12/10/07 - public houses and taverns

In today's excerpt - the wretched state of America's taverns and public houses circa 1790, the time of George Washington's legendary tours of the United States. During these tours, he eschewed invitations to stay at private homes to avoid the appearance of favoritism, and instead stayed only in public houses. Within the next decade, America had invented its hotels, which were to become the most important form of public architecture in early America—due in no small part to the influence of both Washington's tours and the country's booming commercial needs at the dawn of the industrial revolution:

"Public house was the formal name for an establishment that sold alcoholic drinks and rented lodgings to travelers. Public houses were more commonly called taverns, inns, and sometimes ordinaries, terms that were used interchangeably. ... What made a public house public was its having been licensed by state or local officials. A tavern license involved a fairly simple quid pro quo: the innkeeper was given the privilege of entering the highly profitable business of retailing alcoholic drinks in exchange for a promise to offer overnight accommodations to the public. ...

"A 1973 archaeological study ... determined that taverns in eighteenth-century Virginia generally comprised only six to ten rooms, a size that recent studies ... suggest was close to the norm in the period. ... The small number of rooms in taverns made it impossible for guests to have their own bedchambers. ... While most travelers simply accepted this custom as necessity, it was resented by respectable wayfarers, who complained constantly about being forced into such close encounters with the unclean bodies and rude manners of tradesmen and laborers. One traveler complained that, 'after you have been some time in bed, a stranger of any condition (for there is little distinction), comes into the room, pulls off his clothes, and places himself, without ceremony, between your sheets.' ... Another confided to his diary that because other tavern patrons were drunk and staggering, and 'kept up Roar-Rororum till morning,' he had 'watched carefully all night, to keep them from falling over and spewing on me.'

"These were by no means the only criticisms leveled at American public houses. The nation's inns and taverns elicited torrents of invective from diarists and travel writers. The most common complaints involved tavern beds, which were described as dirty, uncomfortable and insect ridden. ... One wayfarer ... echoing a frequent complaint about cleanliness, observed of his stew that 'everything was so nasty that One might have picked the Dirt off.'

"When President Washington first took office in 1789, the finest public house in the United States was a three-story building ... containing perhaps twenty rooms, and valued at roughly fifteen thousand dollars. Two decades later, in 1809, the nation's leading public accommodation occupied an enormous seven-story edifice, which covered nearly an acre of land, comprised more than two hundred rooms, and cost more than half a million dollars."


A.K. Sandoval-Strausz


Hotel: An American History


Yale University Press


Copyright 2007 by A.K. Sandoval-Strausz


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