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Taverns, (also called saloons, bars, inns or in England and Australia, public houses and pubs) serving food, beer and hard liquor, have performed a major social and communications role in many countries over the last 500 years.

Temperance art often featured a small child begging her father to come home now.

North America

Americans drank heavily, for rum was cheap. In 1770 per capita consumption was 3.7 gallons of distilled spirits per year, or approximately seven shots a day, with the men consuming most of the quota for women and children. That 3.7 gallons does not include the beer or hard cider that colonists routinely drank in addition to rum, the most popular distilled beverage available in English America. Benjamin Franklin printed a "Drinker's Dictionary" in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1737, listing some 228 slang terms used for drunkenness in Philadelphia.

The sheer volume of hard liquor consumption fell off, but beer grew in popularity and men developed customs and traditions based on how to behave at the tavern. By 1900 the 26 million American men over age 18 patronized 215,000 licensed taverns and probably 50,000 unlicensed (illegal) ones, or one per hundred men. Twice the density could be found in working-class neighborhoods. They served mostly beer; bottles were available but most drinkers went to the taverns. Probably half the American men avoided saloons, so the average consumption for actual patrons was about a half-gallon of beer per day, six days a week. The city of Boston (with about 200,000 adult men) counted 227,000 daily saloon customers.[1]

Colonial America to 1800

Taverns in the colonies closely followed the models of the mother country. They were supervised by county officials who recognized the need for taverns and the need to maintain order, to minimize drunkenness (and avoid it if possible on Sundays), as well as to establish the responsibilities of tavern keepers.


Larger taverns provided rooms for travelers, especially in county seats that housed the county court. Upscale taverns had a lounge with a huge fireplace, a bar at one side, plenty of benches and chairs, and several dining tables. The best houses had a separate parlor for ladies, an affable landlord, good cooking, soft, roomy beds, fires in all rooms in cold weather, and warming pans used on the beds at night. In the backwoods, the taverns were wretched hovels, dirty with vermin for company; even so they were more pleasant and safer for the stranger than camping by the roadside. Even on main highways such as the Boston Post Road, travelers routinely reported the taverns had bad food, hard beds, scanty blankets, inadequate heat, and poor service.


Taverns were essential for colonial Americans, especially in the South where towns hardly existed. In the taverns the colonists learned current crop prices, arranged trades, heard newspapers read aloud, and discovered business opportunities and the latest betting odds on the upcoming horse races. For most rural Americans the tavern was the chief link to the greater world, playing a role much like the city marketplace in Europe and Latin America.

Taverns absorbed leisure hours and games were provided—always decks of cards, perhaps a billiards table. Horse races often began and ended at taverns, as did militia-training exercises. Cockfights were popular. At upscale taverns the gentry had private rooms or even organized a club. When politics was in season, or the county court was meeting, political talk filled the taverns.

Taverns served multiple functions on the Southern colonial frontier. Society in Rowan County, North Carolina, was divided along lines of ethnicity, gender, race, and class, but in taverns the boundaries often overlapped, as diverse groups were brought together at nearby tables. Consumerism in the backcountry was limited not by ideology or culture but by distance from markets and poor transportation. The increasing variety of drinks served and the development of clubs indicates that genteel culture spread rapidly from London to the periphery of the English world.[2]


In the colonial era, about two-thirds of the taverns were operated by women—especially widows. Local magistrates—who had to award a license before a tavern could operate—preferred widows who knew the business and might otherwise be impoverished and become a charge to the county.[3] Women and children were not, however, welcome as fellow drinkers. The drinkers were men—and indeed often defined their manliness by how much they could drink at a time.

New York City

Perhaps the most famous American tavern is Fraunces Tavern, corner of Broad and Pearl streets in lower Manhattan. Originally built as a residence in 1719, it was opened as a tavern by Samuel Fraunces, a West Indian black, in 1762, and became a popular gathering place. Fraunces Tavern was the site of merchants' meetings on the post-1763 taxes, plots by the Sons of Liberty, entertainments for British and Loyalist officers during the Revolution. In its Long Room, on Dec. 4, 1783, General George Washington said farewell to his officers. It is still in operation—and is the oldest building in the city.

