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What is a Tavern? An In-Depth Look at the Timeless Social & Political Institution in North America

Drinking Beer at a Tavern
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Step into the heart of American history, where the humble tavern stands as far more than a place for food and drink. It’s a cornerstone of the nation’s story, from the early days of the Jamestown colony to the turning tides of the Revolutionary War.

Experience the essence of community and the birth of a nation that echoes through the walls of these historic gathering places. Join us on a journey that uncovers the untold tales and pivotal roles played by the American tavern, and discover how these humble establishments shaped the land of freedom and opportunity.

So why not make a toast to the humble tavern, a cornerstone of American life where history and hospitality come together to create an unforgettable journey through time.

What is a tavern?

Answering the question, “What is a tavern?” is a task that we can do in a couple of ways.

By strict definition, the American tavern was like a cross between a public house and an inn. These businesses were places where patrons could enjoy food and drink and, historically, find somewhere to sleep for the night. However, that definition only begins to scratch the surface.

Serving food and drink has always been a function of the American tavern. However, since early colonial times, the tavern has played a more central role in the broader community. They were often one of the first buildings to go up in a new colony or town, which speaks to an essential nature beyond drinking and merriment.

When the early Pilgrims arrived on the American shore, they faced a beautiful, untamed land. However, The New World lacked the essential services or infrastructure of their former homes. Historians view the tavern as a way to build an ad-hoc town center within the colony.

The early American tavern had a multitude of uses. Depending on the town and the needs of its people, the tavern could be a bank, court of law, jail, garrison, school, library, hospital, store, or more. It was flexible because it needed to support the birth of a new nation, which meant satisfying more than just thirst and appetite.

However, before we delve further into the importance of the tavern in colonial America, let’s examine its worldwide history.

A brief worldwide history of the tavern

By the time the idea of the tavern arrived, along with early colonists in New England, they had already established themselves as a global institution. Historians have indexed the birth of the tavern with the emergence of travel, trade, and industry. Furthermore, they were also a venue that could facilitate the trading of ideas, which is part of the reason they had such a significant impact across the Western world.

Taverns and drinking establishments are almost as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest records of tavern keeping involve Babylonian laws from nearly 4000 years ago that ordered the death penalty for vendors who diluted beer.

In ancient Greece, lesches (meaning a place for council or conversation) served drinks and food. Later, it was the turn of phatnai to provide hospitality for locals, traders, diplomats, and public officials.

The empires of ancient Rome carried on many elements of Greek society, including the role of taverns. Early Roman taverns were far from salubrious, and men of social standing could not be seen in attendance. Of course, that didn’t stop them from secretly entering these social spaces under cover of disguise. Ragbag groups of the damned often populated these early taverns, making them a hive of activity. However, that reputation didn’t keep the upper echelons of society away, which is a testament to the tavern’s appeal to a broad cross-section of Roman life.

After the Roman invasion of England, taverns thrived in the form of hostelries. These venues were soon preceded by ale houses. In the Middle Ages, English inns became a refuge for travelers, criminals, and political rebels. The latter group has been a persistent theme throughout the tavern’s history.

These English venues can be seen as the precursor to the tavern. Historians regard them as early versions of restaurants that served food at low prices, with ale, wine, and tobacco also available for purchase.

Taverns established themselves within the texture of modern English life. Along with many other customs, the concept of the tavern traveled with people on the boats to the New World, where it would start to make its own impression on American cultural life.

The first American taverns

The American taverns go back to the days of the New World. As early British founders set foot on American soil for the first time, they were faced with an unspoiled yet inhospitable land. Indeed, the Jamestown colony struggled to establish a foothold in the early years, with early settlers succumbing to disease and food shortages.

Interestingly, one of the first pleas of relief to England from the Jamestown colony included an advertisement seeking two brewers to join the colony. It’s fair to conclude that the men were missing some home comforts.

As more settlers arrived and colonies sprung up, American taverns emerged throughout the 17th century. The first chapter of the excellent book, “The Spirited History of the Tavern,” begins with an incredible story that gives a sense of scale to the ubiquity of the American Tavern. Writing to his nephew John Searle in 1708, Sir Captain John Walduck says:

Upon all the new settlements the Spaniards make, the first thing they do is build a church, the first thing ye Dutch do upon a new colony is to build them a fort, but the first thing ye English do, be it in the most remote part of ye world, or amongst the most barbarous Indians, is to set up a tavern or drinking house.’

Excuse the unflattering missive about Native Americans, and you can start to get a sense of the tavern’s essential role in the colonial period.

The first taverns were known as “ordinaries.” American colonists built them throughout New England, basing them on the English version of the tavern. By about the 1640s, taverns had spread throughout the colonies, and the Virginia Assembly was already monitoring and regulating these “ordinaries.”

Identifying the first American tavern is a contentious issue. English settlers arrived in Virginia in 1607, but it was not until the mid-1630s that we have a record of the first licensed tavern.

Samuel Cole was a Puritan who arrived in Boston with his wife in the fleet of Governor Winthrop. He opened the first known tavern on March 4, 1634. It was located in Merchant’s Square in Boston and bore the simple name “Cole’s Inn.” While it can’t be confirmed if this was indeed the first tavern of its type, it most certainly belongs to the era of the first “ordinaries.”

It’s important to note that there is a map of present-day New York from 1626 that shows a tavern near the East River. This tavern was built by New Amsterdam’s Governor Kieft, partly in response to his weariness of hosting visitors in his own home.

Soon, the need for “ordinaries” like Kieft’s and Cole’s grew, and the General Court for Massachusetts implemented rules that would fine towns if they didn’t have a tavern.

From their earliest days, the tavern was a centerpiece of public life. They afforded travelers a place to stay, eat, drink, relax, and sleep for the night. While for town residents, taverns provide a social area for games, debate, news, and discussion.

Writings about early life in the colonies give us some idea of the official function of the early tavern. The colonists liked a drink, but resources were scarce and had to be carefully managed and rationed. The tavern was how town assemblies controlled the distribution of alcohol.

What is important to note, however, is that drinking was just one of the reasons for the emergence of the tavern. Remember, people could drink at home or outdoors on pleasant days. However, the draw of the tavern offered an extra dimension that went beyond a meal and an ale.

