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Looking into a Busy Tavern

In a discussion with Kurt Manwaring, Vaughan Scribner described his book Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society and offered this word picture of Henry Wetherburn’s tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia (shown above in its current form):

I especially like this tavern because of its diversity—it had the “Bullhead Room” for elites, the “Middle Room” for the middling sorts, and the “Great Room” for mixed companies (mostly the lower classes).

From the historical record, an ordinary evening would include a group of elitist colonists locking themselves in the Bullhead Room for a club. They would probably say this club is erudite and exclusive, but by late in the evening this group of men would probably be drunk and disorderly, spilling out into the Great Room for bumpers and sociability.

In the Great Room, meanwhile, a diverse set of ordinary colonists would have crowded the bar, asking for sloshing bowls of rum punch and tankards of local ale.

There probably would have been a fiddler in one corner, while in another corner a group of slaves waited for their masters to finish in the Bullhead Room or Middle Room.

Wetherburn’s female servants would have flitted among the male crowd, yelling back at them and telling them how it was.

Like colonial American society, tavern interactions were confused and complicated, resting upon ad-hoc communications more than established notions of hierarchy and order.

Scribner argues that in the eighteenth century taverns “were basically the internet, bank, hotel, restaurant, bar, auto-repair shop, brothel, and library all in one.”

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