Kaplan (1995) reports an escalation of tavern violence in antebellum New York City as a manifestation of a developing working-class male identity. This was due to the rapid growth of taverns, and their roles as centers of working-class social life. Brawling fostered a male identity that was centered on physical courage, independence, and class pride. Irish and German influences contributed to the violence, as did racial and ethnic prejudice. Sexual assaults against women increased because women were working in factories and more exposed to these dangers in the city. (Male-on-male violence was common inside the tavern; rapes happened outside or around the back.) Women were regarded as depersonalized objects, and gang rapes were viewed as a form of male bonding.[4]

New England

The heavy Puritan heritage of New England meant that local government was strong enough to regulate—and close—rowdy places. But the power of ministers faded, and by the 1720s provincial leaders recognized that they could not eradicate hard drinking in taverns. From that point until after the American Revolution, the tavern was a widely accepted institution in Massachusetts.

Between 1697 and 1756 Elizabeth Harvey, followed by her daughter-in-law Ann Harvey Slayton, operated a successful tavern in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Their careers reveal the public acceptance of female management and authority within the confines of the tavern. Under Harvey, the tavern became a mail stop and began hosting General Assembly and executive committee meetings After Slayton took over, the tavern held town meetings, supplied necessities to the poor for which the town gave reimbursement, and provided accommodations for the provincial government, courts, and legislative committees.


In Germania (the German-American districts of cities) a beer culture flourished in 19th century America in taverns, saloons, and especially beer-gardens which operated on Sundays and attracted entire families. Germans operated nearly all the nations brewries, and demand was high until prohibition arrived in 1920. German immigrants acquired a reputation rivaling the Irish for heavy drinking and alcohol-associated violence. By the late 19th century family-oriented beer gardens provided all day recreation on Sundays. German newspapers promoted temperance but not abstinence. From the German perspective the issue was less the ill effects of alcohol than its benefits in promoting social life. For American Germans, the pub stood alongside the church as one of the two pillars of German social and spiritual life.

The Speakeasy

The "speakeasy" (or "blind pig") was an illegal bar operated during prohibition (1920–33, and even longer in some states). Most taverns stopped serving alcohol. Drinkers found out-of-the-way speakeasies that would serve them,. They owners had to buy illegal beer and liquor from criminal syndicates (the most famous was run by Al Capone in Chicago), and had to pay off the police to look the other way. The result was an overall decrease in drinking and an enormous increase organized crime, gang warfare and civic corruption, as well as a decline in tax revenue. Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and legitimate places reopened. See Prohibition in the United States#Crime and Repeal

Ethnic saloons

In ethnic neighborhoods of cities, mill towns and mining camps, the saloonkeeper was an important man. Groups of 25-50 recent arrivals speaking the same language—and probably also from the same province or village back in Europe—drank together and frequented the same saloon. They trusted the saloonkeeper to translate and write letters for them, help with transatlantic letters and remittances, keep their savings for them, and explain American laws and customs.[5]


Despite efforts by social reformers to regulate taverns in Ontario, Canada, physical violence linked to drinking was common. Indeed, 19th century masculinity, derived from earlier models of fur traders in the region, was often predicated on feats of strength and stamina and on skill in fighting. Taverns were the most common public gathering place for males of the working class and thus the site of frequent confrontations. Men's honor and men's bodies, socially and historically linked, found public, and often destructive, expression in the tavern setting.[6]



Although respectable upper-working-class and lower-middle-class women in Britain began patronizing pubs in unprecedented numbers during World War I, women did not achieve full equality in public drinking places before World War II. Women in pubs provoked intense opposition from authorities, but attracting women's business was a major incentive for brewers to reform public houses. Unreformed slum pubs, unregenerate regional subcultures, uncooperative magistrates, and unsympathetic feminists all prevented the full attainment of equality in public drinking in the interwar years.[7]


After 1500, taxes on wine and other alcoholic beverages grew increasingly more burdensome, not only because of the continual increase in the level of taxation, but also because of the bewildering variety and multiplicity of the taxes. This chaotic system was enforced by an army of tax collectors. The resultant opposition took many forms. Wine growers and tavern keepers concealed wine and falsified their methods of selling it to take advantage of lower tax rates. The retailers also engaged in clandestine refilling of casks from hidden stocks. Wine merchants stealthily circumvented inspection stations to avoid local import duties. When apprehended, some defrauders reacted with passive resignation, while others resorted to violence. Situated at the heart of the country town or village, the tavern was one of the traditional centers of social and political life before 1789, a meeting place for both the local population and travelers passing through and a refuge for rogues and scoundrels. Taverns symbolized opposition to the regime and to religion.