The White Horse Tavern, America’s oldest restaurant

The White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island, has served its guests since 1673. Historians credit it as the oldest operating restaurant in the U.S.

The White Horse began its life as a two-story residence built in 1652 by Francis Brinley. However, in 1673 it was converted into a tavern by William Mayes. In keeping with the time, the tavern served as the colony’s General Assembly, Criminal Court, and City Councils for more than 100 years.

In the early part of the 18th century, William Myers’s son took over. Incredibly, he was a pirate that stalked the Red Seas. He was granted a license to sell strong drinks by local governors, and his inventory partially came from ransacking British ships, much to the embarrassment of the British colony leaders.

The Tavern was soon taken over by Williams’s sister, Mary Myers Nichols, and her husband. It remained in the family name for over 200 years, with one brief exception. In 1730, it was given the name, The White Horse.

During the 18th century, the tavern was used by Tories and British troops during the Revolutionary War, temporarily disrupting the long line of Nichols ownership.

Once the conflict was over, the gambrel roof was added, and the building was extended.

In 1895, the tavern was turned into a boarding house. However, it soon fell on hard times and was close to disrepair. The Van Bueren family came to the rescue in the mid-1950s, and the tavern was purchased by the Preservation Society of Newport County. Soon, it was restored to past glories, with attention paid to the minute details of the building’s past.

Now restored to its original purpose, the tavern is considered one of Newport’s best restaurants. The building has retained many of its 17th-century fixtures thanks to the painstaking restorations in the 1950s. The building is an important reminder of the past. Its unique architectural style brings visitors from all over the country, while the bar is populated by regulars who are intensely proud of its heritage.

Fun fact: An “Ale Stake” was a wooden pole tied with a bush of barley. Colonial tavern keepers would place them outside their premises to let travelers know there was drink or food available inside.

What were early American taverns like?

Early American taverns were simple, nondescript buildings. In general, they were stand-alone structures. However, early settlers also built them within or attached to their home.

Typical layouts included the taproom containing a fireplace and tables and chairs. Higher-end taverns had a parlor attached to the taproom. Many of the taverns located within towns also had a room for meetings, assemblies, and court proceedings, giving us a clue about the important function of these buildings in early colonial life.

While anyone could keep a tavern, they could not do so without a license. Early colonists were incentivized through tax exemptions, land grants, or pastures for animals. Again, this gives us an indication of the planned nature of taverns and the level of support they received from the local government.

While it may seem counterintuitive to modern readers, just as it was to Sir Captain John Walduck, taverns were one of the first buildings in new towns. Often, they were built before a church. However, this thinking was practical: people needed a place to meet and mix and even trade.

As the 18th century wore on, taverns became a symbol of a functioning town. For travelers, they provided an essential service of sustenance and a place to rest. But for locals, they offered a means to trade goods. Indeed, many tavern keepers acted as intermediaries for the exchange of goods, saving buyers and sellers from lengthy trips.

Taverns served breakfast, lunch, and dinner and were a hive of activity, from cards, socializing, drinks, and much discussion on the issues of the day. Early colonies were primitive. Taverns offered a place for townspeople to eat, discuss business, stay warm, trade, and catch up on the news. Additionally, they were hubs for receiving mail and other trades and services.

Food and drink were vital components. But the prevailing historical opinion suggests the tavern functioned as a microcosm of the town square. Additionally, they provided a safe haven and landmark for travelers in the early days of the New World. Indeed, in some areas, like Salem, Massechutus, licenses required simple signs that could direct travelers.

Another clue as to the vital role of the tavern lies within the locations dotted along the Great Wagon Road. This trail ran from Pennsylvania through the Great Appalachian Valley all the way to North Carolina and Georgia. Thousands of families traveled this path in search of opportunity. Taverns helped them find food and shelter on their way.

Women and the tavern

Colonial taverns were not a place where you would find a lot of women. Indeed, women were generally not allowed to drink with men. However, some more upmarket early taverns did have attached parlor rooms for women. But they were the exception.

However, despite this situation, there were many women who operated taverns. The Puritans of New England wanted to have a modulating role in taverns and the behaviors of early American citizens.

County officials regulated inns and even had a role in selecting innkeepers. As a result, widows were often chosen to be innkeepers to reduce their dependence on social welfare. Some estimates suggest that at one point in time in New England, some three-quarters of taverns and inns were run by women.

What’s in a name?

The world tavern emerged in England in the 13th century. At the time, it meant “a place where wine is sold to the public.” Wine had been a part of English life since the Roman invasion. However, the word tavern was borrowed from the Old French “taverne,” whose root lies in the Latin word “taberna,” meaning “single room shop.”

In the American context, the tavern is generally referred to as a place that sells drinks, offers food, and provides lodgings for travelers.

Of course, when it comes to names, our interest in taverns doesn’t stop there. You may have wondered how taverns got their names. In The Tavern in Colonial America (Struzinski, 2022), the author outlines how original names transformed into monikers that would sound familiar to our ears.

Some examples Struzinski includes are:

  • St. Catherine’s Wheel = Cat and Wheel
  • God encompasseth us = God and Compass
  • Pique et Carreau (spade and diamond) = Pig and Carrot

As Struzinski suggests, these transformations were as much about early settlers changing names to suit their dialect as they were to the imprecise work of a series of sign makers.

Difference between tavern, bar, or pub?

What is the difference between a pub and a tavern? Taverns have been called a lot of names over the years. While they’re often used interchangeably, they describe different things.

Public house: often shortened to a pub, the name distinguishes these venues from private clubs. They often sell food too.

Saloon: Derived from the French word “salon,” it refers to a large reception room or hall.

Inn: From 14th century England, usually, these places offered lodgings from travelers, but they also sold alcohol.

Bar: A general, catch-all name. The name comes from the bar or barrier that separates the barkeeper from the public.

Dramshop: A bar or a tavern that sells spirits in drams, which are units of liquid slightly less than a teaspoon

Ordinary: The original name for taverns and inns in North America

Speakeasy: A speakeasy is an illegal or unlicensed bar. However, in modern times, the name is used for discrete bars with a Prohibition-era aesthetic.

The role of the tavern in the American Revolution

As we’ve established, the tavern was a functional institution that smoothed the move from The Old World to the early colonies. By the 1700s, the tavern had established itself as a meeting place for merchants, traders, politicians, laborers, and everything in between.

