|Q: During colonial times, were there any specific skills or
training that a tavern keeper might need? How did someone learn this business or
Q: Was it a good or profitable trade during the colonial times?
A: It is mind boggling to think of all the skills that an
ordinary keeper must have. First, he/she had to be able to house and feed both
people and horses. Unless he/she operated in a big city, he/she was also a farmer
who grew much of his/her needed supplies. Then he/she had to be able brew his/her own
beer, cider and other drinks. Finally he/she had to keep his accounting books
and bills accurately to make sure that he/she was paid properly and that he/she was
making, not losing, money. He/she did not do this alone: he/she also had to manage
crew of assistants.
There were cook books in the colonial era, but I don't
know of any books directed toward tavern keeping. So I would assume that the
beginning tavern keeper learned "on the job" and from other tavern keepers.
A: The following paragraph gives conflicting evidence on that
Q: Finally, could you possibly give us a brief description of
what a tavern might have looked like inside?
Great inducements were offered to persons to keep an
ordinary; sometimes land was granted them, or pasturage for their cattle, or
exemptions from church rates and school taxes. In 1682 Hugh March of
Newbury, Massachusetts, petitioned for a renewal of his license to keep and
ordinary, saying thus: "The town of Newbury, some years since, were
destitute of an ordinary, and could not persuade any person to keep it. For
want of an ordinary they were twice fined by the county, and would have been
a third time had I not undertaken it." In 1668 the town had persuaded one
Captain White to "undertake an ordinary" on high moral grounds; and it is
painful to record that, though he did so unwillingly, he/she found the
occupation so profitable that he finally got into disgrace through it.
The Flagon and Trencher Society has published brief
biographies of tavern
keepers. In the first two volumes 23 biographies appear. Seven of these
biographies state that children took over the business. That amounts to only
30% - apparently most of the children found a more advantageous way of life.
The governing authorities often regulated the prices the
taverner could charge his customers. But they did not regulate the wholesale
prices that the taverner had to pay his suppliers.
A: The following excerpts give a flavor of what a tavern
might look like.
The better class of old-time taverns always had a parlor.
This was used as a sitting room for women travelers, or might be hired for
the exclusive use of some wealthy person or family. It was not so jovial a
room as the taproom, though in winters a glowing fire in the open fireplace
go to the formal furnishings that look of good cheer and warmth and welcome
which is ever present, even in the meanest apartment, when from the great
old logs the flames shot up ..
The walls of one tavern parlor which I have seen were
painted with scenes from a tropical forest. On either side of the fireplace
sprang a tall palm tree. Coiled serpents, crouching tigers, monkeys, a white
elephant, and every form of vivid-colored bird and insect crowded each other
on the walls of this Vermont tavern.
The taproom was usually the largest room of the tavern. It
had universally a great fireplace, a bare, sanded floor, and ample seats and
chairs. Usually there was a tall, rather rude writing-desk at which a
traveler might write a letter, or sign a contract, and where the landlord
made out his bills and kept his/her books. The bar was the most interesting
furnishing of this room. It was commonly made with a portcullis grate, which
could be closed if necessary.
Manners were rude enough at many country tavern until well
into the century. There could be no putting on of airs, no exclusiveness.
Many of the rooms were double-bedded, and four who were strangers to each
other often slept in each other's company. ... Mr. Twining said that after
you were asleep the landlord entered, candle in hand, and escorted a
stranger to your side, and he calmly shared the bed till morning. Thurlow
Weed said that any one who objected to a stranger as a bedfellow was
regarded as obnoxious and as unreasonably fastidious.
Q: What did tavernier's wear?
A: Taverners would wear what the middle class men of the day
wore. Shoes, fastened not with laces, but with buckles like a belt; long
hose up to the knees, then knee breeches , a loose fitting shirt, and then -
for indoor wear - a vest or waistcoat. Outdoors they would wear a short coat
or, depending on the weather, a great coat and hat.
Q: What types of tools they used.
A: They used all the tools of an ordinary house keeper. One
tool that you will not find in use now is the "turnspit dog." The dog was
placed in a wheel which turned the meat to be roasted over an open fire.
Q: Any suggestions or resources we could use.
"... little patient creatures, long-bodied and
crook-legged, whose lives were spent in the exquisite tantalization of
helping to cook the meat, whose appetizing odors of roasting they sniffed
for hours without any realization of tasting at the end of their labors.
"Certain dogs in kitchen service excellent. When meat is
to be roasted they go in a wheel, where, turning about with the weight of
their bodies they so diligently look to their business that no drudge or
scullion can do the feat more cunningly."
