Early Taverns and the Law

Because they dealt with the entertainment of strangers and the serving of strong drink, taverns were among the most highly regulated of early American enterprises. Across New England, "innholders" or "taverners" had to be certified by local selectmen as men "of good character" before they could be licensed by the county authorities. Once a tavernkeeper had received his license and put up his sign, he was bound by law to perform his function. An innholder could be prosecuted for "refusing to make suitable provision when desired, for the receiving of strangers, travelers or others, and their horses and cattle, or for any public entertainment"; if convicted, he would lose his license and have his sign taken down by the sheriff.

Sabbath regulations bore hard on tavern operations. On the Lord's Day inn-holders were barred from admitting local customers or new traveling guests; they could feed and lodge only those who were already staying on the premises. Tavern Sabbath infractions were heavily punished in the 1830s, with fines beginning at $5-$10. Continued violations of Sabbath restrictions by a tavernkeeper would result in progressively heavier fines—and eventual loss of license.

Taverns were also intimately, and sometimes perilously, involved with popular entertainment. "Games, shows and entertainments" were widespread in early English popular culture and ranged from performances of Shakespeare and other dramatic presentations to puppet shows, sleight-of-hand, magic and ventriloquism, tight rope walking, juggling, trick riding, animal exhibitions, and acrobatics. New England's Puritan founders were deeply hostile to such popular entertainments and sought to eradicate them. The laws of seventeenth-century Massachusetts and Connecticut lumped traveling performers of all kinds with beggars, rogues, and wandering preachers, calling them all "vagabonds" and providing that they should be whipped, fined, and either removed to a place of settled residence or expelled from the colony. The official view of ministers and magistrates was that such sportive, "wanton" entertainments took men, women, and children away from their work, worship, and community responsibilities and tempted them to even greater licentiousness. In the small and generally tightly controlled communities of the seventeenth century, traveling showmen and players seem to have indeed been rare. However, as New England's population increased and its links to the transatlantic world multiplied in the eighteenth century, entertainers began to appear in greater numbers, along with increasingly explicit legislation that signified their growing presence.

In Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island, the statutes passed by the first state legislatures after the Revolution kept all the old colonial prohibitions intact. But in 1805 in Massachusetts and Maine (then still part of the old commonwealth), and 1813 in Rhode Island, local authorities were given broad authority to license exhibitions and shows. In these relatively accommodating states, showmen could stay within the law if they could simply persuade the local authorities—although this was sometimes a difficult task.

The other New England states were far more restrictive. In New Hampshire, local licensing was possible, but the fee demanded by the law was $30-$50 for each day of performance—a large and seemingly prohibitive sum. Connecticut and Vermont were even less welcoming. As late as 1839 Connecticut statutes still forbade "any company of players, or persons whatever," from exhibiting "tragedies, comedies, farces or other dramatic pieces or compositions, or any pantomimes, or other theatrical shows whatever." They also prohibited the public presentation of "any games, tricks, plays, shows, tumbling, rope dancing, puppet shows, or feats of uncommon agility or dexterity of body," and outlawed "any circus of any description" and "the exhibition of any extraordinary feats of any horse, pony...or any other animal." Vermont's prohibitions were slightly less detailed but identical in substance. These prohibitions and the weight of official scrutiny bore heavily on taverns, since they were almost invariably the places where entertainers stopped and sought to perform or use as their headquarters. Thus everywhere in New England, performers and their tavernkeeper hosts had to step carefully not to run afoul of the law. It is not surprising, then, that so many of the showmen traveling through the region sought to present themselves not as entertainers at all, but as educators. Instead of Punch and Judy shows, performers offered painted scrolling dioramas that illustrated historic battles, Scripture stories, and the wonders of foreign lands; other entertainers exhibited menageries of exotic animals—not as vulgar spectacles but as instructive examples of natural history. In Connecticut, it appears that for this reason menageries and dioramas were usually considered outside the scope of the statute prohibiting shows and were often allowed to perform. It seems likely, however, that less "respectable" activities such as trick riding and puppet shows at times took place surreptitiously alongside animal exhibitions.

Although many local officials were suspicious and restrictive, others were more willing to wink an eye at what seemed to them minor violations of the law. Despite New Hampshire's rather restrictive laws, for example, Susan Baker Blunt had a vivid memory of a traveling diorama that came to the tavern her parents kept in Merrimack, New Hampshire:

"One day a man came along with a show and stoped at the Tavern. He had a great Box looking waggon, with a door in the rear and steps to enter. I went in with Mother. On each side of the little room were little pieces of glass which we looked through and could see pictures. And on a shelf accrost the front end, little wooden Puppets would come out and dance. It was a very hot day, and the Man used the door for a Fan."

It seems inconceivable that the modest show wagon proprietor recalled by Susan Blunt would have paid the enormous sum of $30—five weeks' wages for a skilled blacksmith or the price of a new cookstove—for a one-day New Hampshire license in order to stop at her father's tavern. Such small-scale individual performers seem often to have been judged harmless enough to be ignored by the local authorities.