Taverns track America’s move into a discrete and independent political entity. Due to their mix of patrons and role as information hubs, taverns quickly became a place of idea sharing, including ideas of a seditious and revolutionary bent.

Literacy rates were mixed among the new settlers. As such, the tavern afforded a way to rub shoulders with those who could read. As mentioned earlier, this facilitated the spread of news. Soon, the ideas of the founding fathers were being spread from other colonies too, and the revolutionary thinking of Thomas Paine, James Chalmers, and Thomas Jefferson took hold.

The beginning of the Revolutionary War can be traced to the tavern. Outrage found a home in these drinking spaces, which provided a forum for discussions about what could be done to halt excessive British control (and taxes).

British Sugar and Stamp Acts in the 1760s were an affront to rum drinkers. The context was the Seven Year War with the French, which required considerable British spending. With the crown intent on recouping their spending, they turned to the 13 colonies for tax money.

Britain devises a way of recouping these expenditures, involving taxes on internal goods. As a revenue-raising measure, the Sugar and Stamp Acts came at a challenging time for a post-war American economy. Thus began the familiar refrain of “No taxation with representation.”

The issue was simple. Why should American citizens pay excessive taxes back to Britain when they have limited or no representation in the parliament?

Soon, North America was buzzing with political discussion. Fault Lines were drawn between Loyalists and Patriots. While weekly newspapers were common at the time, the cadence was too lethargic during these vital and fast-developing times.

The Green Dragon Tavern provided a base for the famous “Sons of Liberty.” Patrons of the famed Boston Tavern could engage with the Sons of Liberty and listen to them argue for the boycott of English goods. While membership in the organization was secret, it’s believed that some members include Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock, and James Otis.

Interestingly, when the Sons of Liberty were crafting their Tea Party plan of tossing tea into the water, they chose tea because they didn’t want to lose the rum. That tells us something about the importance of alcohol to these historic freedom fighters.

When the Revolutionary War broke out, the tavern remained a crucial hub. However, its use evolved beyond providing a meeting place for like-minded Patriots. Soon, rebels took refuge in these venues and planned their next military moves. Eventually, the early days of the American Congress were held in these venues.

However, the taverns associated with the Revolutionary Ward do not stop there. When a victorious George Washington returned to New York, he chose a tavern as the place to make a final address to the troops — which brings us to the story of the Fraunces Tavern.

The Fraunces Tavern

The Fraunces Tavern still stands today on Pearl Street, New York. It was built by the French Huguenot merchant De Lancey family in 1719.

The original building was believed to be three stories tall and built from brick and tile, with a lead roof. In the intervening years, it was used to host dances, then for mixed residential and merchant use. In 1762 it was purchased by Samuel Fraunces.

Fraunces is first recorded as a “freeman” and “innholder” in New York. He opened the tavern under the name The Queen Charlotte, also known as the Queen’s Head Tavern.

As mentioned earlier, taverns served as community centers in the 1700s, and the Fraunces Tavern was no different. Locals and travelers could enjoy a range of entertainment, such as music and dance, as well as a refreshing drink.

Some of the institutions founded at the tavern include The New York Chamber of Commerce (1768). Furthermore, clubs like the New York Society Library, The Friendly Brothers of St. Patrick, the Social Club, Saint Andrew’s Society, and of course, the New York City Sons of Liberty held regular meetings at the Fraunces.

The New York Provincial Congress was founded in the Long Room of the Tavern. This body served as the temporary government for the colony throughout the revolution.

When the war started in 1775, Samuel Fraunces left for Elizabeth, New Jersey. With his loyalist son-in-law in charge, the tavern switched to providing support for the British during the war. The British occupied New York until 1783 when the Americans won the war and wrestled back territory.

Normal order resumed at the Fraunces, with New York Governor George Clinton celebrating Evacuation Day at the tavern. Later, George Washington would use the venue to express his thanks to troops for their sterling efforts during the revolution before parting with New Jersey.

In early 1785, Fraunces agreed to lease the Tavern to the Confederation Congress for use as office space for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of War. Soon, the Board of Treasury was operating from the building.

The Department of Foreign Affairs was busy after the war, with staff working to finalize and sign the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which recognized the United States as an independent nation.

This was a time of great development for New York. Economic activity thrived, the population grew, and the ports established links to China. The Fraunces Tavern switched back to providing drink and merriment and still stands on Pearl Street today, with a museum commemorating its crucial role in the formation of present-day America.

Taverns under threat: A story of resistance

American taverns have always had an uneasy relationship with authority. Early Puritans and the occasional governor understood the social potential of the tavern but were also well aware of the potential dangers too.

Over the years, attempts have been made to overregulate, control, or outright destroy the important American pastime of engaging in food and drink in the tavern.

Some experts suggest that the role of the tavern in American Independence showed exactly the power that these networked social spaces held. As such, authorities soon regarded them with suspicion precisely because they symbolized the common man’s freedom of association and organization.  

Let’s explore some of the biggest historical threats to the tavern.

The Temperance Movement

Taverns have often been a place to plan major upheaval in social and political American life. However, they also have a deep history of being the target of movements themselves. In fact, attempts to restrict, regulate, or ban drinking in American taverns are as old as the institution itself.

Taverns can be seen as an attempt to carry on British drinking culture. Popular myths suggest that Britons preferred beer to water, typically because of a lack of safe drinking water. However, historians suggest it was likely more to do with beer’s high-calorie content because most towns and villages were built near fresh sources of water.

In the Middle Ages, food was not as plentiful as today. So drinking small beer (2.8% or below) in the morning was common. Beer provided both hydration and energy, which was crucial in an era where most jobs were physical in nature.

While it would be inaccurate to suggest that there was not a recreational element to the drinking culture in Britain, it emerged alongside this more practical aspect.

When these preferences arrived in New England, they didn’t always make great bedfellows within more religiously restrictive colonies. There was plenty of opposition to both drinking and drunkenness. However, the practice endured as a central part of the culture.

The 17th century was a far less refined time than our current age. Some taverns were a hotbed of trouble, partly because the patrons were partial to a drink. Rules and restrictions were placed but not strictly enforced because troublemakers made up a fringe part of the customer base.