Emile Zola's novel L'Assommoir ["The tavern"] (1877) depicted the social conditions typical of alcoholism in Paris among the working classes. The drunk destroyed not only his own body, but also his employment, his family, and other interpersonal relationships. The characters Gervaise Macquart and her husband Coupeau exemplified with great realism the physical and moral degradation of alcoholics. Zola's correspondence with physicians reveal he used authentic medical sources for his realistic depictions in the novel.


In Italy, in the agricultural region of the southern Veneto, 1848-1875, taverns in the small towns were gathering places where the sharecroppers and tenant farmers learned of socialist and anarchist ideas, and formed groups to fight for independence from Austrian rule. Certain cafés were identified with the political ideas of their regular customers.


Drinking practices in 16th century Augsburg, Germany, suggest that the use of alcohol in early modern Germany followed carefully structured cultural norms. Drinking was not a sign of insecurity and disorder. It helped define and enhance men's social status and was therefore tolerated among men as long as they lived up to both the rules and norms of tavern society and the demands of their role as householder. Tavern doors were closed to respectable women unaccompanied by their husbands, and society condemned drunkenness among women, but when alcohol abuse interfered with the household, women could deploy public power to impose limits on men's drinking behavior.[8]


Scandinavia had very high drinking rates, which led to the formation of a powerful prohibition movement. Magnusson (1986) explains why consumption of spirits was so high in a typical preindustrial village (Eskilstuna)in Sweden, 1820-50. An economic feature of this town of blacsmiths was based on the Verlag, or outwork production system, was its complex network of credit relationships. The tavern played a crucial role in cultural and business life and was also the place where work and leisure were fused. Heavy drinking facilitated the creation of community relationships in which artisans and workers sought security. Buying drinks rather than saving money was a rational strategy when, before adjustment to a cash economy, it was essential to raise one's esteem with fellow craftsmen to whom one could turn for favors in preference to the Verlag capitalist.[9]


Reformers who saw the terrible effects of heavy consumption of alcohol on public disorder, health, and quality of work, made periodic attempts to control it in Mexico City in the late 18th and early 19th century. The poor frequented the pulcherías where pulque, made from the maguey plant, was sold. After the legalization of the more potent aguardiende in 1796, the poor could also afford the viñaterías where hard liquor was served, and drunkenness increased. The taverns played an important social and recreational role in the lives of the poor. Influential citizens often owned the pulcherías and opposed reform as did owners of the maguey haciendas. Tax revenues from alcohol were important to the government. These factors, added to lax enforcement of the laws, resulted in the failure of tavern reform.[10]


"Wowser" was a negative term for Christian moralists in Australia, especially activists in temperance groups such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Historian Stuart Macintyre argues, "the achievements of the wowsers were impressive." They passed laws that restricted obscenity and juvenile smoking, raised the age of consent, limited gambling, closed down many pubs, and in 1915-16 established a 6pm closing hour for pubs, which lasted for decades.[11]

See also

Further reading

  • Blocker, Jack S. ed. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia (2 vol 2003)
  • Cherrington, Ernest, ed., Standard Encyclopaedia of the Alcohol Problem 6 volumes (1925-1930), comprehensive international coverage to late 1920s
  • Heath, Dwight B. International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture (1995) online edition, 27 countries in late 20th century


  • Brennan, Thomas. Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth Century Paris (1988),
  • Clark, Peter. The English Alehouse: A Social History, 1200-1800 (1983).

