The tavern was a building that, in colonial America, was second in importance only to the meetinghouse. Here a person could hear the news, find the market prices of goods, conduct business, attend court, and enjoy a glass of beer, ale, wine, or other hard spirits.
The first tavern that historians can name is Lyons Ordinary, founded on the banks of the Passaic River in the new settlement of Newark around May of 1666. Henry Lyon was charged to “keep an Ordinary for the Entertainment of Travellers and Strangers.” While all traces of this early tavern have vanished under the tarmac and concrete of modern Newark, the idea upon which this this tavern was founded — so far as the legislature saw it: to provide comfort and accommodations for visitors—was the same as every other tavern in New Jersey.
The taverns that may predate Lyons have been lost to history. The British, having just defeated the Dutch and taken control over all of what would eventually become New Jersey in 1664, wasted no time in writing laws to govern the ordinaries. Over the course of the following centuries, laws would be enacted, repealed, enforced, and ignored. The first law regulating taverns appears in the Duke of York’s Laws in the Charter of William Penn on April 2, 1664:
No person or persons shall at any time under any pretence or Colour whatsoever undertake to be a Common Victuler, keeper of a Cookes shop, or House of Common entertainment, or publique seller of wine, Beare, Ale or strong waters by retail or a less quantity than a quarter Caske, without a certificate of his good behaviour from the constable and two Overseers at east of the parish wherein he dwelt and a Lycence first obtained under the hand of two Justices of the peace in the Sessions upon pain of forfeiting five pounds for every such offense, or Imprisonment at the discretion of the court.
Providing hospitality to strangers was of chief importance to the early settlers in America, and legislators enacted laws to ensure that taverns existed to provide entertainment and lodging to visitors. In East Jersey, a law enacted in 1688 provided for a fine of forty shillings per month for each town that did not have an ordinary. West Jersey generally left the matter up to the discretion of the local town. In either province, no one but the holder of a license could charge for giving lodging or meals to strangers. Furthermore, the law required the tavern keeper to maintain a register containing the names of all visitors for the local magistrates.
The earliest colonial taverns usually consisted of two rooms. One room contained a bar and tables for drinking and meals. The second served as residential quarters for the tavern keeper and his family. Like many early buildings the kitchen was usually just a lean-to connected to the back of the building and served double duty as a woodshed. Overnight guests would simply bunk down on the floor of the dining room once the last drinks were served and the night’s dishes were cleared away. The bar of an eighteenth-century tavern stood in a small alcove in the corner of the dining room, with a lockable door to one side and a short narrow ledge long enough for a few people to order drinks and bring them to their tables. At night a wooden barricade would swing down from the ceiling and close off the bar, keeping the proprietors valuable liquors secure from the strangers sleeping in the dining room. An example of this “cage bar” can still be found at the restored Indian King Tavern in Haddonfield.
The tavern building usually featured separate entrances for the bar and the private living quarters and a large covered porch ran across the front of the building. As the fortunes of the colonists improved and the taverns became larger and more elaborate, the builder maintained the tradition of a public and a private entrance. The presence of both doors under the continuous roof of a porch provides a valuable clue that helps differentiate an old tavern building from some farmhouses that also had multiple front doors.
Identifying the tavern would be a large wooden sign either attached to the building itself or hung from a nearby post. This custom began with English pubs and the law required a hanging sign to obtain a tavern license. The sign’s elaborate design directly reflected the fortunes and whims of the proprietor. In some cases the sign was just a simple board with the name of the establishment painted on it. Others might have elaborate carvings and/or surrounded with a wrought iron frame. Tavern keepers also changed locations, and, when leaving, they would often carry the sign to their new establishment. Thus, for example, the Kings Arms Tavern originated in Trenton and then relocated to Perth Amboy when the proprietor sold the original building.
Conversation and gossip served as the chief mode of entertainment at the tavern for the local gentry and travelers. The tavern keeper also occasionally held dances, although the larger of these gatherings, at least in the Pine Barrens, occurred in dedicated dance halls. The infamous pine robber, Joe Mulliner, had a penchant for the dances held at the Quaker Bridge tavern and the authorities finally apprehended the miscreant at a dance held in the tavern at Nesco.
The games played at taverns often drew the ire of the Legislature. Amusements such as dice, shuffleboard, quoits, long bullets, and ninepins— an ancestor to modern day bowling—provided entertainment at the tavern and many who would have normally worked in the fields or mills loitered around the tavern looking for a game. In 1739 the Legislature lamented in an act that the tavern was not “for the Encouragement of Gaming, Tipling, Drunkenness, and other Vices so much as of late practiced at such Places, to the great Scandal of Religion, and Dishonour of God, and the impoverishing of the Commonwealth.”
In 1779 the Legislature passed a law prohibiting the playing of “Fives, Ninepins, Long Bullets, or similar Games at a Tavern or in the Highway or on the Grounds, or against the House of any Person, without Leave.” Lesgislators later amended the law to allow shuffleboard, bowls, quoits, and ninepins under local option.
