Customers came for the news, the company, the groaning board and the drink. They were free-standing or part of a store or stagecoach inn. They were called taverns – places to buy liquor that must be imbibed on premises (not carried out).
They drank punch, cider, grog, beer, ale, Madeira, syllabub (sweetened milk or cream curdled with wine) and flip (sweetened beer with rum or brandy heated with a hot poker). They ate from groaning boards, tables groaning under the weight of much food, but that might not be the proper phrase. Some taverns served food directly from kitchen to customer; only some placed food on one table for self-service.
From a Bunch of Grapes to the Tree of KnowledgeIn Massachusetts, the first taverns had wonderful names: Tree of Knowledge, Bunch of Grapes, Green Dragon, Orange Tree and Red Horse. They also had terrible reputations. In 1696, Judge Nathaniel Saltonstall wrote the Salem Court: “I always thought it great prudence and Christianity … to state the number of publique [public] houses [allowed] in towns and [to have] regulation of such houses … thereby to prevent all sorts of wickedness which grows daily … in these pest houses and places of enticement.”
Unfortunately for the judge who wanted to limit the number of taverns, they were a necessity every few miles. Merwin House on Main Street and Merrill Tavern on Route 102 in Lee and the Red Lion Inn on Main Street in Stockbridge are three 18th-century taverns in fewer than six miles. In Great Barrington, the minister complained, there were more taverns than churches.
The necessity of many taverns reflected the slow mode of travel, the uneven roads and the imprudence of traveling at night.
Fifty years after the anxious judge spoke, the number of taverns had not diminished, but licensing was required. Perhaps to remove any taint, the taverner license became known as the innkeeper license. The word tavern was used interchangeably with inn and public house. The latter was a good descriptor because taverns were often located in farm or town houses.
In 1761, in Pittsfield, taverns were known simply by the names of the owners: Ingersol’s, Keeler’s and Merrick’s taverns on North Street, and Stanton’s Tavern on East Street — four almost in walking distance from one another. Down the road in Cheshire, in 1797, the tavern was also a stagecoach inn called Hoosac Valley House. It was the gathering place for local glass-blowers, lime-burners, iron-mongers, miners, woodsman and farmers. The colorful names were gone, but so was part of the colorful reputation.
Democracy distilledGood reputation or bad, between 1761 and 1797, in taverns from Virginia to Massachusetts, democracy was shaped, the Revolutionary War was envisioned and prosecuted, oaths were taken, spies huddled and, finally, the Constitution was first written and later read aloud to the new citizens. Taverns were the soul of the American Revolution.
There were many reasons, but three stand out. For one thing, our founding fathers were brewers, distillers and taverners. Daniel Webster called the Green Dragon “the headquarters of the revolution.”
Second, the first post offices were the taverns. One 18thcentury Stockbridge resident asked a traveler to carry his letter and put it on the mantel of a certain tavern in New Jersey. From there his son, a student at Princeton, would collect it. Stagecoaches brought the newspapers, too, and left them in taverns. Like the liquor, newspapers were to be read there, never carried out.
In Berkshire County, the minutes of the town meetings were posted in taverns, as were the 18th-century version of legal notices: “Mr. X declares that he will no longer pay the bills of his wife Mrs. X as she is profligate.” As late as 1812, the announcement of the end of war was blazoned on the side of a stagecoach and known first by tavern patrons.
Finally, they were not a colony of lushes, they were a colony afraid to drink water. They believed liquor was safe, and water was poison. They were not wrong; untreated water was often a swift carrier of germs and disease.
People gathered at taverns found it logical to take their grievances there — to air and argue, to debate and strategize. The Green Dragon tavern in Boston played host to the Sons of Liberty, and there the Boston Tea Party was plotted. (Other accounts place the plotting in various private homes in Boston). They say the first battalion of the Revolutionary War was raised at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia by owner Samuel Nichols from customers present.
Reputedly, John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster drank at Pittsfield taverns. In Pittsfield during the Revolutionary War, the taverns were also courtrooms. Because the Berkshire courts were closed pending a Constitution, civil cases were adjudicated at James Easton’s Tavern. After the War, Pittsfield mirrored the American two-party system — the Federalists and Anti-Federalist each had their own tavern. At Merrick’s tavern, Federalists were declined service, so they built Park Square tavern.
In Philadelphia, when the Constitution was accepted, the man who spoke the final convincing words, Benjamin Franklin, suggested they all repair to City Tavern to celebrate.
So, when you raise a glass and drink a toast to the founding of the United States of America, you could not be doing anything more appropriate.