Monday, October 17, 2011

Those Were the Days, 4: A Toast to Taverns


Taverns played a little-known but vital role as a center of community life in Colonial America. By definition, they offered food, alcoholic drink, and often overnight accommodations for a price, serving both the local citizenry and travelers.
Early settlers were mostly British, and the public house was one of the many long-standing traditions directly imported to the colonies from the mother country. Following British custom, they were originally called “ordinarys.”
The name was adopted because, in the parlance of the time, a dinner there was an “ordinary"--a prepared meal open to the public offered at a set time for an established price. The public quality of the ordinary meal declined with time. By the end of the 17th century, “tavern” had replaced “ordinary” as the name for a public house.
Not merely a place where food and drink were dispensed and lodging was provided, the early American tavern filled many needs, eventually becoming the hub of the community. Stagecoaches stopped at taverns, linking backwoods settlements with the outside world. Residents learned the latest news from letters and newspapers delivered at taverns.
As well as being the community's drinking place, the tavern was its hotel and restaurant. It was also the town hall, assembly room and courtroom. Itinerant actors used its public rooms as a theater. Its bulletin boards posted lists of jurors, announcements of public auctions and legal notices, plus offers of rewards for runaway slaves or bond servants, and lost animals or other property.
One fact overlooked by historians is that taverns were the seedbeds of the American Revolution, places where British tyranny was condemned, militias organized and independence plotted. Patriots regarded public houses in front of which liberty poles were erected as the nurseries of freedom. The British called them public nuisances and hotbeds of sedition.
After the Revolution, a large part of the American population was on the move--in stagecoaches and Conestoga wagons, on horseback, and even on foot. Taverns became the hostelries for travelers and boarders, even though the bedding was not changed regularly and strangers might have to double up in the same bed.
The first post offices were in taverns, with the tavern keeper serving as the community's postmaster. Delivery of mail to a tavern was informal. Hugh Finlay, Surveyor of the Post Roads, who developed colonial postal services in New England, complained in 1773, "Letters are thrown down on a table in a Tavern or Coffee House for every man to pick out his own."
When no newspapers were included in a mail delivery, letters filled with gossip, news and information inevitably became objects of extreme curiosity. The law and common practice ("Touch not, nor look upon the Books or Writings of anyone . . .") stipulated that mail was private. But when letters, a relative rarity, lay on a tavern side table for days, some patrons simply could not resist unfolding them and reading them aloud to listeners eager for news.
 Taverns often served as churches for religious services. Even after a church had been erected, worshipers could be found in the tavern thawing out after long Sunday services in unheated churches or meeting houses.
“Entertainment” was the byword of tavern keeping. Public house proprietors were licensed  "to keep an ordinary for the entertainment of travelers and strangers," and their signs were embellished with that word. Today we associate the word entertainment with amusement, but its meaning in the 17th and 18th centuries was maintenance or provisioning, and pertained exclusively to eating, drinking and lodging.