The “sport” of Cockfighting became associated with these early taverns. Then, as much as now, officials would not tolerate the fights and the sponsors held the events clandestinely. Owners carried their birds to the tavern yard and men would assemble in a circle lit only by an oil lantern and the stars to watch the birds fight. Sometimes a particularly successful bird, famous at some other tavern, would be brought in to challenge the local champion. Usually the noise and crowd attracted attention, but, more often than not, the men, birds, and prize money would disappear by the time any constable arrived to investigate.
Taverns also attracted traveling shows and carnivals. These exhibitions drew crowds from far and wide to witness the “monstrous sights” of trained animals, slight of hand performances, puppet shows, and various fake mechanical devices. These shows grew in such number and frequency that, yet again, the Legislature felt the need to act and on March 16, 1798 enacted a law with a preamble that read:
“And whereas public shews and exhibitions of divers kinds have of late become very frequent and common within this State, whereby many strangers and worthless persons have unjustly gained and taken to themselves considerable sums of money, and it being found on experience that such shews and exhibitors tend to no good or useful purpose in society, but, on the contrary to collect together great numbers of idle and unwary spectators, as well as children and servants, to gratify vain and useless curiosity, loosen and corrupt the morale of youth, and straiten and impoverish many poor families.”
The type and quality of food served naturally depended on the location of the tavern. For taverns located in cities such as Burlington, Newark, and Princeton, the fare was quite lavish. Accommodations off the beaten path provided far less comfort. John Torrey, the famous New York botanist, traveled through the Pine Barrens in 1818 researching material for his publication Catalogue of Plants growing spontaneously within Thirty Miles of the City of New York. After leaving the tavern at Quaker Bridge he continued on to the tavern at Ten-Mile Hollow in Berkley Township where he noted that:
“After we left Quaker bridge we fared pretty hard. Some places called taverns that we were put up at were not fit for an Arab. At a place called Ten Mile Hollow, or Hell Hollow, we expected to sleep in the woods, for it was with most difficulty that we persuaded them to take us in. This was the most miserable place we ever saw; they were too poor to use candles. No butter, sugar, etc. A little sour stuff which I believe they called rye bread, but which was half sawdust, and a little warm water and molasses were all we had for breakfast. For supper, I could not see what we had, for we ate in the dark.”
The courts set prices for food, drink, and lodging almost from the beginning. The Court in Burlington adopted a resolution on August 8, 1682:
“Ordered by ye Cort that no Person or Persons keeping or shall keep an Ordinary or Inne within ye Jurisdiction of this Cort shall from after ye Tenth day of August inst. take more than Two pence for an Ale quart of good wholesome Ale, or strong Beere, and Benj. West and Henry Grubb are by ye Cort appointed to be Ale Tasters and to see ye measures for Ale & Beere, according to ye order above, until next General Assembly, or further orders.”
These were the days before a la carte menus became the norm, and the food served at the tavern was usually whatever the proprietor felt like cooking at the time. Drinks consisted of beer, ale, cider, wine, or a limited selection of spirits, chiefly rum. Unlike today’s taverns that have a variety of different drinks available, the choices in the past were limited to whatever the tavern may have had on hand.
Drink prices also varied depending on whether you drank indoors or out. The authorities levied serious fines for those who overcharged, particularly during the Revolution. The May 2, 1778 Minutes of the Council of Safety record that the Council levied a heavy fine of six pounds per offense against tavern keeper Samuel Smith for overcharging. The Council also forced him to forfeit the charges for the food, drink, and lodging entirely, bringing his fine to £37.2.6. A schedule of the prices the Burlington Court established in 1739 can be found at the end of this article.
While drinking was tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, by the most conservative of Quakers , drunkenness proved to be a serious offense in New Jersey’s early days. As early as 1683, the General Assembly passed a law that provided for either a fine of three shillings and four pence per offense or confinement in the stocks for a period of not more than five hours. The courts summoned Peter Groom in 1694 and, having been fined five shillings for standing before the court with his hat on, unluckily had his fine raised to fifty pence once he admitted that “hee had got over much strong drink” and had appeared “before ye Court drunk.”
The law also prohibited the sale of liquor to the Indians. In 1680 the Burlington court decreed that:
“… if any psn or psons shall hereafter, directly or indirectly, sell any Rumme or other strong Liquors to any Indian or Indians, either by great or small measure without order from ye Cort then such pson or psons soe offending shall forfeit & pay for every such offense 50s And upon refusall neglect or non-payment of ye same it shall be Leviyed upon any of ye Goods & Chattles of ye pson or psons soe offending by Distress & sale of ye same. This is to continue until further order.”
The court modified the measure shortly thereafter to allow the sale of liquor to the Indians in small measure provided that the Indians depart “into ye Woods to drinke ye same there, yt [that] soe the people may be nee disturbed by them.”
Taverns in the cities tended to sprout up wherever a licensee may have a house or a plot of land on which to build one. Outside of population centers, however, taverns were constructed at convenient intervals along stagecoach lines and served as rest stops for both the horses and drivers as well as the passengers. Frequently the stages carried freight and mail as well, and the stage stop in Arneytown near the border of Burlington and Monmouth Counties served not only as a tavern but also as a post office and general store.
