Good Taverners

The landlord of colonial days may not have been the greatest man in town, but he was certainly the best known, often the most popular, and ever the most picturesque and cheerful figure. Travelers often did not fail to note him and his virtues in their accounts of their sojourns. In 1686 a gossiping London bookseller and author named John Dunton made a cheerful visit to Boston. He paid tribute to colonial landlords in his story of colonial life. He describes George Monk, the landlord of the Blue Anchor of Boston, thusly:

"A person so remarkable that, had I not been acquainted with him, it would be a hard matter to make any New England man believe I had been in Boston; for there was no one house in all the town more noted, or where a man might meet with better accommodation. Besides, he was a brisk and jolly man, whose conversation was coveted by all his guests as the life and spirit of the company."

This picture of an old-time publican seems more suited to English atmosphere than to the stern air of New England Puritanism.

Grave and respectable citizens were chosen to keep the early ordinaries and sell spirituous liquors. Among the first houses of "intertainment" was one at Cambridge, Massachusetts, kept by a deacon of the church, afterward Steward of Harvard College. In that town, the first license to sell wine and strong water was to Nicholas Danforth, a selectman, and Representative to the General Court. In the Plymouth Colony, William Collier and Constant Southworth, one of the honored Deputies, sold wine to their neighbors.

Dwight noted that Englishmen often laughed at the fact that inns in New England were kept by men of consequence. He states:

"Our ancestors considered the inn a place where corruption might naturally arise and easily spread; also as a place where travelers must trust themselves, their horses, baggage, and money, and where women must not be subjected to disagreeable experiences. To provide for safety and comfort and against danger and mischief they took particular pains in their laws to prevent inns from being kept by unprincipled or worthless men. Every innkeeper in Connecticut must be recommended by the selectmen and civil authorities, constables and grand jurors of the town in which he resides, and then licensed at the discretion of the Court of Common Pleas. It was substantially the same in Massachusetts and New Hampshire."

Lieutenant Francis Hall, traveling through America in 1817, wrote:

"The innkeepers of America are in most villages what we call vulgarly, topping men -- field officers of militia, with good farms attached to their taverns, so that they are apt to think what, perhaps, in a newly settled country is not very wide of the truth, that travelers rather receive than confer a favor by being accommodated at their houses. The daughters of the host officiate at tea and breakfast and generally wait at dinner."

An English traveler who visited this country shortly after the Revolution speaks in no uncertain terms of "the uncomplying temper of the landlords of the country inns in America." Another adds this testimony:

"They will not bear the treatment we too often give ours at home. They feel themselves in some degree independent of travelers, as all of them have other occupations to follow; nor will they put themselves into a bustle on your account; but with good language, they are very civil, and will accommodate you as well as they can."

Brissot comprehended the reason for this appearance of independence. He wrote in 1788:

"You will not go into one without meeting neatness, decency, and dignity. The table is served by a maiden well-dressed and pretty; by a pleasant mother whose age has not effaced the agreeableness of her features; and by men who have that air of respectability which is inspired by the idea of equality, and are not ignoble and base like the greater part of our own tavern-keepers."

Captain Basil Hall, a much-quoted English traveler who came to America in 1827, designated a Salem landlord as the person who most pleased him in his extended visit. Sad to say he gives neither the name of the tavern nor the host who was "so devoid of prejudice, so willing to take all matters on their favorable side, so well informed about every-thing in his own and other countries, so ready to impart his knowledge to others; had such mirthfulness of fancy, such genuine heartiness of good-humor..."



In 1828 a series of very instructive and entertaining letters on the United States was published under the title, Notions of the Americans. They are accredited to James Fenimore Cooper, and were addressed to various foreigners of distinction. The travels took place in 1824, at the same time as the visit of Lafayette, and frequently in his company. Naturally, inns, hotels, and modes of travel receive much attention.

President John Adams and Dr. Benjamin Franklin often mused on the personalities of tavern- and inn-keeping landlords.  The landlord often was a man of position -- a politician, or public officer, such as a selectman, road commissioner, tax assessor, constable, or moderator -- and even on occasion, he may have performed all of these duties at the same time.  Likewise, they were usually men of cheer, for a gloomy landlord made customers disappear like flowers before a frost.  And these cherry hosts were fond of practical jokes.

"Bad" Taverners

In the year 1704 a Boston widow named Sarah Kemble Knight journeyed by land on horseback from Boston to New York, and returned a few months later. She kept a journal of her trip [The Journal of Madam Knight, originally published by Theodore Dwight, New York, 1825]. She was a shrewd woman with a sharp eye and even sharper tongue, so her record is very interesting. She stopped at the various hostelries on the route, some of which were well-established taverns, and others miserable makeshifts. She includes some glimpse of rather rude fare. She describes one stopping-place:

"I pray'd her to show me where I must lodge. Shee conducted me to a parlour in a little back Lento, which was almost filled with the bedstead, which was so high that I was forced to climb on a chair to gitt up to ye wretched bed that lay on it, on which having strecht my tired limbs and lay'd my Head on a sad-coloured pillow, I began to think on the transactions of ye past day."

At another place she complained that the dinner had been boiled in the dye-kettle, that the black slaves ate at the table with their master, "and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand ..."


At Rye, New York, she lodged at an ordinary kept by a Frenchman. Later, she spent one night at Matthias Sendion Inn at Norwalk, CT, on her way back to Boston from New York. Although no names were mentioned, his tavern was the only one next to the meeting house. She wrote an uncomplimentary description of the inn, the host, and the town in general:

"About 9 at night we come to Norrwalk, having crept over a timber of a Broken Bridge about thirty foot long and perhaps fifty to ye water. I was exceeding tired out and cold when we come to our Inn, and could get nothing there but poor entertainment, and the Impertinant Bable of one of the worst of men, among many others, of which our host made one, who, had he bin one degree Impudenter, would have outdone his Grandfather. And this I think is the most perplexed night I have yet had. From hence, Saturday, December 23, a very cold and windy day, after an Intolerable night's Lodging, wee hasted forward only observing in our way the Town to be situated on a Navigable river, with indifferent Buildings and people more refined than in some of the country towns wee had passed tho' vicious enough, the Church and Tavern being next neighbors."

(Presumably the "Grandfather" in the above passage is a euphemism for the Devil. The "church and tavern being next neighbors" had more to do with desire of the church leaders to keep a close watch on activities in the tavern; and they especially wanted to ensure that no one kept to the tavern during meeting!)

Manners were rude enough at many country taverns until well into the 18th Century. There could be no putting-on of airs, no exclusiveness. All travelers sat at the same table. Many of the rooms were double-bedded, and four who were strangers to each other often slept in each other's company.

An English officer wrote of this custom in America:

"The general custom of having two or three beds in a room to be sure is very disagreeable; it arises from the great increase of traveling within the last few years, and the smallness of their houses, which were not built for houses of entertainment."

After one was asleep, a landlord might enter, candle in hand, to escort to your side a stranger, who calmly shared the bed until morning. Anyone who objected to a stranger as a bedfellow might be regarded as obnoxious and unreasonably fastidious. Even at remote taverns, the taverner's family had exclusive apartments, while in crowded inns, it was never even suggested to him that other travelers should share his quarters.