But Were They Truly Revolutionary?

Did taverns in early America truly break down social barriers?

Taverns, ordinaries, and inns, whatever one might call them, housed many diverse and colorful Americans of different occupations and political ideologies. But how diverse was life really in taverns? Poor white male Americans might pass through a tavern and be considered the uncouth, raucous “sinners” that clergymen write of while simultaneously sharing the same public space as the likes of Thomas Jefferson. But did these different classes truly share the tavern? Was the tavern truly a revolutionary space? Or were some taverns out of reach, just as many social positions were out of reach for the average American?

In Taverns and Drinking in Early America, Sharon Salinger argues that taverns were not sites of revolution, which broke down class and gender, but rather sites of conformity. She argues that legislation prohibited particular groups of people, such as slaves, Native Americans, and sailors, from frequenting taverns. She argues that taverns were sites of exclusion rather than politically open spaces where differences are “erased” by sharing a drink with someone. They served particular sections of society rather than encompassing all of American social life. Gender, race, and class boundaries were not “ignored” and “forgotten” in taverns, but rather reinforced and controlled. She frames taverns as sites of political debate, business transactions, and gossip relays, all of which may seem to promote an open “communication” between diverse peoples, but are in fact limited to certain social classes and people in good graces with their affluent companions. There were also major social differences in tavern culture between towns, cities, the countryside, and particular religious communities. [1]

Taverns were public spaces, in which the early American social world was acted out in many different ways. They could be as reputable or disreputable as the people who frequented them, and this often depended on their location. Thus, in theory they could be diverse, and in some areas they could be very tolerant, and possess people of color, women, and poor people, but in practice, social and economic limitations dictated the terms of engagement. [2]

Taverns were public spaces, and in every public space, which is defined by the overarching cultural, social hierarchy, there are rules. Who does not belong in certain public spaces will always be the first rule. 

[1] Salinger, Sharon V. 2004. Taverns and Drinking in Early America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

 [2] Sismondo, Christine. 2014. America Walks into a Bar: a Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


But Were They Truly Revolutionary?