Mid-Atlantic Brewing News October/November 2008

A Beer and a Shot of History in Our Landmark Taverns

By Rich Wagner

I guess you could say my interest in colonial-era taverns started in elementary school. Yes, Crooked Billet Elementary was named for the Crooked Billet tavern. In fact, my hometown of Hatboro was originally named for the tavern, hardly unusual since taverns were such an integral part of the landscape. Growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania I saw lots of historic sites from Valley Forge to the Liberty Bell, but there were also lots of old taverns, many of which were still in business, and that always intrigued me. (For the curious, a billet can be a short thick piece of firewood, or ingot, as well as a barracks for troops. The original Crooked Billet tavern in Philadelphia used such a piece of wood as its sign.)

As I’ve researched Pennsylvania’s brewing history, I’ve devoted a considerable amount of attention to the earliest breweries and have interpreted and demonstrated early brewing practices. As I’ve tried to unravel the story of Philadelphia’s earliest breweries, I can’t help but notice the lore associated with early taverns.

Early public houses were more numerous than churches and, in addition to providing food and lodging, were primary centers for transportation, communication and commerce, and even served as courtrooms. To be licensed, tavern keepers needed to be honorable men and were frequently prominent and respected in their communities.

Because they were public houses, much of the nation's history occurred in taverns: William Penn's first stop upon disembarking the Welcome was at Phildelphia's Blue Anchor Tavern. At the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg Jefferson, Patrick Henry and others met to call for the formation of the First Continental Congress. The Boston Tea Party got started at the Green Dragon Tavern. Benedict Arnold's Court Marshall was held at the Norris Tavern in Morristown, New Jersey. The Washington House Tavern in Sellersville, Pennsylvania sheltered the Liberty Bell and her protectors as they spirited her to safety in 1777. Our national anthem was adapted from a British drinking song by Francis Scott Key at a tavern and lodging called the Indian Queen Hotel in Baltimore. And the land that became our nation's capital, Washington, DC, was purchased in a Georgetown tavern called the Fountain Inn. 

It started innocently enough about five or six years ago when I began keeping a list of all the tavern names I could find. There was some overlap since the taverns might be mentioned in connection with a brewery. But imagining the signboards of places bearing names like: Sign of the Brewers Horse & Dray, Sign of the Dusty Miller & White Horse, The Hornet & Peacock, and The Man Full of Trouble, sparked my imagination. I should have known better, but before long I was reading old manuscripts and papers of scholars who had spent years documenting every tavern known to exist in the first hundred years the city’s history.

I’ve also examined a great number of books that deal with early American life in general, such as what people ate and drank and how they lived. The books contain many quotations from early issues of the Pennsylvania Gazette (published from 1728-1815). Ads for estate sales or “taverns to lett” describe the layouts of tavern property and all that was included, in some cases itemizing brewing equipment, etc. And just like today’s newspaper, there are announcements of amusements, social club meetings, banquets and gatherings.

As I compiled more information on this early period, I became increasingly fascinated by first-hand accounts in the form of diaries published by people who traveled through the colonies. The descriptions of meals, conversations and activities are colorful and in some cases provide near photographic descriptions.

My Head Aches Plaquely

 In 1770 Alexander Macraby wrote to his brother of a St. George Day dinner; "We met at a Tavern, stuffed roast beef and plum pudding, and got drunk, pour l'honneur de St. George; wore crosses and finished the evening at the playhouse, where we made the people all chorus 'God save the King,' and 'Rule Britannia,' ...and in short conducted ourselves with all the decency and confusion usual on such occasions. My head aches plaguely!"

 It is said that during the Revolution the Blue Anchor was kept by a widow, her house being a gathering place for tars, flatmen, shallopmen, watermen and shore laborers. When retiring for the night she would leave the door unlocked, set a table with cold meat, bread, butter, beer and a pitcher of milk and hungry men could eat supper at any hour and leave money in a dish. But she didn’t let people sit and tipple in her house. They took their drink with their meal and left.

Dinner at the Indian Queen

In 1787 A Frenchman, Moreau de Saint-Mery staying at the Indian Queen Tavern reported on a typical dinner which started around two o'clock. “Their dinner consists of broth, with a main dish of English roast surrounded by potatoes. Following that are boiled green peas, on which they put butter which the heat melts, or a spicy sauce; then baked or fried eggs, boiled or fried fish, salat… pastries, sweets … For desert they have a little fruit, some cheese and a pudding. The entire meal is washed down with Cider, weak or strong beer.”

There are also entire books devoted to colonial taverns, especially their signboards and the legends and lore that surround them. These are the stories that fascinate me.

Related Articles

Wagner, Rich. “The Beers and Breweries of Colonial Philadelphia.” Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. Dec./Jan. 2005/06.

Wagner, Rich. “Brewing and Malting in Early Philadelphia.” Program Description. Morris Arboretum April 19, 2018.

Wagner, Rich. “George's Brewery: A Beer Fit For a President. Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. Feb./Mar. 2015.

Wagner, Rich. Indian King: A Tavern Restored. Mid-Atlantic Brewing News Oct./Nov. 2008.

Wagner, Rich. “Mixing it Up: Colonial Cocktails.” Mid Atlantic Brewing News. March/April 2009.