During the colonial period it was a commonly held belief, that drinking ground water in the British American colonies could possibly make one sick. To combat this real or imagined danger, colonists of every rank, age, race, & gender drank alcohol often - from fermented, homemade, aged cider to distilled liquors. Generally, families drank with every meal, while at work, and at every social & public gathering except church. Almost everyone was something of a tippler. (In the 14th century, a tippler was a seller of liquor rather than an avid consumer. It came to mean a habitual drinker 200 years later. Tipsy was used to describe the slightly intoxicated as early as 1577.)
And colonials gathered together to drink. Indoor & garden taverns became the scene for political debate, business transactions, gossip, and even romance, because women were more often allowed in garden taverns than in indoor taverns. (First appearing in print in 1286, the word tavern initially meant a wine shop. It didn’t become a proper place to drink until around 1440.)
The small space of most indoor tavern public rooms furnished with a few tables & many more chairs physically drew people closer together. Sharing a bowl of punch became an 18C symbol of congeniality & fellowship, even a prelude to a conversation between strangers. The scarcity of punch bowls & the absence of punch cups in early American tavern inventories imply the bowls were shared. A Frenchman reported that, “One who is thirsty drinks himself and (then) passes it to his neighbor. . .” Except for the owner, a woman, all of the guests at this, and at most, indoor taverns were men.
Men and women alike shared the intoxicating pleasures in many early outdoor garden taverns. In the 1730s, Hannah Callender visited the New York City's mead houses along the Hudson River. At Bowling Green Garden she found "a row of neat wooden houses a little within the palisadoes called the Mead houses, where it is customary to drink this liquor and eat cakes." Hannah explained that mead was a liquor made of honey "which is weak and has a pleasant taste." Two weeks later she returned to the Bowling Green Garden, where she "sat in a bower and drank some sangaree."
Indoor taverns were alternately called public houses, ordinaries, and inns. Some outdoor drinking gardens were attached to these facilities for fair weather use. At outdoor garden taverns attached to established inns the colonial usually could swill meads, beer, wine, rum, and brandy. (The verb swill is a derivative of the Old English swillan (to gargle), and came to mean “to drink greedily” at the beginning of the 16th century. In 1553, to call beer swill was to compare it to “liquid refuse fed to pigs.”)
By the way, rum was not initially popular with all colonials. Originally dubbed rumbullion in 1651, by Richard Ligon, an American who happened upon the stuff in Barbados. His review wasn’t exactly glowing: “Rumbullion alias Kill-Devill . . . is made of suggar cane distilled, a hott, hellish and terrible liquor . . . will overpower the senses with a single whiff.” It was shortened to rum 3 years later, but its reviews didn’t get any better - in 1654, a General Court Order was issued in Connecticut to seize and destroy “whatsoever Barbados liquors, commonly called rum, Kill Devill or the like.” James Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia, feared rum would ruin his venture & tried to ban it.
Indoor and garden taverns closely followed their English & Dutch Old World models. The goals of colonial officials, who eventually set regulations for these taverns, were to maintain public order; to prevent extreme drunkenness; to attempt to prevent public drinking on the Sabbath; and to establish rules for tavern keepers to try to enforce these objectives. Generally, these laws were not enforced with any regularity. As early as 1622, the Virginia Company of London wrote to Governor Francis Wyatt at Jamestown complaining that colonist drinking hurt the colony. It was still a concern to Royal Governors 130 years later. The Governor of Virginia said to his legislative body in 1752, "I . . . recommend to you, as far as possible, to discourage Gaming, Swearing, and immoderate Drinking . . . . The first of these crimes, I am informed, has been pretty general in this Country, and is now much practised ...among the lower Class of our People: I mean Tradesmen and inferior Planters . . . who follow the Examples of their Superiors."
One Sunday during Jasper Danckaerts' visit to New York City in 1679, his hosts took him to an outdoor garden to sample the "beer of New Netherland." Danckaerts was appalled by the "sorts of revellers" he found there on a holy day and called the simple garden tavern a "low pot house." In order to regain some semblence of Sabbath day self-respect, he turned on his heels and immediately walked out into the adjoining garden & orchard "to seek pleasure in contemplating the innocent objects of nature."
Eighteenth century gentry lawmakers tried to keep the "low pot house" revellers from mixing with the more elite gentlemen of the community. Drinking venues sometimes became more segregated by race, class, & status, but generally a variety of people met in colonial garden taverns. The garden tavern was a place where social divisions were still in flux & negotiation was possible.
