“Quite a Genteel and Extreamly Commodious House”

Southern Taverns, Anxious Elites, and the British-American Quest for Social Differentiation

in Journal of Early American History
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When investigated through the tavern space, the processes of social differentiation so often associated with more populated northern “urban crucibles” appear less geographically determined than previously supposed. Colonial elites throughout British North America attempted to impose order and control over society during the eighteenth century. Elites’ quest for social differentiation and public order thus went beyond place. Whether patricians’ efforts occurred in Williamsburg or New York, such endeavors centered around the colonies’ most popular, accessible, and numerous public space—the tavern. This article will use Chesapeake and Low Country taverns to demonstrate, through outwardly broad but nonetheless effective comparisons with taverns in the northern colonies, that colonists throughout the eastern seaboard experienced very similar processes of social differentiation despite living thousands of miles apart. The tavern places Chesapeake and Low Country urban centers on an equal footing with their northern counterparts in their contributions to elites’ attempts at order and control.

Journal of Early American History

The American Colonies, 1500-1830



Trevor Burnard and Emma Hart, “Kingston, Jamaica, and Charleston, South Carolina: A New Look at Comparative Urbanization in Plantation Colonial British America”, Journal of Urban History 39, no. 2 (March 2013), pp. 214–234 at 229; Paul Musselwhite, “Annapolis Aflame: Richard Clarke’s Conspiracy and the Imperial Urban Vision in Maryland, 1704–8”, The William and Mary Quarterly 71, no. 3 (July 2014), pp. 361–400 at 361–2.


Cary Carson, “The Consumer Revolution in Colonial British America: Why Demand?” in Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Cary Carson, Ronald Hoffman, Peter J. Albert (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1994), p. 521.


Linda Sturtz, Within Her Power: Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia (New York: Routledge Press, 2002), pp. 98–99.


Woodfin, Another Secret Diary, p. 75; Wright and Tinling, Secret Diary, p. 271.


Sarah Hand Meacham, Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), pp. 2–3.


Shields, Civil Tongues and Polite Letters, p. xx; Carp, Rebels Rising, p. 97; Peter Thompson, Rum Punch and Revolution: Tavern going and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p. 16, 75; see also David W. Conroy, In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), p. 2. Since Thompson and Conroy investigated taverns in very different contexts—Philadelphia and New England—they took different approaches to making a similar argument regarding social mixing. By studying Philadelphia, “home to a tightly packed and culturally diverse population” with a population that displayed “uncommon heterogeneity”, Thompson had to deal with Philadelphia’s huge (and increasingly widening) gap between the rich and the poor. Thus Thompson argues that it was because of Philadelphia’s “uncommon heterogeneity” of nationalities, religions, and “sorts” that no one group or ethnicity could impose their power over the tavern space. Conroy, meanwhile, studied a more culturally homogenous group, New Englanders, and accordingly stressed their social unification behind ideas of resistance to “order”. Thompson argued that while tavern assemblies “free from deference … in which men from different ranks and ethnicities discussed politics” had helped to create Philadelphia’s egalitarian political culture in the first two-thirds of the eighteenth century, the end of the eighteenth century was marked by “an increasing preference for sociability among men of ‘their own kind”, Thompson, Rum Punch and Revolution, p. 19.


Hart, Building Charleston, pp. 1–4.


Wright, Prose Works of William Byrd of Westover, p. 219; South Carolina Gazette, 20 September 1735.


Robert L. Merriwether, The Expansion of South Carolina, 1729–1765 (Kingsport, Tn.: Southern Publishers, 1940), p. 63.


Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia, p. 75.


Cresswell, Journal, p. 53; Anne Pattison, a Williamsburg tavern keeper in the 1740’s, often served Mary Carter. Anne Pattison, Anne Pattison Account Book (1743/4, Jan. 7–1749, 13 June), Virginia Historical Society, Reel B72 Mss 5: 3PZ783: 1: 8 June 1744; 10 and 16 January 1745; 13 July 1745; 29 November 1745.


Wright, Prose Works of William Byrd of Westover, p. 96.


Meachem, Every Home a Distillery, pp. 64–65; Kerber, Women of the Republic.


 E.g., Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Wheels, Looms, and the Gender Division of Labor in Eighteenth-Century New England”, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 55, no. 1 (January 1998), pp. 3–38; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990); Mary Beth Norton, Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996); Judith M. Bennett, Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300–1600 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).