Another aspect of tavern life that came under scrutiny affected the owners selling diluted or water-down products. Again, the history books suggest that these rules were seldom enforced, which indicates it wasn’t a rampant issue.

However, in some areas, drunkenness was an issue. In 1681, the General Court almost halved the number of Boston taverns to 24. While there was early resistance to taverns, their essential social role made enforcing rules complex and unpopular.

It is within this context that the Temperance Movement begins.

The Temperance Movement of the 1800s

The story of America’s occasionally tempestuous relationship with alcohol really accelerates in the 1800s with the Temperance movement. The movement combined a mix of health, social, and religious concerns. In particular, it gained a large amount of support from women.

To put it in the simplest terms possible, the Temperance movement happened because middle-class reformers looked out at American society, saw various issues, and suggested that alcohol was at fault.

Americans were perhaps drinking too much. Some estimates suggest the average adult consumed around seven gallons of alcohol in the 1830s. Commenters indicated that these actions contributed to social problems, poverty, and domestic violence. They called for assistance and teetotalism in response.

Many of the early advocates of the Temperance Movement were Protestant. The religion advocates prudence, saving money, and modesty. As such, its followers suggested that all three principles could be adhered to by quitting alcohol. Soon, the movement began to gain momentum across the country.

However, the Civil War put a halt to the temperance movement. With a war to be paid for, state leaders needed the sales from alcohol taxes. The temperance movements focused on other factors, like welfare and soldier health. However, when the war ended, temperance was back on the agenda.

In 1873, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) began. Part of several similar organizations that started around this time, it soon became an influential nationwide social lobbying group. Frances Willard, its second president, was particularly effective.

Willard was a formidable leader and took strong stances against several social issues of the time, as well as drinking. She was also concerned with women’s rights, voting, and social justice in general.

While it’s accessible from our vantage point to look back on Willard and the WCTU as killjoys intent on breaking up the fun, they did important work in helping women achieve independence, build leadership skills, and generally seek out empowerment. However, their attitudes towards alcohol were myopic.

In 1881, the WCTU lobbied for “legal temperance” in schools, which were effectively anti-alcohol programs. Despite their good intentions, many of these programs involved the perpetuation of misinformation, alarmist health claims, and even racist stereotypes claiming certain ethnic groups couldn’t handle alcohol.

As the movement grew, extremist figures emerged, such as Carrie Nation. Believing she was acting as a messenger for God, she destroyed bars and salons over a decade, using hatchets, rocks, and hammers. She gained some fans, too, with other fringe zealots believing she was fighting a holy cause.

This sentiment soon turned into the most potent political threat North America had ever faced: The Anti-Saloon League.

Fun Fact: During Prohibition, job opportunities were so thin on the ground that thousands of bartenders fled to Cuba.

The Anti-Saloon League and Prohibition

In the late 19th century, the Anti-Saloon League was founded in Ohio. However, it was so popular that it became a national organization in just two years.

The organization gains vast levels of support for Protestant Evangelicals. The novel thing about the group was its strong focus on legislation. It planned to deliver on its goals by mobilizing its followers’ votes and not just by shouting from the pulpit.

Soon, it was the most powerful prohibition lobby in America. The consequence would be severe for bar owners and drinkers.

Their motto was “The Saloon Must Go.” The organization worked tirelessly to promote anti-alcohol sentiment, firm up the enforcement of temperance laws, and push for anti-alcohol legislation. They initially used churches to get their message to people, and once they had built up a voting base, they were able to convince specific politicians to support and promote their cause.

Soon, they used their newfound political representatives to lobby the government for legislation prohibiting the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages.

The 18th Amendment was agreed upon and would come into place in 1920. The sale of alcohol was outlawed. This was the culmination of decades of work by various groups.

Tavern Fact: During Prohibition, job opportunities were so thin on the ground that thousands of bartenders fled to Cuba.

It’s important to contextualize the Anti-Saloon movement. While the Progressives weren’t exactly against alcohol, they felt saloons were the root of anti-social behaviors such as gambling and prostitution. Their belief was that if they cut off the supposed corrupting element of alcohol, then societies’ ills would be fixed.

Another element that we should emphasize is the influence of the First World War. When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, it affected Prohibition in two ways: Firstly, it made bills easier to pass as a “wartime measure.” Secondly, the war effort — in particular, the Lever Act (1917) — banned the production of alcohol across many parts of the U.S. so that supplies could be used for food production.

Another interesting fact is that many U.S. breweries were started by 19th-century German immigrants. This situation made it easier to whip up anti-German sentiment and target their businesses and, by extension, the taverns of the time.

In many ways, it was the perfect storm. Add to these facts that capitalists felt that sobriety would drive the economy to new production levels, and it makes a twisted kind of sense.

However, Prohibition didn’t take. It lasted from 1919 to 1933. Possession and consumption at home were allowed, but these were dark times for the public tavern.

Bootleg alcohol was available. It was expensive, so drinking at parties and homes became a middle-class pursuit. As the 1920s wore on, criminal gangs moved into the gap in the market. They began importing drinks, which allowed the public to break the laws. Speakeasies emerged, offering secretive public venues where people could unwind.

Another interesting thing to note about the era is the emergence of women in the political and social discourse. While working towards gaining a vote, many women began to drink in public. What was once considered a male space began to shift. One of the many upsides of these changes was the adaptations that barkeepers made to alcohol.

Because alcohol was banned, the quality of liquor plummeted. Wine and beer were less readily available, which meant that hard spirits abounded in the speakeasies. However, they were often unpalatable, which meant the cocktail — first mentioned in New York in the early 19th century — became a staple.

The Great Depression at the end of the 1920s had a big role to play in the eventual abolishment of Prohibition. The dampened economic activity highlighted the need for taxes on alcohol. Soon, the bar was back, and a new era for the tavern would begin.

Taverns in the 1900s

By the 1900s, there were over 200,000 licensed saloons in the U.S. Some estimates suggest there were about 50,000 more unlicenced. Beer was my favorite tipple.

However, the colonial tavern was fast dying out. Increased industrialization was one reason. The establishment of a national rail network also reduced the need to travel by horse.

However, the biggest problem was that most of the services that the traditional tavern offered began to be specialized.