A dog was trained by being put in the wheel. A burning
coal was placed with him. If he stopped, his legs were burned. That was all.
He soon learned his lesson. It was hard work, for often the great piece of
beef was twice the weight of the dog, and took at least three hours'
A: Please see our references
- Sarah Kemble Knight, The Journal of Madam Knight,
originally published by Theodore Dwight, New York, 1825.
- Alice Morse Earle, Stage-Coach & Tavern Days,
Q: Describe the job of the taverner in detail.
A: His/her first job was to persuade the court or other authority
to give him the necessary license to operate. Then he/she had to develop his/her
home or other building into the space required for the tavern and stables.
He/she had to stock the establishment with food, drink, bedding, fire wood, hay
and water for the horses. He/she welcomed guests, took their orders, prepared
the food and drink. He/she had to keep accounts of the expenses incurred and be
sure he was promptly paid.
If he/she was out in the country he/she probably had a farm also
where he/she grew the necessary produce and kept cattle for milk, cheese and
meat. If he/she lived in an apple-growing climate he/she had an orchard to produce
hard cider to serve his/her guests. Otherwise he/she would have to buy these
Obviously he/she did not do this alone - his family, employees
and maybe slaves helped him/she.
Q: Do you need to be an apprentice for your job? If so, for
What process do you go through to become the master of your craft?
A: There were no formal apprenticeship or guild requirements.
People pretty much learned by observing and doing.
Q: If you need tools, what are they (the tools of your trade)?
A: A tavern or inn keeper provided a "home away from home"
for travelers. So he/she used all the household tools for cooking, cleaning,
lighting, serving meals and drinks, except on a larger scale than typical
Q: What "pictures" were used for the sign out side your trade
A: The simplest sign of a tavern was a sheaf of wheat hung
over the doorway. Alice Morse Earle in Stage Coach and Tavern Days
(see our references and links page) describes some of them:
Before named streets with numbered houses came into
existence, and when few persons could read, painted and carved sign-boards
and figures were more useful than they are to-day; and not only innkeepers,
but men of all trades and callings sought for signs that either for
quaintness, appropriateness, or costliness would attract the eyes of
customers and visitors, and fix in their memory the exact locality of the
advertiser. Signs were painted and carved in wood; they were carved in
stone; modelled in terra-cotta and plaster; painted on tiles; wrought of
various metals; and even were made of animal' heads stuffed.
The shops in Boston were known by sign-boards. In 1761
Daniel Parker, goldsmith, was at the Golden Ball, William Whitmore, grocer,
at the Seven Stars, Susannah Foster was "next the Great Cross," and John
Loring, chemist, at the Great Trees. One hatter had a "Hatt & Beaver,"
another a "Hatt & Helmit"; butter was sold at the "Blue Glove" and "Brazen
Head"; dry-goods at the "Sign of the Stays" and at the "Wheat Sheaf"; rum at
the "Golden Keys"; pewter ware at the "Crown and Beehive"; knives at the
"Sign of the Crown and Razor." John Crosby, for many years a noted lemon
trader, had as a sign a basket of lemons. In front of a nautical instrument
store on the corner of State and Broad streets, Boston, still stands a
quaint wooden figure of an ancient naval officer resplendent in his blue
coat, cocked hat, short breeches, stockings, and buckles, holding in his
hand a quadrant. The old fellow has stood in this place, continually taking
observations of the sun, for upwards of one hundred years. It will be seen
that these signs were often incongruous and non-significant, both as to
their relation to the business they indicated, and in the association of
objects which they depicted.
Many of the apparently meaningless names on tavern signs
come through the familiar corruptions of generations of use, through
alterations both by the dialect of speakers and by the successive mistakes
of ignorant sign-painters. Thus "The Bag o' Nails," a favorite sign, was
originally "The Bacchanalians." The familiar "Cat and Wheel" was the
"Catherine Wheel," and still earlier "St. Catherine's Wheel," in allusion to
the saint and her martyrdom. The "Goat and Compass" was the motto "God
encompasseth us." "The Pig and Carrot" was the "Pique et Carreau" (the spade
and diamond in playing cards).
Older kids might enjoy The Tavern at the Ferry
written and illustrated by Edwin Tunis, published by Thomas Y. Crowell Co.,
New York, 1973. This entertaining book describes the development of
settlements, taverns, and ferry crossings along the Pennsylvania and New
Jersey shores of the Delaware River and the events leading up to
Washington's crossing of this river in 1776 on the way to the victorious
battle at Trenton. The chapter headings illustrate typical tavern signs and
many sketches throughout show life in the colonial era.