Serena R. Zabin, Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), p. 39; Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, The Ties That Buy: Women in Commerce in Revolutionary America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), p. 129.


Brian Cowan, Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 100.


Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry, p. 7; Bridenbaugh, Gentleman’s Progress, p. 125; Alexander Colden to Cadwallader Colden, New York, 1 September 1757, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, vol. V, 1755–1760 (New York, 1921), pp. 181–182; Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 4 vols., ed. L.H. Butterfield (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 1: 172; Dr. Hamilton’s Itinerarium is littered with debasing accounts of the lower sorts. Woodmason—a wealthy planter and merchant who published multiple tracts in the Gentleman’s Magazine and was a member of the Royal Society of Arts (London)—was an elite colonist. Also see The Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, vol. 1, trans. Theodore G. Tappert and John W. Doberstein (Philadelphia, 1942), p. 278. Muhlenberg, a German priest who was traveling through Pennsylvania, noted while staying at one tavern in 1751, “In the evening the Lord again provided us with a room to ourselves in the inn so that we did not have to be among the vulgar mob, though we did have to listen to their clamor and horseplay”.


Salinger, Taverns and Drinking, pp. 230–240.


Hart, Building Charleston, pp. 7–10.


Bridenbaugh, Gentleman’s Progress, pp. 13–14.


Woodfin, Another Secret Diary of William Byrd, pp. 60–63, 74–78, 92, 97, 105–108, 118–119; Jon Stobart called streets spaces of commerce “important arenas for public consumption, where people could access goods, knowledge, and information”, Spaces of Consumption: Leisure and Shopping in the English Town, c. 1680–1830, eds. Jon Stobart, Andrew Hann and Victoria Morgan (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 86; Miles Ogborn, Spaces of Modernity: London’s Geographies, 1680–1780 (New York: The Guilford Press, 1998).


Brian Cowan, Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 6–15.


Peter Clark, British Clubs and Societies, 1580–1800: The Origins of an Associational World (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), p. 41. England—especially London—abounded with clubs. For a particularly amusing contemporary list of these clubs in poem/song form, see Edward Ward, A Compleat and Humourous Account of All the Remarkable Clubs and Societies in the Cities of London and Westminster (London, 1667–1731).


Micklus, “History of the Tuesday Club,” pp. 42–58; Howe, “Journal of Josiah Quincy, Junior, 1773”, pp. 450–451.


Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson, The Social Logic of Space (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 143–175.


Bridenbaugh, Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton, p. 95, 180.


Ibid., pp. 79–80, 54–55. For a good description of how Philadelphians dressed in 1750, see ed. Carl Theo. Eben, Gottlieb Mittelberger’s Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750 and Return to Germany in the Year 1754 (Philadelphia, 1898), p. 116; For more on British American fashion, see Bushman, The Refinement of America, pp. 69–74; Linda Baumgarten, What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); Kate Haulman, The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Shields, Civil Tongues and Polite Letters, p. 108. For primary documents on fashion’s importance, Richard Addison, Spectator, no. 478 (Monday, 8 September 1712); no. 29 (Saturday, 28 July 1711); Virginia Gazette, 29 October 1736.


William Black, “Journal of William Black, 1744”, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1 (1877), p. 124; Cresswell, Journal, pp. 138–139.


Peter Thompson, “‘The Friendly Glass’: Drink and Gentility in Colonial Philadelphia”, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 113 (October 1989), pp. 549–573.


Bushman, Refinement of America, pp. 74–78.


Thompson, Rum Punch and Revolution, p. 99; Salinger, however, noted “their rituals were inclusive, bonding each to the other, while also exclusive, reserving the space for them alone”, Salinger, Taverns and Drinking, p. 239. Yet she continued on the next page to stress the leveling nature of alcohol, arguing that consumption allowed plebeian tavern goers to “set the rules”.


Thompson, Rum Punch and Revolution, pp. 19–20; Conroy, In Public Houses, pp. 314–318; Hancock and McDonald, Public Drinking, pp. 56–57; Hancock, Oceans of Wine, pp. 244–245.


Thompson, Rum Punch and Revolution, pp. 106–110. For the Sea Captains Club meeting, see the Pennsylvania Gazette, 30 June 1768.


Shields, Civil Tongues and Polite Letters, p. 62.


Spruill, Women in the Southern Colonies, p. 298 (quote).


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