By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
There’s no other place quite like Colonial Williamsburg: a town filled with famous names from American History, a center for preservation of buildings, artifacts and traditional skills. Duke of Gloucester Street is rarely empty of visitors, all “experiencing the Eighteenth Century”.
Thankfully, that experience is sanitized. The rank smells of privies, livestock and spoiled foods are mercifully erased. It is, as one writer put it, a “peaceable kingdom”, reinforcing myths of a “golden age” that are too often in stark contrast to historical reality. This is not to disparage the efforts of Colonial Williamsburg; their recent interpretation has tackled some very unpleasant subjects like slavery, poor sanitation and other rougher sides to life.
A traveler in 1759, the Reverend Andrew Burnaby experienced Williamsburg and was not particularly impressed. He described it as “far from being a place of any consequence”. Burnaby noted that the best building was the Governor’s Palace, but there were “few public edifices that deserve to be taken notice of”. The streets were “not paved and consequently very dusty”. Not quite what the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation promotes.
Williamsburg’s eighteenth century “hospitality industry” is interpreted in the many restored taverns and inns. While the historic structures mention aspects that would not tempt a modern individual, those that are operating eateries adhere to modern rules of food preparation and service. Historical accuracy’s loss is the alimentary canal’s gain.
Modern travelers have advantages over their eighteenth century counterparts. Health codes have to be observed by proprietors, but various organizations regularly rate the quality of accommodations, service and food. A traveler in the 1700’s might have another’s recommendation for a particular establishment, but often as not they had to make do with whatever was available.
François Jean de Beauvoir, Marquis de Chastellux travelled to the United States with the French forces under the Comte Rochambeau in the early 1780’s. In his travels through the country, he noted that some innkeepers needed a crash course in Customer Service:
“…Travelers are there considered as bringing more trouble than money. The reason for this is that the innkeepers are all of them well-to-do farmers who do not stand in need of this slight profit: most of those who follow this profession are even compelled to it by the laws of the country [Connecticut]….”
Like any traveler Chastellux had a variety of experiences when it came to inns and taverns. In the course of his journeys’ he hit some “highs”:
“…I intended stopping at Morristown [NJ] only to [rest] my horses…but on entering the inn of Mr. [Jacob] Arnold., I saw a dining room adorned with looking glasses and handsome mahogany furniture, and a table spread for twelve persons….”
And at least one “low”:
“[In the mountains of western Virginia]…one of the worst lodging places in America…I have never seen a more badly furnished house. A poor tin vessel was the only “bowl” used for the family, our servants and ourselves; I dare not say for what other use it was offered to us when we went to bed…”
Another traveler, Dr. Alexander Hamilton (no known relation to the first Secretary of the Treasury) journeyed from his home state of Maryland to the northeast in the 1740’s. In his Itnerarium, Hamilton noted the differences in food and drink presented at various inns and taverns:
“…I supped upon fried chicken and bacon…I breakfasted upon some dirty chocolate, but the best that the house could afford…We supped upon cold gammon and a salad…I breakfasted there upon a dish of tea…I retired to bed at eleven o’clock, after having eat some very fine pickled oysters for supper…We stayed at the sign of the Sun, and paid dear for our breakfast, which was bread and mouldy cheese, stale beer, and sour cider…We stopped some time at a house within thirteen miles of Philadelphia… [we were given] bread and cheese and some cold apple pie, but we paid dear for it….”
As Hamilton notes, sometimes the meal could be costly even if the quality was poor. Chastellux encountered a similar experience at Pompton, NJ.
“…The bill they presented me the next morning amounted nevertheless to sixteen dollars. I observed to Mr. “Coutheath” [Curtis], that if he was charging me for the pleasure of being waited on by his pretty sisters, this was much too little, but if only for the lodgings and supper, it was a great deal….”
Alcohol was an important commodity at taverns, whether it was for travelers or locals. Hamilton wrote of dispatching a bowl of “sanagree”. And Chastellux complained about the over-priced inn at Pompton “the cellar was not nearly so well supplied as the library, for there was neither wine, cider, nor rum, but only some bad cider-brandy, with which I had to make grog”.
