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The Flagon and Trencher:
Descendants of Colonial Tavern Keepers
A page created by answering real kid's questions.

Anthony (fifth grade) asks:

Older kids might enjoy The Tavern and 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.

  What skills or training needed?
  Was it profitable?
  What did a tavern look like?
Kevin (fourth grade) asks:
  What did they wear?
  What types of tools did they use?
  Any suggestions or resources?
Max (fourth grade) asks:
  Describe the job of Taverner in detail.
  Do you need to be an apprentice for your job?
  If you need tools, what are they (the tools of your trade)?
  What "pictures" were used for the sign out side your trade shop?

My son Anthony is doing a research project for his 5th grade class and he has chosen a tavern keeper. Would you be willing to answer some questions to help him in his research?

Q: During colonial times, were there any specific skills or training that a tavern keeper might need? How did someone learn this business or profession?

A: It is mind boggling to think of all the skills that an ordinary keeper must have. First, he had to be able to house and feed both people and horses. Unless he operated in a big city, he was also a farmer who grew much of his needed supplies. Then he had to be able brew his own beer, cider and other drinks. Finally he had to keep his accounting books and bills accurately to make sure that he was paid properly and that he was making, not losing, money. He did not do this alone: he 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.[top]

Q: Was it a good or profitable trade during the colonial times?
A: The following paragraph gives conflicting evidence on that topic.

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 found the occupation so profitable that he finally got into disgrace through it. [Reference 2, pages 2-3]

The Flagon and Trencher Society has published brief biographies of tavernkeepers. 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.[top]

Q: Finally, could you possibly give us a brief description of what a tavern might have looked like inside?
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 .. [Reference 2, page 41].

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. [Reference 2, page 42]

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 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. [Reference 2, pages 42-43]

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. [Reference 2, pages 78-79][top]

Kevin, my 4th grade son, is studying colonial times in school. They are going to do a living museum and he has been assigned to be a colonial taverner from Long Island.

Q: He needs to find out what they wore

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. You can see some of these at
http://jas-townsend.com
[top]
Q: and 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.

"... 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' roasting. [Reference 2, pages 55-56][top]

Q: Any suggestions or resources we could use.
A: Please see our references given below and the other links on this website at our
links page.
  1. Sarah Kemble Knight, The Journal of Madam Knight, originally published by Theodore Dwight, New York, 1825.
  2. Alice Morse Earle, Stage-Coach & Tavern Days, 1900.

My son Max is in the 4th grade and has to do research on colonial taverners. He needs to know the following:

Q: Describe the job of Taverner in detail.

A: His first job was to persuade the court or other authority to give him the necessary license to operate. Then he had to develop his home or other building into the space required for the tavern and stables. He had to stock the establishment with food, drink, bedding, fire wood, hay and water for the horses. He welcomed guests, took their orders, prepared the food and drink. He had to keep accounts of the expenses incurred and be sure he was promptly paid.

If he was out in the country he probably had a farm also where he grew the necessary produce and kept cattle for milk, cheese and meat. If he lived in an apple-growing climate he had an orchard to produce hard cider to serve his guests. Otherwise he would have to buy these provisions.

Obviously he did not do this alone - his family, employees and maybe slaves helped him.[top]

Q: Do you need to be an apprentice for your job? If so, for how long? 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.[top]

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 used all the household tools for cooking, cleaning, lighting, serving meals and drinks, except on a larger scale than typical home owner.[top]

Q: What "pictures" were used for the sign out side your trade shop?

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).
===========

You can see some of these on the Connecticut State Historical Society web site (http://www.chs.org). This group has been restoring and exhibiting many old tavern signs. The printed catalog of the exhibition (Lions, Eagles and Bulls) is available from them. The exhibition is currently on tour.

Updated 21 April 2008.[top]