By Whitney O'Halek
Gunston Hall Docent
What comes to mind when you think of a colonial tavern? Libations? Rough housing? Chamber pots? Tavern wenches? A bar? Musty, smoky air? Downright brawling? The 21st century perception of a tavern is quite different from the 18th century tavern reality. We know the common folk frequented the taverns, and we have records showing that Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington, and other important gentlemen ate at Gadsby’s Tavern in particular.
How could one type of establishment serve all these people? Was everyone treated equally? The early American idea of equality was much different than our definition today. The gentry, like our George Mason, were certainly treated differently than common travelers passing through, or even the women to whom they were married.
For instance, let’s look at the taproom. If you were to walk into Gadsby’s Tavern (or as it was known then, Wise’s Tavern) in 1785, after the establishment was freshly built, the first room to your left would be the taproom. Any white man—sailor, gentry, or apothecary, could sit here and enjoy the Tavern’s happenings. Some of the things you might find men doing here are talking, conducting business, eating, drinking, playing card or board games (but no gambling allowed), smoking tobacco, and the like. The government regulated meal prices, so the gentry weren’t the only people who could afford to come to a tavern. Simple meals were served three times a day, with cheese and nuts served in between meals.
Now let’s compare this to the private dining room across the hall. Anyone could dine or conduct business here… for a fee. This is the way tavern keepers made their money. We have records showing the George Washington dined in this room on August 5, 1786. Ladies could also use this room. If you could afford to rent this room, perhaps you could also afford private entertainment. Maybe you’d like some food that was more refined. If you could afford it and it could be found, the tavern keeper would do his or her best to procure it for you.
Another difference between common folk and the gentry lay in the accommodations. Many people stayed in one of three attic rooms in the Tavern, and we have records showing that rental space wasn’t limited rooms. In records that exist today, guests often comment that they shared a bed, or a place on the floor with others.
By contrast, after the much larger City Hotel was built in 1792 (called hotel because it was a French word, and French things were very in vogue), the gentry truly had their own digs. Unlike the attic rooms next door, 14 expensive and well-decorated rooms filled the halls of the Hotel. Even President James Monroe stayed here in 1817. The Hotel also boasted five dining rooms as opposed to the two in the Tavern. George Mason, though he never stayed at Gadsby’s commented on his experience at a Philadelphia hotel, stating: “We are at the old Indian Queen in 4th. Street where we are very well accommodated, have a good room to ourselves, and are charged only 25s Pennsylva. Curry [currency] per day”
A further difference involves the Assembly Room in the Tavern compared with the Ballroom in the Hotel. The Assembly room was the original multi-purpose room it seems. Before 1792, it was one of the largest rooms in the area. It was used for balls, town hall meetings, theatrical performances, entertainment such as Toby the Wonderful Pig of Knowledge, a marketplace, and even a traveling dentist. Again, anyone could go into the Assembly room, including women and “middling” or common people.
Let’s compare that with the Ballroom. This is the place for George Washington’s Birthnight Balls (including the 1798 and 1799 Birthnight Balls, which Washington himself attended), several banquets, and many receptions for presidents and other national figures. President John Adams attended a reception in his honor here, President Thomas Jefferson dined here at the invitation of the Alexandrian citizens in 1801, and the Marquis de Lafayette attended a banquet here on his behalf during a tour of America in 1824.
As we look back through the centuries, we see that taverns, such as Gadsby’s, were certainly open to anyone. They were a place for the middling folk to mingle with the gentry in the right context. The gentry were, however, given a few more perks—as long as they could pay the price.
Find out more about Gadsby’s Tavern Museum at www.gadsbystavern.org, and enjoy a meal at the modern Gadsby’s Tavern restaurant.