major cities, which had larger and
more diverse populations, laborers who expected drink as a part of pay, a persisting tradition, railed against authority from tavern to street, and in both places they allied occasionally with aspiring, populist-leaning factional leaders. In New York City in 1741, for example, white and black patrons of John Hughson's harbor tavern launched the "New York Conspiracy" against the local mercantile and political elite in a quest for money and freedom, not just for slaves but also for the much larger population of poor whites. Three decades later, Samuel Adams and John Hancock discussed their ideas for a far more famous conspiracy, the Boston Tea Party, in Boston's Green Dragon tavern.
Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, taverns remained sites from which various collections of people launched campaigns against authority. The War of Independence, the Whiskey Rebellion, and numerous local, economic-policy resistance efforts were all nourished on the public stage, as the historian David Conroy has termed it, that was the early American tavern. The alliances made there were not, however, all of the same kind. Allegiances, and the drinking that cemented them, varied from local collections of laborers, to white workingmen and black slaves, to wage laborers and middling-rank professionals.
The class- and race-based alliances that figured so prominently in the political actions against authority in the eighteenth century weakened or, in some places, dissolved during the early Republic, and again the tavern was a critical public stage. Historians have made much of the specialization that diminished the centrality of taverns—the ordinariness of the "ordinary"—especially after the Revolution and especially in urban areas. British-inspired coffee-houses spread; boardinghouses offered alternative sleeping and eating facilities; hotels attracted well-to-do travelers, as well as local families of substance; grogshops and other "mean" drinking facilities began to proliferate; and a broad range of eating establishments, including oyster houses often run by African Americans who were unable to obtain tavern licenses in a city such as Baltimore, emerged. Underlying this specialization were the same processes that altered earlier alliances: a rapidly expanding and diversifying population, the transition to capitalism (which included expanding trade in and an everwidening variety of food and alcoholic beverages), and changes in social relations.
The experiences of urban women of European descent figured in and help to illustrate many of the changes that affected late colonial and early national taverns. Until the 1780s women had a substantial presence in taverns, especially as keepers and occasionally as customers. Across the colonies statutes had actually encouraged widows and single women to acquire licenses. Running a tavern, authorities believed, enabled women to sustain themselves and avoid the poverty that rulers had long feared. Through the 1820s, however, fewer women acquired licenses, and apparently fewer still frequented taverns unattended by male escorts. Some women may have chosen to get a boardinghouse license rather than one for a tavern. Others, however, were unable to afford tavern licenses and to compete with the newly arriving male immigrants, who worked as keepers for one of the local landlords who now owned and rented out multiple properties on which taverns sat.
Some poor women also used the only resource they "owned," their bodies, in specialized occupations in taverns, including "physical culture" exhibitions, displays that combined body poses and acrobatics, and prostitution in taverns. Evidence from the largest cities—New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, and New Orleans—points to the increasing presence of prostitutes and the legal construction of prostitution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Moreover, prostitutes did not ply their trade only or even primarily in the taverns; rather, they operated in another emergent facility, the bawdy house, some of which women ran.
Not all taverns underwent the kinds of changes evident in late colonial and early national cities, of course. Rural taverns of colonial and early national America have not received the attention that urban ones have, but some patterns seem likely. Travelers who made their way to the still vast rural areas—both of the initial British, Dutch, and Spanish colonies on the East Coast and of territories-becomestates west of the Appalachians—were likely to find public houses along roads, at ferries, or even in riverbank caves. Their keepers were still likely to be militia colonials, merchants with substantial local influence, or widows who had inherited the place from their husbands. The tavern trade—the exchange of money or services for drink, food, lodging, and stabling—was significant in the local economy, and the tavern fare—refreshments, games and exhibitions, meetings, weddings, and more—was vital within the life of the community. Tavern signs made visible both the place and its name, so whether people were literate did not matter. Men and women were patrons, and everyone in the locale knew who was and was not welcome inside. Political discussions reverberated inside, and alliances formed. Cider made from local apple orchards, along with rum, beer, and whiskey, sold well. Until the temperance movement organized, early national rural taverns resembled the ordinary, the public house that was so common a thousand or even a hundred miles to the east and that had long ago ceased to exist.
See alsoAlcoholic Beverages and Production .
Conroy, David. In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.
Salinger, Sharon V. Taverns and Drinking in Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Struna, Nancy L. People of Prowess: Sport, Leisure, and Labor in Early Anglo-America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Thompson, Peter. Rum, Punch and Revolution: Taverngoing and Public Life in Eigheenth-Century Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
Thorp, Daniel B. "Taverns and Tavern Culture on the Southern Colonial Frontier: Rowan County, North Carolina, 1753–1776." Journal of Southern History, 62 (November 1996): 661–82.
Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Nancy L. Struna