North America

  • Conroy, David W. In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts (1995)
  • Duis, Perry. The saloon: public drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880-1920‎ (1975) 416 pages; wide-ranging scholarly history excerpt and text search
  • Earle, Alice Morse. Stage-coach and tavern days (1922), heavily illustrated full text online at Google
  • Gottlieb, David. "The Neighborhood Tavern and the Cocktail Lounge a Study of Class Differences." American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 62, No. 6 (May, 1957), pp. 559–562 in JSTOR, Chicago in 1950s
  • Gusfield, Joseph R. "Passage To Play: Rituals of Drinking Time in American Society," in Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology, ed. Mary Douglas (1987), 73–90.
  • Heron, Craig. Booze: A Distilled History (2003), on Canada
  • Kingsdale, Jon M. "The 'Poor Man's Club': Social Functions of the Urban Working-Class Saloon," American Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Oct., 1973), pp. 472–489 in JSTOR
  • Lemasters, E. E. Blue-Collar Aristocrats: Life-Styles at a Working Class Tavern. (1975) in Wisconsin in the 1970s.
  • Lender, Mark Edward, and James Kirby Martin. Drinking in America: A History (1982).
  • McBurney, Margaret and Byers, Mary. Tavern in the Town: Early Inns and Taverns of Ontario. (1987). 259 pp.
  • Mancall, Peter C. "'The Art Of Getting Drunk' in Colonial Massachusetts." Reviews in American History 1996 24(3): 383-388. 0048-7511 in Project MUSE
  • Meacham, Sarah Hand. "Keeping the Trade: The Persistence of Tavernkeeping among Middling Women in Colonial Virginia," Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2005, pp. 140–163 in Project MUSE
  • Murphy, Kevin C. "Public Virtue, Public Vices: On Republicanism and the Tavern" (thesis Columbia University 2009) online edition
  • Powers, Madelon. Faces along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman's Saloon, 1870–1920 (1998)
  • Rice, Kim. Early American Taverns: For the Entertainment of Friends and Strangers (1983),
  • Rorabaugh, William J. The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (1979)
  • Rothbart, Ron. "The Ethnic Saloon as a Form of Immigrant Enterprise," International Migration Review, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Summer, 1993), pp. 332–358 in JSTOR, study of coal towns in 19c Pennsylvania
  • Salinger, Sharon V. Taverns and Drinking in Early America (2002)
  • Thompson, Peter. Rum Punch and Revolution: Taverngoing and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia (1999)


  1. Kingston (1973) p 472-3. About half the men belonged to pietistic Protestant churches (such as Methodists and Baptists) that severely frowned on drinking in those days.
  2. Daniel B. Thorp, "Taverns and Tavern Culture on the Southern Colonial Frontier: Rowan County, North Carolina, 1753-1776." Journal of Southern History 1996 62(4): 661-688. 0022-4642
  3. Tavern licenses were assigned to men, but both magistrates and license applicants knew that the tavern itself would be run by the petitioner's wife or daughter.
  4. Michael Kaplan, "New York City Tavern Violence and the Creation of a Working-Class Male Identity." Journal of the Early Republic 1995 15(4): 591-617. in JSTOR; online free
  5. Kingsdale (1973); Duis (1975); Rothbart (1993)
  6. Kevin B. Wamsley, and Robert S. Kossuth, "Fighting it out in Nineteenth-Century Upper Canada/Canada West: Masculinities And Physical Challenges in the Tavern." Journal of Sport History 2000 27(3): 405-430. 0094-1700
  7. David W. Gutzke, "Gender, Class, and Public Drinking in Britain during the First World War." Social History 1994 27(54): 367-391.
  8. Beverly Ann Tlusty, "Gender and Alcohol Use in Early Modern Augsburg". Social History 1994 27(54): 241-259; Tlusty, Bacchus and Civic Order: The Culture of Drink in Early Modern Germany (2001)
  9. Lars Magnusson, "Drinking and the Verlag System 1820-1850: The Significance of Taverns and Drink in Eskilstuna Before Industrialisation." Scandinavian Economic History Review 1986 34(1): 1-19.
  10. Michael C. Scardaville, "Alcohol Abuse and Tavern Reform in Late Colonial Mexico City." Hispanic American Historical Review 1980 60(4): 643-671.
  11. Stuart Macintyre, The Oxford History of Australia: vol 4: 1901-42 (2002) p . 112-3