The early taverns were a one-stop shop for food, drink, lodging, and entertainment. Restaurants, boarding houses, hotels, theaters, and saloons sprang up around the end of the 18th century, offering discrete facilities.

However, the tavern endured, as always. Adopting its business model to place less emphasis on lodgings and more on providing a venue where people went to eat and drink.

After Prohibition, things changed. While the tavern remained an important social institution, especially as a neighborhood bar, its role as the center of American society was slightly diminished. Of course, bars and restaurants still played a crucial part in the civil rights movements of the 20th century by offering activists a place to meet, eat, and talk.

In Memphis, Alabama, Washington D.C., Jacksonville, and New Orleans, there is a mix of restaurants, bars, and taverns that lay claim to feeding leaders and protestors during the Civil Rights Movement. Again, freedom of assembly and access to a shared common space were central components to meeting and strategizing. The tavern’s sacred place in providing a venue for different groups cannot be ignored.

Another notable venue was the Stonewall Inn. It started out life as a 1930s speakeasy in Manhattan. After Prohibition ended, it relocated to Christopher Street, Greenwich Village. It sold food and drinks before being destroyed by a fire in the 1960s. Soon after, it was bought by the Mafia and turned into a gay bar.

Business was brisk, and the Stonewall Inn provided an important sanctuary for members of the gay community. However, a police raid in 1969 led to a riot among the patrons. The fallout led to the formation of some of the first radical gay activist groups in the U.S. Once again, the tavern was at the center of historic change in American society.      

While taverns still exist in American towns and cities, their pivotal role in society has morphed with the needs of the people. They still provide a place for people of all stripes to meet and discuss the political issues of the day. However, they also offer a place for families to eat, venues to watch the game, and allow anyone down on their luck access to a sympathetic earn. Additionally, due to licensing restrictions in certain places, the tavern is becoming an endangered species.

For example, tavern licenses in many areas limit what alcohol you can serve. If you run a bar, you can stock whatever you want, including hard liquor. On the other hand, many tavern licenses only allow their serving of beer, cider, and wine, with food as an additional option.

During the end of Prohibition, the tavern thrived once more. However, they had shifted from the combination of being a bar and an inn into drinking venues that are more familiar to us today. The 1940s and 1950s are seen by many as the golden days of the modern American tavern. Indeed these venues played an important social role in cities and in the expansion of the suburbs.

However, by the 1970s, taverns were on the decline. They were slowly being replaced by bars, clubs, dance halls, and other venues. There was more diversity in entertainment to compete with too.

However, taverns continued to serve a core audience, particularly working-class clientele, who yearned for a more stripped-back, less fussy kind of venue. Of course, the modern tavern is a welcoming place that continues the tradition of crossing the race and class divide.

What unites the modern tavern drinker is an appreciation of history and a sense of permanence. In a world that is forever changing and not always for the best, the taverns offer a sense of unpretentious comfort, character, and a feeling of community.

How Taverns influenced American culture

While we have explored the role that the tavern played in the American experience, now it’s time to consider how it shaped American culture. Understanding how much taverns influenced American culture must be approached from several different angles.

The first thing to consider is the people that used the American tavern. The interesting thing is that there wasn’t one type of customer. The nature of the tavern was so universal that it touched the lives of every class of person, especially in the early days of America.

Groups like the early Pilgrims and Puritans were escaping religious persecution and monarchical control. As they set up lives in the New World, the tavern provided a forum for conversation and debate. People of all kinds met and discussed issues in what we can describe as an early form of American democracy.

In his book Rum, Punch, and Revolution, Peter Thompson suggests that early Philadelphian taverns were a mixing pot “In a city with an ethnically and culturally diverse population, and a relative flexible social hierarchy, taverns drew together customers from a wide variety of backgrounds in conditions of enforced intimacy.”

Another fact is that tavern going is inextricably tied to the American experience of going to church. Quite often, both structures were built in close proximity to each other, with the tavern initially providing a place to warm up after a long Sunday at church.

Indeed, Protestant-founded cities, such as Philadelphia and Boston, had more taverns per capita than Amsterdam or Paris by the mid-18th century.

However, while the taverns started out as an inclusive place for the everyman, things shifted by the mid-18th century. In Sharon Salingers’ comprehensive tome, Taverns and Drinking in Early America, the author points out that while early taverns were steeped in British and Dutch culture, they soon faced a distinctive type of American legislation that broke from European norms.

In particular, these rules involve prohibiting particular people from enjoying the tavern, such as Native Americans and slaves. In some areas, apprentices and sailors were barred from frequenting public houses.

As the author acknowledges, this era marks a turn from the early tavern’s openness to something more homogeneous. Add in the class divide and norms that frowned upon drinking, and a picture emerges of the 18th-century tavern serving an increasingly white, male, working-class clientele.

As such, this situation can go someway toward explaining the emergence of both class and racial segregation in America, the knots of which are still being worked out today.

However, while taverns were part of these dark days, we should also remember their role in the civil rights movements, where they helped foster the discussion and support that ultimately led to a more inclusive tavern.

While there were restrictions, that is not to undercut the importance of taverns in establishing and upholding American democracy.

In 1831, two Frenchmen, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, were sent by their government to study American prisons. Instead, they used their time to study American democracy and society. The two-volume book is a fascinating account of the 19th century and captures a time when the aristocracy was on the wane and the rights of men were emerging.

One of the points that Tocqueville made was that forming voluntary associations was a huge part of American democracy.

As pointed out in Arthur M. Schlesinger’s Biography of a Nation of Joiners

“At first thought it seemed paradoxical that a country famed for being individualistic should provide the world’s greatest example of joiners. But the illusions of paradox must be dispelled at once. To American’s, individualism has meant, not the individual’s independence of other individuals, but his and her freedom from government restraint.”

What is interesting about this notion is that the smaller the role that government plays in the life of its citizens, the bigger the role there is for social groups. And that, more than anything else, captures the role of taverns in the American experience.

America is a nation of independence. However, no man is an island. The tavern has and still does, provide an essential venue for a rich and meaningful social life. These days, it’s a way for families to meet and enjoy their time together as much as it is for people to bond over a beer and a shared interest in politics, sports, or any other important issue.

The modern tavern

It’s impossible to consider the role of the tavern in the American psyche without thinking about the meaning of a sense of space. While we all understand what it means to feel at home, alive, and part of a space when we try to articulate these feelings, we can run up against the limitations of words themselves.