Food at taverns was frequently mediocre. Choices were limited, and prices were unpredictable. Breakfast at eight was substantial and usually included ham or salt fish accompanied by coffee or tea and slices of toasted bread spread with butter.
      The main meal of the day was dinner, served between one and three. Supper, usually cold, was a light meal at nine. Meat, heavily salted for preservation, was the mainstay of tavern fare.
      Food at Thomas Allen’s tavern in New London included locally available farm products and seafood—lobsters, salmon, eels and oysters--from Long Island Sound. His cellar bulged with stores of ham or bacon, smoked and pickled tongue, salt pork, crackers, butter, coffee, apples and sugar.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, drinking was the most popular of tavern recreations. Annual per capita consumption of distilled spirits reached 3.7 gallons by the time of the American Revolution. By 1830, thanks to the wide availability of cheap whiskey, consumption climbed to 5.2 gallons--nearly triple today's figure.
Local courts established prices for alcoholic beverages, with legally required price schedules posted in each licensed tavern. Standardized measures were also a requirement for each tavern keeper, a practice observed in England. The size of each metal measure was stamped on the handle and ranged from a gallon down to a nip.
Rum was the most popular distilled liquor, widely served in taverns and sold in an assortment of measures. The most expensive rum varieties were imported from the West Indies. Jamaican rum was especially prized. Rum was also fermented and distilled locally from molasses imported from the same source. In 1770, the colonies imported four million gallons of rum and distilled another five million gallons.
Plain rum, drunk straight, was the drink of the working classes. Grog--rum and water—was originally the daily ration of British sailors, and grog shops became synonymous with the lowliest of taverns. Rum was also the main ingredient of punch, described by one writer as "a very good, pleasant and healthful drink."
A popular beverage routinely served at tavern events ranging from political gatherings to men's club meetings, punch was made using rather pricey ingredients: the rinds and juice of imported lemons, limes and oranges, mixed with rum and white or brown sugar. Punch was served warm and sold in taverns by the bowl, which was passed around from guest to guest at each table.
Wine, imported from Spain and Germany, was also served in taverns but it was not widely available outside of cities. Like punch, consumption of wine was limited to the affluent. Brandy was usually imported, but local varieties were also sold, made from peaches, apples or cherries.
Toddy, a mixture of wine or beer sweetened with sugar and flavored with nutmeg, was also dispensed by the bowl. Flip, served in a mug, pitcher or glass, was strong beer with rum and sugar or molasses added. Cheaper fermented beverages made locally were also available. Apple cider was sold by the jug, pint, pot or pitcher. Beer was either imported from England or locally brewed.

Tavern accommodations were not only communal but uncomfortable. Sleeping was not the intimate and private act it is today. It was common to put beds in every room of a house, and this practice carried over to the public rooms of taverns. Rural taverns were usually small residences converted into inns in which the barroom and public rooms included beds.
      Even after bedrooms for travelers separate from the public rooms were added, it was the usual practice for paying guests in taverns to share sleeping quarters, sometimes the same bed. In winter, two or more in the bed was not only practical but generated warmth. Regular bathing was not a common habit, and sheets were not changed frequently and laundered. Toilet facilities were primitive. Most taverns kept chamber pots in the bedrooms or had outside privies.

Although dancing was forbidden in strict New England, country dances derived from folk traditions brought to the New World by early settlers were popular. Formal dances requiring skill and training soon became part of colonial life. Taverns, which were larger than most domestic structures, were the ideal sites for such dances. Dancing masters, often French immigrants, conducted classes and arranged balls in taverns. Women were generally excluded from tavern life with the exception of such occasions as dances and other public entertainments.
      Games were brought to early America by English and Dutch settlers. Cards, backgammon, passage (a game played with three dice), chess, checkers, and ninepins were popular tavern recreations. Colonial laws in New England regulating taverns prohibited game playing and gaming.  Gambling and drunkenness were condemned by civil and religious leaders.
      When the Dutch briefly recaptured New Amsterdam in 1673 from the British, they forbade gaming, card playing, and ball playing, and rolling nine pins on the Sabbath. A century later, the New York Assembly passed laws to "restrain disorderly and unlawful gaming houses and prohibited billiard tables, shuffleboards and games of chance.”
       Other forces also brought about changes in taverns. One was the separation of the bar from the tavern, thus altering its character completely. From the time of the earliest colonial regulations, the two had been inseparable, and no one could sell liquor at retail without making provision for travelers.
               By the 1830s, some states permitted taverns to operate without lodging facilities. Another change was the disappearance of the common dining table with its standardized menu and fixed eating hours. With the barroom and restaurant severed from the tavern, its character became completely different.
                       A network of post roads once linked distant parts of the country, making it possible for widely separated friends and relatives to correspond regularly. Swift stagecoaches offered the means of moving mail and passengers from place to place. And taverns provided centers of hospitality, friendliness, news, laughter, and entertainment. For post roads, stagecoaches and taverns, it was a symbiotic relationship of mutual dependence and benefit.
      In the 19th century, railroads supplanted post roads, inevitably causing the demise of roadside taverns. The workaday post roads are barely discernible now. Their speeding stagecoaches have long since vanished. And today's hotels and motels are pale imitations of the warm, convivial taverns of two hundred years ago when a welcome was extended to all.
      To these shadowy reflections of simpler days when this country was young and full of hope, I hereby propose an extravagantly sentimental toast--and a fond farewell.


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