Before the Revolution, the county courts made it quite difficult to obtain a license for a tavern, yet, despite the population of West Jersey being 13,714 people in 1726, quite a number of taverns existed within the province. After the Revolution, returning veterans and widows of fallen soldiers created a flood of tavern license applications, and the courts were only too happy to oblige. By 1784, fifty-seven taverns existed in Burlington County, thirty in Gloucester, twenty-six in Salem, five in Cape May, forty-seven in Hunterdon, and ten in Cumberland. Just two years later, William Livingston, the first governor of New Jersey, complained:
“I have seen four times as many taverns in the State as are necessary. These superabundant taverns in the State are continuously haunted by idlers. These taverns are confessedly so many nuisances – all well regulated governments abolish them, and yet I have not seen any of our courts that license them willing to retrench the supernumerary ones.”
Two years prior to Livingston’s lament, the residents of Greenwich Township in Gloucester County, perhaps fearing an explosion in the number of taverns operating nearby, filed a petition with the court protesting an increase in the number of tavern licenses. The petition stated “that the number [of taverns] now are Sufficent for the Uses for which they are instituted, that any more May be of Great Disadvantage to Sundry of the Near inhabitants Who are apt to frequent such Places to the Poverishment of Themselves and familys.”
The fears of idleness and drunkenness resulting from the growing number of taverns in New Jersey and beyond, coupled with changing social morals in the early nineteenth century likely provided an impetus for the Temperance movement, which urged the complete abstinence of alcoholic beverages. The closing of the iron furnaces in South Jersey and the migration of the workforce away from these now deserted villages starved the taverns for business. As the nineteenth century came to a close, most stage routes had ceased operations, the horses and carriages replaced by much faster automobiles and trucks and the taverns along the route often underwent conversion into homes. Although illicit distilleries operated in the Pine Barrens during Prohibition, the last of the old taverns had finally closed.
While the heyday of the old taverns is long gone, some of the old taverns and stagecoach stops once again serve alcohol and food. The Cassville Tavern in Jackson still retains much of the feel that an old stagecoach tavern must have had. In Chesterfield, the old Recklesstown Tavern, circa 1710, is again a bar and restaurant called the Chesterfield Inn and still hosts games of quoits. In these hallowed halls you can raise a glass of “good ale or beere” and join over three hundred years of drinking history in New Jersey’s taverns.
Appendix: 1739 Burlington Tavern Price Schedule
On August 19, 1739 the Burlington court set a schedule for the prices a tavern could charge for food, drink, and lodging. This list is an interesting example of the kinds of offerings these old taverns would have had. A tavern may have offered more or less than what this list shows, and should not be considered any sort of canonical “menu” for a contemporary tavern at the time. I have tried to clarify some of the language used in the schedule so it is not “as written” in 1739.
|A Breakfast of Tea or Coffee with Bread & Butter & loaf sugar
|Ditto with Muscovado Sugar
|Ditto of wth chocolate wth bread & butter
|Ditto of cold or hashed meat
|A Dinner ordered extraordinary with a pint of Beer or Cider
|A common hot family dinner with a Pint of Beer or Cider
|Cold Ditto with a pint of Beer or Cider
|A Supper ordered Extraordinary with a pint of Beer or Cider
|Ditto of cold or hashed meat
|A Quart of Common Strong Beer indoors
|A Quart of Double Beer indoors
|A Quart of Cider indoors
|A Pint of Cider Royall
|A Pint of Metheglin
|A Quart of Mimbo with Loaf Sugar
|Ditto with Muscovado Sugar
|A Quart of Punch with Fresh Lemons or Oranges & Loaf Sugar
|A Quart of Lime juice punch
|A Quart of Milk or Egg punch
|A Pint of plain Rum outdoors
|A half of a pint out of doors
|A Gill of plain Rum
|A Gill of Cherry Rum
|Ar/a Gill ditto
|A Quart of Tiff
|A Quart of Wine
All & Every afsd Liquors to be sold by measures having the Standard mark thereon according to An Act of General Assembly of this Province under sd Pains and Penalties therein contained.
|Provender for Horses
|Pasturing one night or each 24 hours
|Stabling one night or each 24 hours at Common Hay
|Ditto at Clover hay
|Two Quarts of Oats
|A half peck of Oats
|A Lodger requiring a Bed unto himself
The historian Charles Boyer, in his excellent book Old Inns and Taverns in West Jersey, from which this author copied this schedule, explains some of the words that would be unknown today. “Muscovado sugar” is simply raw, unrefined brown sugar. Boiling down cider to one fourth of its original volume made “Cider Royall.” “Metheglin” is a concoction of fermented honey, herbs, and water. A “mimbo” was a drink made from rum and loaf sugar. Boyer failed in his efforts to determine the consistency of a “tiff,” except he noted that it contained a considerable amount – usually about a pint – of rum.
Of special note is the section about lodging. It was quite the custom for an innkeeper to “pack them in” when he could, and friends and strangers of the same sex frequently found themselves sharing a bed. While someone could request a bed of their own, customs of the day would have made that person look quite obnoxious and fastidious.