Taverns, Alcohol Selling and Women

By Karen L. Hayden

Our society still has them, neighborhood "taverns". In fact, the restaurant chain Applebees claims to be America's neighborhood bar and grill. Why on earth would they want to do that? The answer is really quite simple. The tavern or inn has always been the place where people meet, eat, and come together with a sense of community.

In Massachusetts, as in other colonies, the taverns were often the first public buildings besides a meeting house to mark a new town. Tavern keeping and alcohol selling were one of the few occupations that a woman could obtain a license in her own name as long as she was single. In many towns, including Boston in the first half of the 18th century, women generally held one third of all the licenses granted in a year. Most of these were widows who husbands had operated a tavern previously or had been left with no means of support. It was considered charitable to grant a license to a widow so that she would not have to live off public assistance.

Most of the widows catered to the middling or lower sort, but several of them carved out a niche of success. Frances Wardell began tavern-keeping with her second husband in 1711. He died not long afterwards and she built up the business. In the 1720's, she was providing space to the Superior and lesser courts. When the selectmen refused to regrant her license 1726, she called upon her influential customers to keep herself in business. She kept her tavern for the next ten years and never remarried.

Beginning in 1710, Deborah Man cultivated a different part of the business and became an alcohol retailer. She sold her liquor to ships for long voyages. She was successful for 16 years in the business as a widow.

Another service the tavern often provided in the community was a library. In the inventories of tavern owners, substantial numbers of books and pamphlets are found. It has been suggested that the taverns were often the first place a new political pamphlet or book would surface. Patrons could read them while they were there. In some places, newspapers were available for reading or purchase. Social events, such as dances, were also part of a tavern's function in the community.

Things began to change around 1750. The climate in the colonies was changing. Political unrest and difficult economic times were coming. Local governments sought to reduce the number of publick houses. The tavern, which had always been a community center for news and gossip, began to host a different kind of political role. Tavern owners began to be elected as selectmen, justices, and militia captains. Research by David W. Conroy shows that by the 1770's, one in three tavern keepers were also elected officials in Massachusetts towns of 1500 or more. These circumstances conspired to push women out of the business. In 1770, Middlesex County of Massachusetts only granted 18 of 232 licenses to widows. But the number of towns that had five or move taverns in that time had increased to 50% in most counties.

One of the reasons people gathered at taverns was to drink the various liquors available that could not be made in their homes. Rum had entrenched itself in the colonial palate. It was almost always mixed into some recipe for punch. Wines like Madeira and Port were also enjoyed. Cider was another popular drink.

Although many farmers owned cider presses, the social aspect of sharing drink was also ingrained in society. Men often gathered to drink and discuss business. Drunkeness was looked down upon and considered an embarrassment. The results of chronic alcohol abuse were well known. Religious leaders often preached of it.

This love of rum and publick houses followed the soldiers into Washington's army. Rum was not part of the rations approved by Congress in 1775. Soldiers purchased it from licensed drink sellers and other sutlers. In 1777, when the army was encamped at White Marsh, the use of alcohol escalated to epidemic proportions. Officers confiscated supplies of unlicensed sellers and revoked the licenses of approved sutlers. But it didn't work. The sutlers and other neighbors opened "tipling" houses adjacent to the encampment. The army actually went out to suppress these activities in the area immediately around them.

Some women got involved with the sale of rum in camp but not legally apparently. Colonel Lamb of the 2nd Continental Artillery issued the following order: "No Soldier, or Soldier's Wife to be permitted to sell any kind of Liquor on pain of having it seized and the Soldier punished for disobedience of orders." Women caught were removed from camp. This order is repeated several times during Lamb's tenure. (Note: This could be a great court martial at an event!)

But it seems in general licensed sutlers were needed and tolerated to bring liquor to the troops. General Greene told sutlers in his camp that they were not to sell any soldier "more than one half pint of spirits per day."

Sometimes a tavern was pressed into service during times of trouble. Prior to the regulars confronting the militia at Lexington, the tense colonials passed some of their time at Buckman Tavern. After the Patriot victory at Bennington, wounded British and German officers were brought to the Catamount Tavern for treatment. Other officers were held there under guard and were not permitted any knives or forks when food was served.

After his capture in 1777, German Surgeon Wasmus recounted a meeting at the Danielson's Inn in Brimfield, Mass. where the inhabitants gathered to determine who would board which prisoners in their homes. He and the Pastor of his regiment end up with a family named Hitchcock. This family prayed together every morning and every evening before bed. Wasmus also commented that "nor will anyone go to the village inn for a drink on Sundays."

The comfort of a tavern or good alcoholic drink in the company of comrades in arms brought a sense of community in a very confused world of the late 18th century. In a time when death lurked around every corner, a glass raised in toast chased darkness away for another day.

"In Public Houses" by David W. Crory
"An Eyewitness Account of The American Revolution & New England Life"
Journal of J.F. Wasmus Translated by Helga Doblin
"Belonging to the Army" by Holly A. Mayer
"Publick Houses of Entertainment", Tidings from the 18th Century by Beth Gilgun

Copyright © 2000 Karen L. Hayden. All rights reserved.