Have you ever been in a situation where you lost your internet connection during a blackout, or your cell phone went dead? Do you remember how you felt; cutoff, alone, unable to access vital information for your life? Well, it was no different for our colonial ancestors. Instead, their internet was the network of taverns and inns across the colonial territories. Let’s first look at how and why these humble establishments became integral to the daily life of the colonists.
In today’s modern world, we have beautifully maintained infrastructure, including back roads, interstate highways, tunnels and bridges. We also have many choices in the types of transportation we use to go long distances, including cars/buses, trains and planes. For us, we can travel about 1,500 miles in one day driving or across the entire world by plane. We often take this for granted, especially with our cozy, smooth riding cars. Because of this, we make 50 mile trips each way to the other side of the county and back easily in a day without even thinking about it. But let’s look at this from our colonial peer’s point of view.
As close as 60 years ago (Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956), this was not true and definitely not so 250 years ago during colonial times. Outside of some parts of the cities with cobblestoned streets, there were no paved roads. These non-paved roads were nothing more than well-worn rock and dirt paths which were often blocked by rocks and fallen trees. Aside from obstacles, these dirt roads were also susceptible to flooding, icing and deep near-impassable mud.
To strip you further of your present idea of travel, the main means of transport was horse and carriage. There were no rubber tires, only wood and maybe metal, and no real shock absorbers to speak of. Even if you were wealthy enough to have a covered carriage with pillows, you still felt every rock and bump in your bones each and every time. And if you really needed to get somewhere fast, you traveled directly on horseback. Additionally for both, you were exposed to the weather; hot, cold and/or wet.
As you begin to come to grips with the harsh realities of colonial travel, you can start to appreciate the need for frequent stops. Taverns and inns were set up strategically every 8 miles or so along the interconnecting roadways. This is because your horses needed frequent rests and that was a reasonable amount of time one could be exposed to the elements, especially in winter, before they needed to get warmed up again. So, that nonchalant one-way journey of 50 miles took colonials about 4 or 5 days to make. In total, the 100 mile round trip we so easily do in one day, would be a two week adventure.
Now you are starting to see the network that I had initially alluded to. That is just how they were connected, but to truly appreciate their potential, you need to understand their social impact as well.
While both an inn and a tavern served food and drink, only an inn provided accommodations for sleeping. Inns needed to be more concerned with servicing as many people as possible, so quality was not of paramount concern. If an inn ran out of space, a man may have been required to share his bed with another man whom he did not even know. That said, the chamber maids probably did not have the time to change out the sheets very often, so one would be expected to pay more money for clean, fresh linens than dirty ones (or you could bring your own). On the very rural route inns, you may have found yourself sleeping on the dirty floor along with bunk mates such as bugs, mice and rats. So, in that time period, only the very rich could afford a private room with fresh sheets . . . if one was even available.
Those were the sleeping arrangements of the day in an inn, but what about the food? In some rural areas, the tavern or the inn was the only restaurant available. Stagecoach fares would often include a meal which was provided by the inn or tavern.
So how good was the food of those establishments? Since they were often the only place for miles around, they could be whatever they wanted to be. They varied from outstanding to outright bland or nauseating and there was not much one could do about it.
Typically, breakfast was the largest meal of the day to provide the calories necessary for the manual labor most colonists did on a daily basis. One could expect the typical coffee, tea and bread, but also eggs, sausages, bacon, steak and even fish. Lunch was taken around two to three o’clock in the afternoon and was substantial, but definitively lighter than breakfast. Most likely, one would eat America’s first fast food, the sandwich. It was quick and easy to make from scraps and could be taken along on your journey. And dinner, the lightest meal of the day, was served later in the day as the sun set and all the other work was done around seven o’clock. It most likely consisted of cheese, sausages and crackers. This is not to say that fuller meals were not served at lunch or dinner, but this was the usual fare for hard working folk of European descent.
Because a tavern or inn owner had to serve meals fast, it brought about another uniquely American item . . . the cup and spoon measuring system. In old Europe, restaurateurs had the luxury of time and preferred the use of scales. But, to feed the voracious appetites and speed of the American traveler, inn and tavern keepers had to resort to cups and spoons which were far quicker than scales.
I bet you didn’t know that with each meal, you got alcohol! While these establishments were not shut down for their bad food, an inn or tavern’s reputation rested strongly on the quality of its ale. This was because they often brewed it themselves or acquired it locally in town. Hard cider was also popular, as was hard liquor, including rum. The English colonists preferred the hard liquors, while the German colonists preferred beer.
In 1770, a typical colonist would drink about 4 gallons of liquor a year and about 6,000 calories in alcoholic beverages daily alone. Those calories aren’t even including the food! Compare that with today’s suggested average intake of 2,000 calories per day. Obesity was rare because those colonists worked like mules, except for the wealthier folk. But the main reason for drinking this much alcohol was that the water was not safe to drink straight from the well.
Now that we understand why travelers frequented the inns and taverns, we may ask ourselves, why would the locals of that town? Aside from them being the only restaurant or drinking establishment in town, it was also the town’s social hub. As strangers came into these places to find rest and refreshment, they also brought with them the news from the other towns and around the globe. It was like Google, Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, newsfeeds and web portals all rolled into one! One could find a newspaper there, either local or brought in from another area. These newspapers were often read aloud for those who couldn’t read. While illiteracy has mostly been eradicated, we still enjoy news being read to us on TV or video segments on news websites.
The local tavern or inn was also a place where neighbors and foreigners met for conversation, games and diversions. This entertainment included gambling on horse racing, cockfights, as well as cards.
These establishments also served as the local post offices of the day. One would arrive at the inn, put any of his/her outgoing mail on the foyer table, and pick up any of his/her own inbound mail. Then, the travelers would pick up whatever mail would need to be delivered along their route or picked up at another tavern and brought beyond to its final destination. An incentive for the traveler to bring the letters was that they served as entertainment along the route, as it was common practice to read others’ mail. That sounds a lot like today’s personal social media pages.
For the locals, the inn or tavern served an even greater purpose. The town’s issues of the day were not only discussed, but worked out there, often in an official setting. Local governments met there and also served as courthouses where local and foreign issues were debated and trades worked out with your neighbors. As a farmer or business man, you learned the current prices for your cash crops or new business opportunities. Even recruitment and deployment of the militia took place in the taverns.
It truly was a link to the outer world for those early colonists where travel was so harsh. The further you lived away from major cities, the more excited one would get when foreigners came through your town bringing with them fresh news and world views. If there was a major storm which prohibited transit between towns, you would definitely feel cut off from the rest of the world, much like we do today when our internet connection is lost.
Now, the next time you find yourself in an inn or tavern (modern or old style), step outside of your comfort zone and chat up a stranger. Tap into your colonial roots and complete the circle.