Public Houses, Inns, Taverns

Churches and taverns had a complicated relationship in Colonial America. As early as 1656, it was a finable offense in Puritan Massachusetts for a town not to have an ordinary.

As you can see by their definitions, the words for a drinking-eating-lodging establishment are mostly interchangeable. (Ordinary became the regional word for a tavern throughout New England.) However, only places called “inns” were reliably somewhere to stay while switching horses or waiting for one’s horse to rest for the next length of travel.

Then, what is a bar?

It is exactly what it sounds like. A bar at the counter prevented customers from gaining access to drinks without paying. The term became popular in America after Prohibition.

Where society & alcohol mixed in Colonial America

Of course, one of the main reasons a religious society would insist on a town providing a drinking establishment was to regulate how much alcohol was distributed and consumed, and what entertainments were offered.

Soon, these gathering places provided more than food, drink, entertainment, and lodging. They were places to gather and exchange information. Sometimes that information took the form of personal letters or newspapers read aloud to the community for those who were not literate.

Mail was delivered to taverns arriving on packet ships from other colonies or England. Taverns, from the start, were used as meeting places for assemblies and courts, as well as groups like the Sons of Liberty, Masons, and committees of correspondence. Men from across the economic spectrum came together in these spaces to share ideas leading to debates, eventually spawning a revolution.


Who was barred from patronizing taverns?
Respectable women, slaves, apprentices, and Native Americans


An 18th Century recipe for Flip

On the second floor of many taverns, one could find an exchange. This was where the price of crops was decided, small loans offered, and trade deals worked out.

Taverns were part of a horse-rental network, much like car rental companies work today: rent a horse at one tavern, ride it to the next where a fresh horse was available to either return home with or travel onward. Even ten miles distance was enough to warrant lodging for the night.

Ultimately, taverns were about alcohol. They served beer, ale, cider, wine and mixed drinks. Rum was especially popular and unique to the colonies. Why? Besides “religious” grounds, trade was the other reason for the establishment of the American colonies. Rum was a by-product of the sugar trade.

Flip and punch were the two most popular drinks made with rum. See below for the recipe for flip. Punch was simply a combination of tea, rum, arrack, sugar, lemons, and water served in a large bowl.


The dirty truth about rum:

Plantations in the West Indies used slave labor to grow sugar cane where it was processed into molasses and sugar, then shipped to the colonies. The colonies produced rum for their own consumption and for sending back to Africa to entice more slave acquisitions.

More information on 18th century public houses, taverns, and inns:

Published by Hallie Alexander

Hallie Alexander writes steamy historical romance novels set during the American Revolution. Her first novel, A Widow's Guide to Scandal, arrives July 2020. Hallie resides in North Carolina with her family.

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