Dining Out in the 1830's

As the Village continues planning for a new tavern on the museum's threshold, we explore in greater depth the important role of these institutions of everyday community life - as common as the omnipresent meetinghouses and, to some people, especially travelers and transients, even more appreciated.

At a well-run New England country tavern in the early nineteenth century, tired and hungry travelers would find a memorable welcome. "An hour before the stage coach was due," recounted Frederick Currier in his 1897 history of tavern life in Fitchburg, Mass., "the landlord was to be found in the tap room" preparing his bottles of liquor and "setting his glasses in single file." At the same time he was urging the kitchen to "make haste with the dinner or the supper, of which there were already premonitory odors of the most appetizing kind." When the stage arrived, the tavern keeper "hastened to the porch and stood there with a smiling face, the picture of welcome as the coach rounded up and the driver threw his reins to the waiting hostlers."

When we dine today, we are bemused by an enormous array of culinary choices. No such difficult decisions confronted early nineteenth-century New Englanders. Families simply assumed that they would eat in their own homes or, when visiting, in the homes of their hosts. In the countryside, taking a meal in public was an unusual experience. All public dining was tavern dining, except for great outdoor dinners on occasions like the Fourth of July, and taverns "catered" even those special affairs as well.

In New England's largest cities, the taverns nearest the center of business had by the 1820s become "hotels," which offered their traveling guests sizable breakfasts and suppers and kept a lavish dinner table for the many merchants, lawyers, and clerks in the city who did not wish to travel back home to eat in the middle of the working day. In rural communities, this "walk-in" clientele was virtually nonexistent. Local men went to drink at taverns, but did not eat there unless they were in a dancing party or attending a ball. For the most part, tavern food was travelers' fare, and most of what we know about it comes from travelers' descriptions.

For one thing, many travelers noted, taverns did not serve meals at any hour, as inns in England usually did. Probably because kitchen help did double duty elsewhere in the establishment, they kept food service on a strict schedule. "At each house there are regular hours for breakfast, dinner and supper," Englishman Isaac Weld observed, "and if a traveller arrives somewhat before the appointed time for any one of these, it is in vain to call for a separate meal for himself; he must wait patiently till the appointed hour, and then sit down with the other guests that may happen to be in the house."

Another frequently marked feature of tavern meal times was the remarkable speed with which meals were consumed. Some observers attributed this haste to the stagecoach schedule; many passengers bolted their meals, they thought, because they feared the driver would leave without them.

Country taverns were organized like large households, and tavern cooking was home cooking, spanning the entire range of rural New England foodways. Its quality varied greatly, just as it does in homes and restaurants today. Where the tavern keeper was stingy or the cook unskilled, the food could be awful. "The tavern at Shelburne Falls [Mass.]," Nathaniel Hawthorne noted in 1838, "was about the worst I ever saw _ hardly anything…to eat _ at least not of the meat kind." In 1836, 16-year-old Caroline Fitch found a "revolting" meal at Mr. Riddle's tavern near Manchester, N.H. "The dishes," she wrote, were "placed at one corner of the table, on one of which were half a dozen pale potted pigeons with large white spots of flour on their breasts, on the other were a few slices of meat in the form of steak which I cannot name. Miserable potatoes and a sorry apple pie were before us." By the time the entire company sat down at table she noticed that there were several more people than pigeons. This shortage did not concern Caroline, however, since she had lost her appetite completely!

At some taverns, the fare was good but amazingly simple. In smaller and more remote communities, breakfast and supper sometimes reverted to the most frugal and traditional patterns of the New England diet: fried cornmeal or "rye and Indian" bread crumbled into milk. Writing his wife, Sally, from a tavern on the way to Portland, Maine, Salem Towne Jr. commented in 1827 that "my hominy [corn meal mush] and milk supper will do now to sleep upon." In 1838 Hawthorne saw a group of young men, college students on a geological tour, happily eating a customary children's breakfast of bread and milk _ "with a huge washbowl of milk in the center, and a bowl and spoon set for each guest."

Most tavern meals, however, were far more substantial _ "generally plentifully served," said Isaac Weld. As Samuel Goodrich noted in 1832, the full-scale New England breakfast was "no evanescent thing" and consisted of "ham, beef, sausages, pork, bread, butter, boiled potatoes, pies, coffee and cider." A modern nutritionist might blanch at the calories and cholesterol such a meal represents (although it was being consumed by people who on the whole performed more hard physical work than we do today), but that it was abundant — even lavish — no one could deny. After an entire stagecoach load of passengers had consumed such an early morning meal, the horses had some extra weight to pull!

Some country taverns were renowned for their culinary specialties. The Tourtellote-White "Lower Tavern" in Millbury, Mass., the town history tells us, was "famous for its bird-suppers." Landlord John White, "the most popular hotel keeper in town…was a crack shot, and always had a larder full of game birds." Englishman William Strickland was delighted by a tavern repast, about 1830, that offered beefsteaks, lamb chops, freshly baked bread with butter, honey and preserves, pickled relishes and pies. "Such a scene gladdened our hearts," he wrote. "We praised American fare and enjoyed a meal so well suited to our stomachs."

Tavern guests were often served together at a single long table — a practice that kept stagecoach passengers in continuing proximity and brought strangers into close contact. At other times, arrangements were made to seat parties or even single individuals separately. In his numerous tavern stops while traveling through Maine and Massachusetts, Hawthorne frequently took the opportunity to eat alone - a practice that allowed the reserved young writer to observe his fellow guests for his journal without interacting with them.