Most entertainments in garden taverns were open to both men & women. Gentlemen began to form "clubs" and societies in the 18C, however, and only white gentry could attend these functions, which met at both indoor & outdoor venues. So the normally open public space in the outdoor garden could be turned into a site for an expression of white male power. But, for the most part, outdoor garden taverns were still open networks of communication between a variety of folks.
Other New Yorkers shared Danckaerts' reservations about drinking on Sundays, so the Common Council of the City of New York declared in 1676, that "Every Wine and Rum or Beare Sellas who shall Permit any Person Upon the Sabbath day to Drinke or Game In their houses Gardens or Yards Shall for ye first offense forfiet Five and Twenty Guilders."
During the 18C evangelical awakenings, traveling preachers William Tennent & George Whitefield stressed the values of thrift & sobriety as components of the new piety. In 1734, a convinced Philadelphia versifier warned the artisan and farmer,
But citizens oft reap a slender crop
For that the tavern stands near the shop.
And such as do that costly liquor follow
In a little time a good estate may swallow.
For that the tavern stands near the shop.
And such as do that costly liquor follow
In a little time a good estate may swallow.
Religion was not the only reservation about drinking alcohol. Fifty years later, Americans began to worry about the medical effects of alcohol abuse. In 1784, Philadelphian Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote his Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind, with an Account of the Means of Preventing, and the Remedies of Curing Them. The physician described certain symptoms of excessive alcohol consumption including, "singing, hallooing, roaring, imitation the noise of brute animals, jumping, tearing off clothes, dancing naked, breaking glass and china and dashing other articles of household furniture upon the floor or ground."
In Philadelphia, Harrogate Gardens attempted to rival its famous neighbor Gray's Gardens at the end of the 18C. To attract patrons, the Harrowgate's owner offered the latest garden fashions in ice creams, concerts, promenades, special exhibitions, transparent paintings, fireworks, and illuminations "in the Chinese style." But primarily, Harrowgate Gardens was reknown for its drunken revelers. In 1794, Henry Wansey noted that Harrowgate was, "a place of entertainment and relaxation, for the tradesmen of Philadelphia to partake of."
One Harrogate Garden neighbor recalled, "Rosey-cheeked, fair-haired German lads and lasses...resorted thither weekly. They usually arrived in the morning, drank beer, danced and...had a...happy time...In the afternoon an Irish contingent...would appear, previously fortified...by sundry repeated imbibings of whisky. Their aim was to cut out the 'Dutchies'...gain for themselves the smiles and favour of the Teuton maids, and supplant the German waltz on the dancing floor by the Irish jig. Confusion and heartburnings, if nothing worse, always resulted--worse did almost invariably follow and added the testimony of broken pates to the unwisdom of mixing drinks."
Once again, because there are no images of Early American public gardens, here are a few 17C inns & taverns in Europe
1652 Belgium Flemish Kermess David Teniers the Younger (Flemish artist, 1610–1690)
Adriaen Jansz Van Ostade (1610-1685) Feasting Peasants in a Tavern 1673.
Adriaen Jansz Van Ostade (1610-1685) Tavern Interior 1680
Adriaen Jansz Van Ostade (1610-1685) The Drinker
In the British American colonies, Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) had taken note public intoxication as early as 1737, when he published his Drinker's Dictionary in a local paper.
The Drinker’s Dictionary
by Benjamin Franklin Posted on January 13, 1737 The Pennsylvania Gazette There was a similar list published in the New England Weekly Journal of July 6, 1736.
Nothing more like a Fool than a drunken Man. Poor Richard.
He is Addled,
He’s casting up his Accounts,
He’s in his Airs.
1658 Belgium Tavern Scene by David Teniers the Younger (Flemish artist, 1610–1690)
Block and Block,
Been at Barbadoes,
Piss’d in the Brook,
Drunk as a Wheel-Barrow,
Has Stole a Manchet out of the Brewer’s Basket,
His Head is full of Bees,
Has been in the Bibbing Plot,
Has drank more than he has bled,
As Drunk as a Beggar,
He sees the Bears,
He’s kiss’d black Betty,
He’s had a Thump over the Head with Sampson’s Jawbone,
England 1730 A Club of Gentlemen by Joseph Highmore (English painter, 1692-1780) Note: Since 1633, a round of drinks has meant “a quantity of liquor served to a company at one time;” probably because it was customary for gentlemen to drink at these round tables in a circle facing one another.