Several academics have grappled with the idea of place meaning. The literature is a mixed bag. Some authors suggest that the phenomenon of human-place bonding comes from a mixture of action and identity. To put it another way, what we do and where we do it informs us of how we are.

When we look at the construction of a sense of space that is the American tavern in this way, it starts to make sense.

In “Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience” by T. F Tuan, the author nails the point, suggesting, “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes a place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.”

As the American Tavern shifted from being an outpost in an unfamiliar land to a haven for revolutionary ideas and then to a venue for social cohesion, it didn’t become less vital. Its role has always been the same: to support people to achieve what they need.

Settling a colony is a big job. Throwing off the shackles and becoming independent is a massive undertaking. But when that work is done, what’s left is to form a society.

The industrial revolution turned our society upside down. It led to the mass migration of agricultural people from rural countries to the city. The result was more stable work, better health outcomes, higher literacy rates, lower infant mortality, and many other benefits.

However, despite these wins, we lost something. In a simplistic sense, we lost our relationship with the land and nature. And by that, we mean our closeness to plants, animals, and circadian rhythms.

In many ways, the history of human civilization over the last 250 years has been the story of adjusting to these changes. In a grand sense, we are all displaced people, wandering around and wondering why we don’t feel quite at home in the modern world.

However, perhaps more significantly, we are social beings. We can overcome this broad sense of dislocation together. Social context and personal meaning are at the heart of modern ideas of a sense of place.

Settling America and fighting for independence were grand projects where everyone was united by a similar vision. However, the freedom and autonomy they fostered have led to a fragmented society. And so, the role of our public spaces changed. No longer were they about battling existential threats. Instead, they became a means of bringing us back together when we didn’t have a shared story to bind our objectives.

Waves of immigration to America brought a distinct mix of cultures—old World traditions fused with new takes. Several venues exist to uphold, reinforce, or modulate these cultures. The home and places of worship are two. However, the tavern also played that role.

In his book, Substitutes for the Tavern, Raymond Calkins lays out the case for the role of the tavern in modern life. At first, he argues that it is a business driven by commercial interests like any other. However, once he gets that out of the way, he gets to the meat.

Calkins states that, on the surface, access to liquor drives the existence of these institutions. However, citing Prohibition, he notes the powerful urge that keeps the tavern open, suggesting, “The tremendous strength of the liquor business rests upon physiological grounds.”

He goes on to suggest that “Primarily, then, the saloon answers to the demand for liquor, but it goes beyond this and supplies a more profound

and more subtle want than that of mere animal thirst. This want is the demand for social expression, and how it is met becomes clear by noting what elements are needed to create what we may call a social center.

These elements are the absence of any time limit, some stimulus to self-expression, and a kind of personal feeling toward those into whose company one is thrown, which tempts one to put away reserve and enjoy their society. Where these three elements coexist, however imperfectly, they create a social center, a situation, that is, in which the social instincts find their natural expression.”

This observation drives at the heart of the tavern. Yes, drinks are available. But they are available anywhere. For a venue to endure, it must provide something additional. Calkins goes on to celebrate the tavern’s cosmopolitan nature. As he suggests, It’s a place for everyone from any walk of life.

Another interesting point he makes is how the tavern is instrumental in helping people forge bonds and clubs. “The saloon becomes the natural headquarters of a club which may have no constitution or by-laws, but is still a distinct, compact, sympathetic company of men.”

Of course, the evolution of the tavern took a few different paths too. As Calkins notes, some taverns were built around shared trades, as is indicated by the names “Mechanics’ Exchange” or “Milkmen’s Exchange.”

In one sense, they had the dual role of drinking emporium and labor exchange. Laborers who are out of work can find assistance during hard times and access to work. These networks provide support and opportunities, showing the power of the tavern as a means for providing an essential mesh for social support.

Sports and politics are also intertwined with the tavern. Ex-prizefighters and baseball pros set up bars where fans and players can bond; likewise, politics becomes another focal point, with places like the Chicago saloon known as “The Democratic Headquarters of the Eighteenth Ward.”

In many ways, these saloons, bars, and taverns carry the eternal torch of the early New England taverns. Alongside the newspaper, these institutions provide locals with access to knowledge, opinions, and education from other patrons. In ways, they can be seen as an early form of the internet.

The role of the saloon keeper

Another interesting point of note is the role of the saloon keeper. Naturally, these positions require a distinct character. In Calkins’s words, “The position of the saloon-keeper in saloons of this type is a most important and influential one. He is commonly a man of an intelligence superior to that of his patrons. That the character of the saloon as a center of sociability should depend on the personality of the saloon keeper is only natural. He is, above all else, a man of the people. He knows his men and knows them well. He often knows about their families and their circumstances and thus has a hold on their sympathies. The laborer often regards him as his chief friend.”

Again, the tavern has many functions for laboring men. They can collect their post and receive loans. What’s more, politicians can turn to these influential figures, with support for their plans often funneled through the barkeep in the form of drinks and money for the men.

All this goes to emphasize the tavern’s role as a town center. While we are connected through communication technology today, that was once the job of the tavern.

However, while it might be tempting to consider the tavern obsolete, that assumption is incorrect. As long as people cherish face-to-face interactions, they will still have a place in modern America.  

The future of the tavern

As we mentioned above, the period after Prohibition marked a significant change for the tavern. Radio, TV, telephones, and the internet all reduced the absolute need for in-person meeting places. However, the tavern continued to exist because it has special properties.

The tavern serves several core functions. The first is man’s desire for companionship. While it has transformed from its ancient pattern, this function has not been lost. Per Calkin, “it is the same common center where the isolated personal experience is merged in the common lot of all.”

While drinking and merriment are great attractors, they hide this important basic pulse. As the ultimate rejection of Prohibition proved, the tavern transcended mere drinking.

Another question that Calkin grapples with is if the tavern is the center of social life for some, “Where do the other thousands who are not patrons of the saloon find their social recreation?” For Calkin, the answer is straightforward. “They have comfortable homes.”

Depending on the timeframe we use, what we mean by comfortable homes can mean different things. In the original landscape of American life, a person’s home could have been as little as a room with a makeshift bed. However, as standards of physical comfort improved, the tavern became an essential player in affording a different type of well-being.

