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The Flagon and Trencher:
Descendants of Colonial Tavern Keepers


What was the type of person of our early tavern landlords? Here you have some contemporary testimony that these men and women had good standing in their communities, were respected and above all jovial.

But, on the other hand, we present evidence that some few, at least, were not so gracious and did not keep that inviting an establishment.

The following has been excerpted from the two print books cited on our References and Links page.

Good Taverners
Bad Taverners


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. Travellers 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 did not omit to pay tribute in his story of colonial life to colonial landlords. He thus pictures George Monk, the landlord of the Blue Anchor of Boston:--

"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 liquor. The first "house of intertainment" at Cambridge, Massachusetts, was kept by a deacon of the church, afterward Steward of Harvard College. The first license in that town to sell wine and strong water was to Nicholas Danforth, a selectman, and Representative to the General Court. In the Plymouth Colony Mr. William Collier and Mr. Constant Southworth, one of the honored Deputies, sold wine to their neighbors.

Dr. Dwight in his Travels said that English-men often laughed at the fact that inns in New England were kept by men of consequence. He says:--

"Our ancestors considered the inn a place where corruption might naturally arise and easily spread; also as a place where travellers 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, travelling 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 travellers rather receive than confer a favour by being accommodated at their houses. The daughters of the host officiate at tea and breakfast and generally wait at dinner."

An English traveller 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 travellers, 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 traveller 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 favourable 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-humour," etc.

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. He speaks thus lucidly and pleasantly of the landlords:--

"The innkeeper of Old England and the innkeeper of New England form the very extremes of their class. The former is obsequious to the rich; the other unmoved and often apparently cold. The first seems to calculate at a glance the amount of profit you are likely to leave behind you, while his opposite appears to calculate only in what manner he can most contribute to your comfort without materially impairing his own. . . . He is often a magistrate, the chief of a battalion of militia or even a member of a state legislature. He is almost always a man of character, for it is difficult for any other to obtain a license to exercise the calling."

John Adams thus described the host and hostess of the Ipswich Inn:--

"Landlord and landlady are some of the grandest people alive, landlady is the great-granddaughter of Governor Endicott and has all the notions of high family that you find in the Winslows, Hutchinsons, Quincys, Saltonstalls, Chandlers, Otises, Learneds, and as you might find with more propriety in the Winthrops. As to landlord, he is as happy and as big, as proud, as conceited, as any nobleman in England, always calm and good-natured and lazy, but the contemplation of his farm and his sons, his house and pasture and cows, his sound judgment as he thinks, and his great holiness as well as that of his wife, keep him as erect in his thoughts as a noble or a prince."

The curiosity and inquisitiveness of many landlords was a standing jest.

"I have heard Dr. Franklin relate with great pleasantry," said one of his friends, "that in travelling when he was young, the first step he took for his tranquillity and to obtain immediate attention at the inns, was to anticipate inquiry by saying, 'My name is Benjamin Franklin. I was born in Boston. I am a printer by profession, am travelling to Philadelphia, shall have to return at such a time, and have no news. Now, what can you give me for dinner?'"

The landlord was usually a politician, sometimes a rank demagogue. He often held public office, was selectman, road commissioner, tax assessor, tax collector, constable, or town moderator; occasionally he performed all these duties. John Adams wrote bitterly that at public houses men sat drinking heavily while "plotting with the landlord to get him at the next town-meeting an election either for selectman or representative."

They were most frequently soldiers, either officers in the militia or brave fighters who had served in the army. It was a favorite calling for Revolutionary soldiers who lived till times of peace. They were usually cheerful men; a gloomy landlord made customers disappear like flowers before a frost. And these cheery hosts were fond of practical jokes.[top]

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 sharper tongue so her record is very interesting. She stopped at the various hostelries on the route, some of which were well-established taverns, others miserable makeshifts; and she gives us some glimpses of rather rude fare. On the first night of her journey she rode late to "overtake the post," and this is the account of her reception at her first lodging-place:--

"My guide dismounted and very complasently shewed the door signing to me to Go in, which I Gladly did. But had not gone many steps into the room ere I was interrogated by a young Lady with these or words to this purpose, viz., Law for mee--what in the world brings you here this time-a-night? I never see a Woman on the Rode so Late in all my Varsall Life! Who are you? Where are you goeing? Im scar'd out of my witts. . . . She then turned agen to mee and fell anew into her silly questions without asking mee to sit down. I told her she treated me very Rudely and I did not think it my duty to answer her unmannerly questions. But to get ridd of them I told her I come there to have the Posts company with me to-morrow on my journey."

She thus describes one stopping-place:--

"I pray'd her to show me where I must lodge. Shee conducted mee 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. . . ." Again she says:--

"We would have eat a morsell, but the Pumpkin and Indian-mixt Bread has such an aspect, and the Bare-legg'd Punch so awkerd or rather awfull a sound that we left both."

At Rye, New York, she lodged at an ordinary kept by a Frenchman. She thus writes:--

"Being very hungry I desired a Fricassee which the landlord undertaking managed so contrary to my notion of Cookery that I hastened to Bed superless. Being shew'd the way up a pair of Stairs which had such a narrow passage that I had almost stopt by the Bulk of my Body; But arriving at my Apartment found it to be a little Lento Chamber furnisht among other Rubbish with a High Bedd and a Low one, a Long Table, a Bench and a Bottomless Chair. Little Miss went to scratch up my Kennell whch Russelled as if shee'd bin in the Barn among the Husks and supose such was the contents of the Tickin--nevertheless being exceedingly weary down I laid my poor Carkes never more tired and found my Covering as scanty as my bed was hard. Anon I heard another Russelling noise in the room--called to know the matter--Little Miss said she was making a bed for the men; who when they were in Bed complain'd their Leggs lay out of it by reason of its shortness--my poor bones complained bitterly not being used to such Lodgings, and so did the man who was with us; and poor I made but one Grone which was from the time I went to bed to the time I riss which was about three in the morning Setting up by the fire till light."

She spent one night at Matthias Sention's inn in Norwalk, CT, on her way back to Boston from New York. Although no names are mentioned, his tavern was the only one next to the meeting house. She wrote the following 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, wth 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 century. There could be no putting on of airs, no exclusiveness. All travellers 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 travelling within the last few years, and the smallness of their houses, which were not built for houses of entertainment."

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. Still Captain Basil Hall declared that even at remote taverns his family had exclusive apartments; while in crowded inns it was never even suggested to him that other travellers should share his quarters.

Updated 27 February 2003.[top]