Half Way to Concord,
Has taken a Chirriping-Glass,
Got Corns in his Head,
A Cup to much,
He’s heat his Copper,
He cuts his Capers,
He’s been in the Cellar,
He’s in his Cups,
Loaded his Cart,
He’s been too free with the Creature,
Sir Richard has taken off his Considering Cap,
England 1730-35 The Brothers Clarke with Other Gentlemen Taking Wine by Gawen Hamilton (British painter, c 1698-1737)
He’s got a Dish,
Kill’d his Dog,
Took his Drops,
It is a Dark Day with him,
He’s a Dead Man,
Has Dipp’d his Bill,
He’s seen the Devil,
He’s Prince Eugene,
Wet both Eyes,
Got the Pole Evil,
Got a brass Eye,
Made an Example,
He’s Eat a Toad & half for Breakfast.
In his Element,
England 1730-50 Joseph Highmore (English painter, 1692-1780) Figures in a Tavern or Coffeehouse
Well in for’t,
Owes no Man a Farthing,
Fears no Man,
Been to France,
Froze his Mouth,
Been to a Funeral,
His Flag is out,
Spoke with his Friend,
Been at an Indian Feast.
England 1732 A Midnight Modern Conversation” by William Hogarth (British painter, 1697-1764)
Booz’d the Gage,
As Dizzy as a Goose,
Been before George,
Got the Gout,
Had a Kick in the Guts,
Been with Sir John Goa,
Been at Geneva,
Got the Glanders.
Half and Half,
Got by the Head,
Got on his little Hat,
Loose in the Hilts,
Knows not the way Home,
Got the Hornson,
Haunted with Evil Spirits,
Has Taken Hippocrates grand Elixir,
France 1735 Luncheon Party in the Park by Nicolas Lancret (French artist, 1690-1743)
I - J
Going to Jerusalem,
Been to Jerico,
He’s a King,
Clips the King’s English,
Seen the French King,
The King is his Cousin,
Got Kib’d Heels,
Het his Kettle.
England 1735-45 Joseph Highmore (English painter, 1692-1780) Mr Oldham and his Guests
He’s in Liquor,
He makes Indentures with his Leggs,
Well to Live,
He sees two Moons,
Seen a Flock of Moons,
Rais’d his Monuments,
Belgium 1750s A Merry Party” by Jan Jozef Horemans the Younger (Flemish artist, 1714 - 1790)
He’s eat the Cocoa Nut,
Got the Night Mare,
Smelt of an Onion,
American 1752-58 Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam” by John Greenwood (American artist, 1727 - 1792)
He drank till he gave up his Half-Penny,
As good conditioned as a Puppy,
Has scalt his Head Pan,
Been among the Philistines,
In his Prosperity,
He’s been among the Philippians,
He’s contending with Pharaoh,
Wasted his Paunch,
Eat a Pudding Bagg,
England 1760 A Punch Party by Thomas Patch (English artist, 1725-1782) Dated 1760
Lost his Rudder,
Been too free with Sir Richard,
Like a Rat in Trouble.
America 1760-70 Peter Manigault and His Friends by George Roupell, Charleston, South Carolina
In the Sudds,
Been in the Sun,
As Drunk as David’s Sow,
His Skin is full,
He’s burnt his Shoulder,
He’s got his Top Gallant Sails out,
Seen the yellow Star,
As Stiff as a Ring-bolt,
Half Seas over,
His Shoe pinches him,
It is Star-light with him,
He carries too much Sail,
Been too free with Sir John Strawberry,
He’s right before the Wind with all his Studding Sails out,
Has Sold his Senses.
England 1768 A Caricature Group by John Hamilton Mortimer (British painter, 1740-1779)
Has Swallow’d a Tavern Token,
He’s in a Trance,
He makes Virginia Fence,
Got the Indian Vapours,
England 1785 A Tavern Scene by unknown British artist
The Malt is above the Water,
He’s been to the Salt Water,
He’s very Weary,
Out of the Way.
The Phrases in this Dictionary are not (like most of our Terms of Art) borrow’d from Foreign Languages, neither are they collected from the Writings of the Learned in our own, but gather’d wholly from the modern Tavern-Conversation of Tiplers.
The Pennsylvania Gazette, January 13, 1736/7
For further reading on drinking in early America see:
W. J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York, 1979).
David W. Conroy, In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts (Chapel Hill, 1995)
Peter Thompson, Rum Punch and Revolution: Taverngoing and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1999).
Sharon V. Salinger, Taverns and Drinking in Early America. Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.