From time to time, we’ve all been unfortunate enough to live in a difficult home environment. Arguing parents, difficult roommates, and a marriage that has problems. The tavern helped people to survive these situations by offering a home away from home. People could come to trash out their problems or have a place where they could ignore them. The tavern is a sanctuary from our problems.

While the modern tavern is a place where families can come together, it also affords people a place for extended family.

The role of the tavern as a club stands offers an extension of the family. These associations can be about politics, sports, or simple unconditional friendships.

As urban populations grew, the tavern met the needs of fractured communities. In areas with low populations, relations are borne from familiarity and closeness. Options are limited.

However, in larger urban centers, bonds are formed in distinct and different ways beyond the family. For people with money, finding spaces to house their clubs and associations is straightforward. However, for working people struggling to support a family, this flexibility is a dream. Once again, the tavern stepped in to provide a place where people could gather.

People with similar interests meet at the same location. At first, it starts with a group of friends. Then, others come.

In the past, the tavern opened its arms to groups of young men who hung around the streets. Their family homes couldn’t support their social desires, and they were quickly moved from place to place by local police. The saloon provided a place to enjoy each other’s company, with a pool, cards, and other games an attraction.

This process demonstrates the tavern’s role as the club of the people. Indeed, by the 19th and 20th centuries, some taverns even had gym equipment, books, pianos, and more.

As modernity shifted into postmodernity in the 1950s, the social elements of the tavern endured. While many taverns had once acted as a labor exchange for particular professions, the postmodern version was more centered on trade unions.

Again, the tavern mixed politics with social life. Here, millions of workers across the country could gather underneath a local roof and discuss their lot. The post-war era was a time of great change and upheaval. The tavern’s function as a sanctuary provided the backdrop for discussions about working conditions and a place to forge organizational bonds.

Trade unions were a powerful force during these times. As so, the role of the tavern must shift again as labor becomes more organized, and its needs and wants shift. As Calkin points out in The Substitute for the Tavern, the organized working man must attend meetings, save money for his dues, and spend less time and resources drinking in the tavern.

However, the tavern’s flexibility here is instructive. Again, the institution is about much more than food or drink. It’s a place to learn, build important bonds, meet, and share thoughts and opinions. As the storied history of the tavern shows, it’s a place that facilitates the needs of the community, whatever they might be.

In this sense, individual taverns ended up reflecting the needs of the surrounding area and populace. They became a way to restore and bolster the heritage of American neighborhoods. For example, a town with a large Irish population might center around an Irish pub. Cuisine, entertainment, and politics would reflect the residents.

Interestingly, the tavern would reprise its role as a friendly outpost for new immigrants too. It was a place to come and meet new residents, a home away from home. Quite often, taverns would act as a focal point for finding work, company, and guidance about how to navigate a new city.

Food and the tavern

As we mentioned earlier, alongside accommodation and drinks, food is at the center of the tavern. Where once it was a means to feed hungry travelers or laborers, it soon evolved into a way to attract patrons. Indeed, the phrase “there is no such thing as a free lunch” comes from 19th-century saloon life, where the provision of a free lunch comes with a condition to buy some drinks.

Of course, the quality of the food varied wildly in these historic taverns. In areas with low competition or high cost of licensure, the free lunch is often subpar. No limits are placed on how much a man can eat, and well-dressed or regular patrons are left to fill their plates to their heart’s content.

These venues become a popular place for factory workers to come for their noon lunch. While modernity brings competition in the form of specialized restaurants, the tavern keeps up the practice. The pubs straddle the divide between restaurants and bars, with lodgings eventually becoming less of a focus.

Of course, serving food that reflects the character of the patrons plays an essential role in constructing a sense of place. Waves of immigration to American shores create a need for a brush with the old country. Taverns can help provide this feeling of both nostalgia and culture.

Quality varies wildly. Some taverns offer low-cost, accessible fares. At the same time, others go the extra mile and serve authentic, high-quality food. Both styles have function and importance.

Understanding the role of the modern tavern is impossible without thinking about the socio-cultural importance of food. Of course, on one level, food is about nutritional sustenance. In many ways, this mirrors the role of alcohol in the tavern. It’s an important part of the setup, but it only partially tells the story.

Food also has a well-understood social dimension. Often, we think about it as a family sitting around a table and sharing food and the stories of the day. Similarly, it’s no coincidence that going for a meal is a popular first date. The importance of food as a bonding ritual stretches back to prehistoric times, and the practice has endured across all societies.

As Germov and Williams wrote in 1999 in A Sociology of Food & Nutrition:

“While hunger is a biological drive, there is more to food and eating than the satisfaction of physiological needs. There are also ‘social drives’ that affect how food is produced and consumed. Food is not only essential to survival; it is also one of the great pleasures of life and the focal point around which many social occasions and leisure events are organized.”

Birthdays, holidays, weddings, and more are all testament to the role that

food plays in our lives. As society experiences a changing relationship with food, so do individuals. As people establish their own identity, their relationship with food often forms part of this identity.

After the war, in urban centers and newly emerging suburbs, taverns leaned into food as a destination and not something that was just there to attract hungry laborers. While that dimension remained, food was a powerful force for building a sense of place.

As America has drifted towards industrialization and digitization, citizens look for experiences that feel more authentic. We can see this expressed in several different ways. For example, the rebirth of vinyl records and their distinctive analog sounds.

In a world where so much of what we consume is processed or digital, the existence of something real becomes valuable. It’s about far more than nostalgia, although a yearning for the past plays some part. The pace of progress is so fast as to be disorientating. Replaying the rituals of our past provides a level of comfort.

Authenticity in food and customs has been given much thought in academic circles. One interpretation is about provenance. Put simply, if an item is what it says on the label. That’s important in an era of marketing trickery, but it stops short of explaining a romantic idea of authenticity.

In our modern sense, we can look at this through the lens of a shift from a service economy to an experience economy. While people sought out experiences and memories to spend money on, there was a feeling that, per Gilmore and Pine in Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, the experiences were too staged or curated. In response, consumers sought out something more real.

There are several ways to look at this phenomenon. For example, tourists were looking for holiday destinations that take them off the beaten track. In a more local sense, it’s a reminder of the tavern’s role of linking us to the past.

