In all Its Crowd and Tumult: Tavern Life and Entertainments in New England


Jack Larkin, Chief Historian, OSV

"I...took care of the inn in all its crowd and tumult," noted David Shepard of Chester, Mass., in 1798. Taverns were busy places, and sometimes noisy and rowdy ones. Young David focused on the noise and commotion. The son of a tavern-keeping family, he was living at home, trying to study medicine—and perhaps a little resentful of having to fill in for his parents when they were away.

Sometimes the "crowd and tumult" was due to wholly respectable causes. Selectmen might meet in the tavern, or Justices of the Peace might hold informal courts there. Hiram Munger of Palmer, Mass., a devout Methodist, once even witnessed the religious awakening of his friend Daniel, a tavern keeper in Tolland, Conn., "in the dining room at his tavern in the afternoon...before it closed, the bar keeper and others were on their knees for prayers. When their customers came in and inquired for the bar keeper, they found him in another room for prayers...."

This was, as Munger wrote, "a strange and sudden overturn!" However, most of the crowd and tumult Shepard described was due to the New England tavern's role as a center for information, instruction, and entertainment. In the years after 1790, Americans in the Northeast created a system of passable roads, built thousands of newly efficient vehicles, and developed a far-flung network of stagecoach lines. Freight and mail traveled along these roads, but so did a multitude of itinerant instructors, artists, and showmen. All roads met, and almost all travelers stopped, at the country tavern, where a wide variety of interesting, strange, and at times extraordinary characters were welcomed—sometimes gladly, sometimes cautiously—by the "landlord."

Purveyors of popular entertainment were among the most exotic tavern visitors. We can learn a good bit about them from the great New England writer of short stories and emblematic romances, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne loved taverns, belying his later reputation as a gloomy recluse. In his travels in Massachusetts, Maine, New York, and Connecticut, he stopped at dozens of rural "public houses," taking his meals, sitting in the parlor or the taproom depending on the company, and paying particular attention to the traveling entertainers he saw. Riding through the mountainous town of Lebrida (Charlemont), Mass., in 1838, he reached a "small homely tavern." He stabled his horse, "and entering the little unpainted barroom, we heard a voice, in a strange outlandish accent, explaining a diorama." Hawthorne investigated further and discovered that "he is a German, and travels the country with this diorama, in a wagon." Hawthorne joined the other men in the room to peer through the glass window of the diorama as the proprietor cranked a moving scroll to show them "views of cities and edifices in Europe and ruins;—and of Napoleon's battles and Nelson's sea-fights."

On the same trip, Hawthorne met another showman who traveled from tavern to tavern on foot. The author had just finished supper in a North Adams, Mass., tavern when "a man passed by the door with a hand-organ." Attached to the organ's mechanism were a number of wooden figures "such as dancers pirouetting and turning, a lady playing on the piano, (and) soldiers" that moved in time with the music. Hawthorne noted that the showman "carried his whole establishment on his shoulder" and that "a little crowd gathered about him on the stoop, peeping over each others heads, with huge admiration...all declaring that it was the masterpiece of sights."

Although taverns were not renowned as temples of high culture, in rural New England they were often artists' workshops. Artists frequently were regarded with almost as much suspicion as showmen. In the early nineteenth century, when an itinerant painter arrived in a community, he came to the tavern, secured a room, posted his advertisements, and began seeking portrait commissions. An artist who received fewer commissions than hoped for might find himself in increasingly tense discussions with his "landlord" about board and lodging, particularly if the tavernkeeper did not wish to accept paintings as payment. This sort of financial irresponsibility, after all, was just what worried people about artists! The painter Nathan Negus wrote that "not having a face to leave until I had paid my bill, my abode now became a voluntary prison...I shall not undertake to describe the wretchedness of my situation." If the tavernkeeper or his wife were willing to take their pay in pictures, meanwhile, tavern customers might have the opportunity to watch the painter in action.

Not only performers and artists, but traveling instructors, passed through the tavern. There were handwriting teachers, and lecturers like J. Evans, with his talks on "The Earth, Its Productions, Inhabitants, Chronology and History, accompanied with numerous elegant drawings." A larger number were dancing and singing masters, who made the tavern their starting point for becoming acquainted with the community. Singing masters rarely figured much in tavern affairs, because their primary concern was with religious choral music. Singing schools almost never met in taverns; they were usually held in schoolhouses, where the desks and benches provided the best accommodation for the singers, or occasionally in the meetinghouse itself.

Dancing was another matter entirely. A dancing master needed a ballroom or other large room, which the tavern usually supplied. Some people dismissed the dancing master's skills as foreign, foppish, or frivolous. In 1821, the New England Farmer parodied "Signor Squeak" as a man whose "Dancing Advertisement" in the local newspaper claimed he was "A gentleman of vast agility/who teaches capers and civility...."

