Taverns, Ordinaries, and Inns: The Shaping of Early American Social Life Through Public Spaces

Some taverns were large, extravagant, and considered worthy places to hold balls and art galleries. Others were modest, yet comfortable living spaces in which one could lay their weary head and expect model hospitality and comfort. And still others were called “dens of depravity” in which drunkards engaged in illicit activities and betrayed their religious upbringing through excess and sinful laziness. But a tavern was never just simply a place to drink and make merry.

Firstly, a tavern was, according to Patricia Gibbs of William and Mary in her dissertation, “Taverns in Tidewater Virginia, 1700-1774,” a form of public housing, synonymous with “inns,” “ordinaries,” and “tippling houses.” Taverns were public spaces in which people could gather to socialize, conduct business meetings, or disseminate political news and information. One often had no other options when it came to places to gather with others and socialize. 

Gossip, agricultural prices, political news, and opinions abounded in these social spaces. Taverns were often places where those living more rural lifestyles isolated from others could come to feel a part of their community and the larger world. News about political parties often circulated within taverns. Mailmen passed through taverns and could pass along valuable and casual information while delivering mail. 

Taverns thus were at the political, economic, and social crossroads of early American civilization. They transformed, and were transformed by, American culture. 

[1] Gibbs, Patricia Ann. 1968. “Taverns in Tidewater Virginia, 1700-1774.” Dissertation. College of William and Mary.

Kira Stalker

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Kira Stalker