Cuisine and recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation have a great appeal. That history is not something that can be replicated or faked.

Another important element to remember is food’s role in memory. It could be visits to grandparents as a child or eating at a restaurant with parents. Both of these situations carry powerful psychological significance. Eating authentic food can help return you to that sense of place and time.

The modern tavern can act as a gateway to these memories. It can become the ground where fathers can pass down these memories to their sons. Families can bond over the artistry and ingredients that form the cultural knowledge and identity of foods. Yes, these relationships can and are forged in homes too. However, the modern tavern can once again act as a powerful way to extend, reinforce, and reimagine these relationships.

This point brings us to another important function of the modern tavern.

Returning Custom

Restaurants and nostalgia are nothing new. The continuing popularity of the American diner in both the states and across the world attests to the influential role of memory and food experiences. 

There are a few factors at play. Perhaps most significantly, familiarity is comforting. In a world with a dizzying array of cuisines and dishes, knowing what to expect is pleasant. This phenomenon explains the proliferation of various fast-food chains across the globe. When you can’t afford to take a risk, a standardized option is a safe bet.

However, there is plenty more to consider. Things such as the atmosphere, ambiance, the owners, familiar faces, and so on can play just as important a role as the food.

Research suggests that as many as 50% of restaurants close within the first years. Incredibly, the numbers go up to about 80% after five. 

Of course, there are many different reasons why bars and restaurants fail. It’s a harsh industry with so many moving parts. Each owner needs sound decision-making, good employees, solid suppliers, the right location, industry knowledge, and a large slice of luck to succeed.

There is a lot to learn from restaurants that stand the test of time. Good ratings and reviews are just the tip of the iceberg. A great restaurant goes above and beyond and reaches into the community. It offers something that they need.

The evidence suggests that while there is demand for new-fangled restaurants serving strange and daring dishes, it’s not enough to sustain all of these establishments. However, restaurants that offer a tried and true formula and consistent standards can survive decades. A large part of that success is about generational loyalty.

The modern tavern satisfies some of these behavioral urges. For some, nostalgia is a marketing tool. However, for customers looking for something authentic, this bluster can only go so far.  

One part of nostalgia concerns returning to places of our youth, or at least venues that remind us of them. Another part involves taking a portal to a past that existed before you were born. The modern tavern can facilitate both of these urges.

Attempts to rebuild or recreate these environments often go awry. Sure, you can maybe replicate the food and the furnishings. But it’s the small, intimate details that ring through. Atmospherics are elusive. You can’t fake history. It’s details like these that explain the enduring appeal of the tavern.

Another element that can’t be overlooked is trust. A tavern that generations of the same family have owned can’t survive on goodwill alone. However, it will undoubtedly help. People want to go to places that do good by them.

Customer loyalty and return custom can even extend through a change of ownership. However, there are plenty of cautionary tales to counter that point too.

In summary, we are social creatures. A part of this reality is that we have a strong urge to belong. That desire is expressed through the people we want to be near and the spaces we wish to occupy.

The modern tavern offers a time-tested venue that provides familiarity. Its continuing existence is evidence of good governance, value, and a service that meets market needs. A solid neighborhood bar or restaurant thrives on the relationships it builds and maintains. 

People and patrons change. Community demographics shift over time. The push and pull of change is bittersweet. And yet, there are essential constants, such as the local tavern. These venues are important anchors in a world that can alter in the blink of an eye.

The Star Tavern

Having considered the role of history, food, a sense of place, and nostalgia that the tavern provides, it’s time to consider one of the best examples of the synthesis of these factors.

The 1940s were the start of what many people consider a golden age of the tavern. It’s also the decade that The Star Tavern was established. Just after the war, in 1945, the Tavern opened its doors to the public in Orange, NJ.

It was run by a few Italian families, for various lengths of time, until 1980 when Aristotelis Vayianos purchased it. It has been owned and operated by the Vayianos family ever since. This heritage is a large part of why it has become embedded in the social fabric of New Jersey.

The Star Tavern is a state landmark. It is a beloved institution that is ingrained in the traditions and family histories of so many. However, after all those years, it still retains its true neighborhood tavern feel.

One of the things that we were most proud of is that we’re keeping alive the tradition of the tavern that started in the early days of America. While major celebs, athletes, political figures, and other stars of New Jersey regularly patronize the Star, it’s still a place for everyone, from blue-collar workers, writers, actors, the press, the police, and anyone else you can think of. We welcome a cross-section of the New Jersey community. Like the best taverns up and down the country, people check their education and importance at the door. It doesn’t matter who you are; you’ll be treated equally.

The Tavern’s close-knit family feel isn’t an accident. Generations of families have worked here. Similarly, the core of our clientele has been coming here for decades to eat our world famous New Jersey-style bar pie, relax, have a drink, and socialize. In the words of owner Gary Vayianos, “I don’t think you could recreate this place overnight. It’s just got this aura about it that’s 70 years’ worth of time”.

Preserving the neighborhood feel and the unique Star Tavern aesthetic is important to us. During the enforced shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gary realized that he’d have time for a project he’d dreamed of for years: an update to the Taverns interiors.

The Tavern needed work after nearly 80 years of constant business. However, renewing an institution is a complex act. With so many memories tied up in the down-to-earth decor, replacing it with new booths, cabinets, bar tops, fridges, and more, was a difficult but necessary choice. Thankfully, some things have stayed the same, like the friendly atmosphere and the pizza.

The Star Tavern, just like the American Tavern, is an enduring institution. It has been able to remain at the heart of the American experience by gradually adapting to changing needs. Our renovation will help this vital neighborhood spot provide another 80 years of service to the residents of New Jersey and beyond.

As communities become more atomized and disconnected, and people increasingly communicate in virtual or online spaces, the tavern represents something that we are in danger of losing. Societies can only thrive when they have places for us to bond and connect as friends, family, and residents.

The Star Tavern and taverns alike stand as repositories of history and community. They’re real places for real people that have stood the test of time thanks to their contribution to American life. May they long continue.

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The opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not represent those of Star Tavern. This is an early-access blog; the full version will launch shortly. Want to share your Star Tavern experiences? Email tom@startavern.pizza.

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*2002, Food Research & Action Center