Contrariwise, Nathaniel Hawthorne described an episode when the circus (that is, the menagerie) came to town and licensing did become an issue. Staying at a western Massachusetts tavern, Hawthorne observed the proprietor of a caravan of animals arriving "in a wagon with a handsome span of gray horses." The showman had left the rest of his troupe behind in Worcester while he looked for places to perform. A show of this size (perhaps 10-12 members of the troupe, several wagons, and dozens of animals) could not be ignored by the selectmen. In order to perform in town the showman needed a license, which he sought to obtain. However, the selectmen were at first unwilling to grant it, convinced that the show would only induce people to leave work early and waste their money. Both tavernkeepers in the village, Hawthorne noted, took the side of the entertainers; after all, the two would "divide the custom of the caravan-people" for food and lodging, as well as gather customers from the audience. One of the innkeepers rode off to persuade the selectmen to reconsider; Hawthorne did not think that he would succeed.

From time to time, other entertainers who confined most of their performances to the cities—magicians, ventriloquists, jugglers, and "rope dancers"—stopped at rural taverns as well. There were a few French and Italian, as well as British performers, along with Richard Potter of Massachusetts, America's first native-born magician and a remarkable showman. One New Englander noted of him that "Potter, the ventriloquist, visited the place to give his entertainments, which consisted of juggling, song-singing, legerdemain, and ventriloquism....How I sought in vain to penetrate the secrets of the dancing egg, the ring in the pistol, and the pancakes that he fried in his hat without fat or fire." In the countryside such performers were often subject to great suspicion as "conjurors," because people did not always distinguish between wholly natural sleight of hand and the disreputable remnants of supernatural magic. Magicians were sometimes welcomed and sometimes ranked with vagabonds of the lowest type. In every New England state it was always possible that a narrow-minded justice of the peace might apply the traditional laws against vagabondage to an itinerant ventriloquist, prestidigitator, or juggler, assuming that no matter how hard they worked for their livings, they were up to no good.

An abundance of evidence tells us that dancing was common, even customary, in New England taverns, but in Massachusetts, "dancing or revelling" in taverns was forbidden by statute from the time of the earliest colonial laws (1646) until 1832. In other New England jurisdictions, only "revelling," or disorderly conduct, was banned, not dancing itself. During the seventeenth century this prohibition appears to have been enforced from time to time, yet it is clear that by the early eighteenth century dancing was no less widespread in Massachusetts taverns than it was in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. This prohibition had evidently remained unenforced, however, until 1832, when the section prohibiting dancing was quietly dropped from a revised statute regulating the licensing of taverns. Thus tavern dancing was taken off the law books just when drinking and gambling in taverns were actually coming under tighter legal control.

The games of New England, as Charles A. Goodrich described them in The Universal Traveller of 1836, were "billiards, cards, ninepins, shovelboard, domino, backgammon, bagatelle, checkers and drafts." Some of them were a continuing preoccupation for many tavern-going men, but sternly frowned on as gambling or "gaming" by the legal authorities in New England. Statutes on the books in all New England jurisdictions forbade taverns to keep "dice, cards, bowls, billiards, quoits, or any other implements used in gaming." Yet these laws, too, seem to have been inconsistently enforced.

"Gaming, especially the playing at cards," recalled country lawyer George Davis of Sturbridge, was widespread in the New England countryside after the Revolution, and most rural taverns "had their recesses for gamblers." Davis thought that the rage for tavern card-playing "continued to prevail, more and more extensively" until about 1820. After that, "a blessed change had succeeded," almost certainly linked to the beginnings of temperance reform, leading to stricter enforcement of the laws and community pressure that banished dice and card games for money from the taverns, or drove such activities underground.

This did not mean that all games were forbidden to respectable men at a country tavern, however. Drafts, checkers, and dominoes were never banned and could be played even in Temperance Hotels. (Of course, these activities were nevertheless considered unseemly and improper for women.) Dice and billiards, with their strong associations with gaming, were unlikely to be found in respectable taverns that wished to keep their licenses, but in many regular taverns it is likely that bagatelle, backgammon, and cards, although technically illegal, were acceptable as long as no wagering was going on. Backgammon, in fact, seems to have become quite popular with well-educated New England professional men in the 1830s; the young Worcester lawyer Christopher Columbus Baldwin several times recorded playing backgammon with friends, including a session that involved the Rev. Aaron Bancroft, Worcester's preeminent Unitarian clergyman.

Nowadays visitors can sample some of the gaming and gambling "entertainments" of earlier New England at a Village Tavern Evening in the Bullard Tavern. Refer to the calendar supplement in the center of the Visitor for specific times and ticket details.

Larkin, Jack, Old Sturbridge Village Visitor, Fall 2005

Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.