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Tavern Wenches

Can this project even happen?

Getting started on a creative endeavor means getting back to basics in some surprising ways. I'm currently working on a project that is in part designed to explore what happened to women-owned businesses leading up to and through the American Revolution. [1] From the outset, I wanted to look specifically at tavern ownership. The first question I had to answer was, "Did women actually own taverns?" Because if they didn't, this was going to be one short creative project.

More than a tavern wench

It turns out women tavern keepers were fairly common in colonial America. Owning or managing taverns allowed women not only to engage in society, but also to add a revenue stream to the family budget. Running a tavern out of her home would allow a woman to simultaneously earn money while also raising children and caring to her family. An ambitious tavern keeper could sling pints of hard cider, manage staff (both paid and enslaved) and oversee a variety of domestic responsibilities like growing gardens and cooking, sewing, mending, and laundry, making soaps, and dipping candles.


Eighteenth century taverns weren't (always) the violent, glorified brothels often portrayed in the movies or tv. Taverns were used for a variety of purposes from giving travelers a place to eat and sleep to giving the courts somewhere to meet.

Williamsburg locals used King's Arms Tavern as a meeting place for lawyers, merchants, ship captains, and anyone looking to get news from abroad. Thomas Jefferson likely would have been found there often between 1768 and 1769. Between 1762 and 1774, Christiana Campbell's tavern, also in Williamsburg, provided a venue for political meetings where George Washington would stop in to discuss and debate a variety of imperial policies. Anyone have thoughts on the Townsend Duties? Are we cool with the Stamp Act?

Entertainment and atmosphere were important components of a successful tavern. Taverns offered access to large rooms, which were perfect for meetings of gentleman social clubs. Anne Shields' tavern in Williamsburg was the site of an English-style ball in 1751 and Catharine Jennings kept "an exceeding good billiard-table'' in her Annapolis tavern. Jane Vobe decorated the King's Arms Tavern with lovely paintings. [2] [3]

But it wasn't just parties and politics. Tavern owners sold and rented horses and riding equipment and vendors found places to sell their wares from jewelry to ribbons to ceramics and more. And if you wanted to learn, a tavern could provide the perfect classroom. In Boston, a local instructor taught geometry. And in Williamsburg, Le Chevalier de Pogresay, while staying at Raleigh Tavern, offered classes in the “Art of Fencing, Dancing, and the French Tongue.” [4] [5]

Women Working...and Owning It

During the 17th - 18th century roughly two-thirds of taverns in colonial America were owned or managed by middling women and prominent widows. [6] In some cases tavern licenses were issued to men, but it was understood that his wife or daughter would actually run the enterprise.

Tavern licenses were a revenue-generating device for local governments that established the rules of tavern keeping. They sometimes required that a tavern offer specific services (lodging, food, meeting rooms) and often sought to tame tavern goers with restrictions on who could be in a tavern and how much patrons could drink. Not surprisingly, restrictions on alcohol consumption were aimed primarily at black patrons, both enslaved and free, and mariners, who were seen as unreliable bill-payers based on their transient and debt-filled lifestyles.

Running a tavern was risky and expensive business. Profitability was uncertain and licenses were expensive, so tavern keeping was largely the domain of wealthy planter-merchants. A French traveler noted that a tavern he lodged at "is kept by one of the most respectable families in Maryland." [7] But even if the official owner of the business was a wealthy man, magistrates were more inclined to give tavern licenses to men who were married to women with previous tavern-keeping experience. Ann Edmonds, for example, ran a Virginia tavern with her husband Thomas. When Thomas died, Ann remarried and it was at this point that her new husband and her son applied for tavern licenses, which they both received likely because Ann brought experience and know-how to their endeavors. [8]

The practice of tavern-keeping was passed down through family generations, often from mother to daughter. Women inherited management responsibility, if not the actual license of their mother's tavern. Still, widows could and did successfully apply for tavern licenses in their own right. When Elizabeth Leighton's husband died, a Yorktown court awarded her his tavern license in her own name. [9] And when Anne Shepherd's husband died in 1748, she placed a notice in the Virginia Gazette that "I [will] still continue to keep my house up the path, for the entertainment of such gentlemen and ladies as are pleased to favor me with their company." [10] [11]

The Project Can Continue

It's been quite a relief to discover so many women tavern keepers keeping people lodged, fed, and sauced in the 18th century. I'm finding some remarkable stories about the people who owned taverns in colonial America and the people who frequented them. Thankfully, my creative project can continue.


Check out the video here.


[1] Damiano, Sara T., "Writing Women's History Through the Revolution: Family Finances, Letter Writing, and Conceptions of Marriage." William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., no. 4, October 2017.

[2] Meacham, Sarah Hand. "Keeping the Trade: The Persistence of Tavernkeeping Among Middling Women in Colonial Virginia." Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 3 No. 1, Spring 2005, p. 145.

[3] Maryland Gazette, November 26, 1763.

[4] Salinger, Sharon V. Taverns and Drinking in Early America. (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 57.

[5] Virginia Gazette, March 20, 1752.

[6] Struna, Nancy L. People of Prowess: Sport, Leisure, and Labor in Early Anglo-America. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 146.

[7] Meacham, 149.

[8] Meacham, 153.

[9] Meacham, 155.

[10] Meacham, 153.

[11] Virginia Gazette, April 4, 1748.

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