Professor of the violin

And hopes to suit them to a pin

In teaching arts, and fascinations,

Dancing and other recreations

However, many young New Englanders welcomed his arrival, glad to have an opportunity to learn, for a modest weekly fee, the latest dances and proper deportment in the ballroom. Edward Jenner Carpenter, for example, a cabinetmaker's apprentice in Greenfield, Mass., was an eager "scholar" at Horatio Rockwell's dancing school held at a local tavern.

Tavernkeepers surely welcomed the arrival of dancing masters, not just for the money they would spend, but for the "multiplier effect." There was always a revived enthusiasm for dancing and an upsurge in demand for tavern ballrooms after a dancing school had been held. A look at tavernkeepers' accounts suggests that dances could be significant sources of income, bringing in "the rent of the hall and lights" and the payment of "admissions" for attendance at balls and cotillions.

By the 1830s, not all taverns—and not all families—would have welcomed dancing masters or dancers. Few if any of the new "temperance hotels" held cotillions or provided supper and music for sleigh-riding couples. Just as drinkers, even moderate drinkers, divided from the "temperance people," dancers were increasingly set off from those who deeply disapproved—and along similar lines. Clara Barton recalled such an opposition within her own family when she was a young girl. Her uncle wished her to attend a dancing school in an Oxford, Mass., tavern, but her parents, much to her dismay, would not consent. Families and communities differed greatly. Susan Baker Blunt recalled that her thoroughly respectable parents in rural New Hampshire loved parties and tavern dances in the 1830s, while Francis Underwood noted that things were different in Enfield, Mass. "The country balls took place at the old-fashioned taverns," he recalled, and they "were attended only by theworldly and irreligious," or at least so his parents thought; they forbade him to attend. Later, he learned to dance as a 25-year-old lawyer in Kentucky and realized what he had been missing!

In larger taverns in cities and county seats, a small "gallery orchestra" might provide the music for a ball, sometimes playing from a musicians' gallery or balcony. But in most places and on most occasions, a single fiddler sufficed; if the dancing master was in town, he usually played.

There was always an upsurge in demand for tavern ballrooms after a dancing school had been held. Early nineteenth-century tavernkeepers looked to such hall rentals and admission ticket sales as a significant source of income.

Along with portrait artists, dancing masters, musicians, phrenologists, lecturers, and other purveyors of popular entertainment, traveling magicians often chose the local tavern as their venue for public performances. Above, Robert Olson portrays Richard Potter, America's first native-born magician, for a young audience member.

Painting of dance scenes in country paintings usually show the fiddler seated on a chair, but there were better ways to keep tavern musicians visible, audible, and out of the tumult of the dance. In at least a few country taverns, the solution was to build a "fiddler's throne" into the wall at one end of the ballroom. This elevated wooden platform gave the fiddler (or other performer) a comfortable perch from which to play. (One New England fiddler's throne, from the Mack Tavern in Deerfield, N.H., survives, and plans for a new Tavern at the Village's threshold call for a reproduction of it to be incorporated into the tavern ballroom.)

Another cause of "tumult" in New England taverns came from customers singing to entertain themselves or each other. In the ladies' parlor, a convivial visitor might sing a sentimental "parlor ballad" such as a tune from Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies. But most tavern singing was probably found in the barroom, well on the vulgar side of gentility. When the great Worcester printer Isaiah Thomas collected over 200 broadside "Ballads in vogue with the vulgar" in 1814 to preserve them for posterity, he was gathering up the texts of songs that were often sung in tavern taprooms by ordinary men. To judge by the songs that Thomas collected, men sang accounts of battles and political events (the naval victories of the War of 1812, for example), songs about domestic trickery and conflict, and tales of outrageously good or bad luck—The Lawyer Outwitted, The Old Maid's Last Prayer, The Deceitful Young Man. They also enjoyed songs about recent disasters—The Dreadful Hurricane at New Orleans and Shocking Earthquakes at Charleston were examples—along with ballads about floods, shipwrecks, piracy, murders, and executions. There were also bawdy songs, but perhaps the less said (or sung) about those the better!

In these four Visitor articles, we have only begun to tell the story of New England tavern life. We could delve further into tavern cuisines and beverages, tell the woes of lost drovers and runaway stagecoaches, spend time considering traveling magicians and Punch and Judy shows, or look at such tavern games as "billiards, cards, ninepins, shovel-board, domino, backgammon, bagatelle, checkers and drafts," as Charles A. Goodrich described them in The Universal Traveller of 1836. These are the tales, along with many more, that the Village's new Tavern will be able to tell, while providing the best food and drink in history.

Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.