Tavern keepers themselves offer additional insight into tavern foodways. From the mid-1820s to the early 1830s, Ezra Beaman of West Boylston, Mass., kept a detailed record of tavern purchases for food and drink, and there is good evidence that his operations were typical of many rural tavern keepers in New England. His accounts with local farmers and drovers indicate that he purchased large quantities of beef, veal, pork, sometimes turkey, and a good deal of chicken (Beaman called the fowls "chick-ings," suggesting that this was the common rural pronunciation). Beaman's wife and her kitchen staff then prepared and served this meat and poultry as steaks and chops, roasts, and boiled dinners and stews. West Boylston was well inland, but the tavern occasionally offered seafood in the form of salt haddock, shad, and codfish brought from the Boston markets.

Beaman bought fresh and dried apples in sizable numbers, most likely for the pies that so frequently appear in accounts of tavern breakfasts and dinners. Perhaps because his own tavern kitchen was busy with other kinds of cooking, by 1830 he was purchasing bread and occasionally gingerbread from nearby households. Other eatables, such as potatoes, beans, root vegetables, and "salad" greens, all presumably came from the tavern's own farm. Bulk purchases of coffee and tea let us know that Beaman dispensed both beverages in large quantities; sugar, bought in even larger amounts, went for baking and for sweetening drinks both "hard" and soft.

A look at foodways, of course, tells only half the story. We must also turn our attention to what we might call "drinkways," realizing that drinking in company _ almost exclusively by men, and for the most part in taverns _ was a very important part of rural New England life. Everywhere in America, men's per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages was very high in 1820 _ much higher than it is today. Until the temperance movement began to gain headway, all New England taverns had "rows of decanters on the shelf behind the bar," where the tavern keeper or his deputy stood day and night dispensing their contents to locals and travelers alike.

In the wintertime, every tavern displayed long irons called "loggerheads" heating at the fireplace, "waiting to be plunged into sputtering and foaming mugs of flip," a potent, rum-based drink.

In those more bibulous times, judges, lawyers, and doctors, as well as blacksmiths, farmers, and laborers, took healthful "drams" every day and met regularly at the tavern for a friendly glass. On the Sabbath day, taverns often opened during the noon hour and men wore a path between the tavern and the meetinghouse to "get their `flip' or `gin slings' and then return to the afternoon service," according to Sutton, Mass., remembrances. Farmers frequently stopped at a tavern on their way to the store or the mill, "drank hot toddy by the bar-room fire," and spent an hour or two talking crops, livestock, and town politics."

Beaman's accounts with Boston suppliers and local farmers show that he took pains to keep his bar well supplied. For "spirituous" or distilled liquor, there was brandy (fortified wine) and Holland gin (distilled from rye and flavored with juniper berries) by the gallon and New England rum (distilled from molasses) by the barrel. In 1824, the Boston importers J. and W. M. Stedman wrote Beaman that "we have selected for you one hogshead of high sweet flavoured St. Croix Rum. We think the best you have ever had of us." For customers who wished milder alcoholic beverages there were quart bottles of "Lisbon wine" on the bar shelves, barrels of "strong beer," and a virtually unlimited supply of locally pressed hard cider.

Beaman also ensured that he had a steady supply of lemons _ used, we can safely assume, much less for lemonade than for making "gin slings" and "rum toddies," two potent and highly flavored drinks much beloved by New England men. The tavern's sizable purchases of nutmeg make sense when we realize that it was the final ingredient (when combined with the beer, sugar, and rum already on hand) of the aforementioned "flip," another widely popular drink. The barroom must also have been a smoky place. In the course of 1831 Beaman ordered several hundred "cegars" for his patrons at a half-cent each and a box of much more expensive Spanish ones.

Beaman's tavern — and most others — continued to operate during the 1830s, but the increasing success of temperance reform began to change New England drinkways and tavern life. Many churches came to oppose alcohol use in any form, and the Sunday parade of thirsty men across the common ceased. A large number of country innkeepers gave up serving liquor, and temperance barrooms, without their long rows of rum, gin, and wine bottles, became much more sedate places, where men drank coffee or lemonade, smoking declined, and alcohol-fueled arguments disappeared. In quite a few New England towns, a "Temperance Hotel" glared across the common at a traditional tavern that continued to serve liquor, evidence of a deep division in the community. Many New Englanders applauded the changes and happily drank their coffee and lemonade; others felt that these establishments threatened to take all the enjoyment out of life and headed to the "real" tavern for a rum toddy and a hot debate about the next election.

What does all this have to do with the new tavern facility planned for the Village's threshold? Actually, history is at the heart of this redesign, as it is for any major Village project. We won't try to replicate a complete "forget the cholesterol" New England breakfast or an all-temperance barroom, however, and Mr. Riddle's potted pigeons will not reappear. As a museum experience, the new tavern will tell these and many other stories about the history of food and drink; as a dining experience, it will be a first-rate adventure in historical cuisine.

The bar will offer the "drinkways" of today but will specialize in toddies, slings, shrubs, and flips _ the almost vanished, yet delicious, beverages of nearly two centuries ago. Like the smiling landlord who began our story, the Village's new tavern will provide guests with the very best of 1830s food and drink, authentic service and presentation, traditional New England dishes cooked to perfection, and variations, refinements, and additions from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Larkin, Jack, Old Sturbridge Village Visitor, Spring, 1999

Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.