Of course both of these travelers were gentlemen, and while they might occasionally overindulge in their drinking, they were not like the (ugh) common sorts as Hamilton reported:
“Just as I dismounted at Tradaway’s, I found a Drunken Club dismissing… [the owner] did not care to have such disorderly fellows come to his house; he was noted far and wide for keeping a quiet house and entertaining only gentlemen or such like; but these were country people, his neighbours, and it was not prudent to disoblige them upon such slight occasions.”
Yes, one of the “perils” of patronizing an inn or tavern is that one sometimes had to rub elbows with all sorts of people, as Hamilton noted:
“I dined at a tavern with a very mixed company of different nations and religions. There were Scots, English, Dutch, Germans, and Irish; there were Roman Catholicks, Churchmen, Presbyterians, Quakers, Newlightmen, Methodists, Seventhdaymen, Moravians, Anabaptists and one Jew….”
There could sometimes be language barriers:
“I put up this night at one Miller’s at the sign of the Admiral Vernon, and supped with some Dutchmen and a mixed company of others…Our conversation at supper was such a confused medley that I could make nothing of it…..”
And some inconvenience:
“…I returned to my lodging at eight o’clock, and the post being arrived, I found a numerous company at Salter’s reading the news. Their chit-chat and noise kept me awake three hours after I went to bed.”
Newspapers were often available at tavern and as Hamilton noted, thoroughly discussed. Travelers themselves were sources of news for the locals and a stranger could expect quite a grilling about the wide world:
“…I stayed there some time at one Benjamin’s, who keeps a tavern in the town. There I met a deal of company, and had many questions asked me….”
Hamilton in his writings does seem to be a bit of a snob when dealing with those beneath his station. To be sure, the Reverend Burnaby shared some of his attitude.
“The lower class of people [of New England]…are impertinently curious and inquisitive…”
In defense of both it needs to be noted that such inquisitiveness is not just being meddlesome, but could make for a level of physical discomfort as Burnaby mentions:
“ …I was told of a gentleman of Philadelphia, who, in traveling through the provinces of New England, having met with many impertinencies, from this extraordinary turn of character, at length fell upon an expedient almost as extraordinary, to get rid of them. He had observed, when he went into an ordinary, that every individual of the family had a question or two to propose to him, relative to his history; and that till each was satisfied; and they had conferred and compared together their information, there was no possibility of procuring any refreshment. He, therefore the moment he went into any of these places, inquired for the master, the mistress , the sons, the daughters, the men-servants and the maid-servants assembled them all together, he began in this manner. “Worthy people, I am B.F. of Philadelphia, by trade a , and a bachelor; I have some relations in Boston, to whom I am going to make a visit: my stay will be short, and I shall then return and follow my business, as a prudent man ought to do. This is all I know of myself, and all I can possibly inform you of; I beg therefore that you will have pity upon me and my horse, and give us both some refreshment….”
Taverns often provided sleeping accommodations, as with the food and décor travelers encountered a wide spectrum of experiences. Chastellux found his party displacing a large group of farmers at one tavern. The latter voluntarily and cheerfully ceded the available beds and slept upon the bare floor in honor of our French Allies.
However, at those wretched lodgings in western Virginia, Chastellux related:
…the hostess and her family were obliged to give up their bed to us… Just as we were deciding to make use of [the bed], a tall young man entered the room where we were assembled, opened a closet and took out a small bottle. I asked him what it was. ‘It’s a drug,’ he said, ‘which our Doctor hereabouts has ordered me to take every day.’ ‘And what’s your trouble?’ I added. ‘Oh! Not much,’ he replied, ‘only a little itch.’ [Impetigo] I found this admission appealing in its candor, but I was no means sorry that I had sheets in my portmanteau. It may easily be imagined that I was not tempted to breakfast in this house the next morning…”
[They might have been better off sleeping under a tree.]
Where does this little sojourn to the past give us? Perhaps nothing. However, next time you find yourself stuck in long lines at the airport, have to deal with a noisy wedding party down the hall at your hotel, find that the beverage that you ordered is not quite, but almost entirely unlike coffee or find yourself waiting for a fast-food “meal”, remember that our eighteenth century forebears often had it much worse.