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Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen


Issue 4 Spring 2003

Student Paper

The Taverns of Colonial Williamsburg

By Laura Pitotti

As a place of socializing, getting a good meal, or just throwing back a few drinks, taverns in Colonial Williamsburg, as in the rest of Colonial America, were a vital part to the culture of the city. Open year round, locals patronized them on a regular basis, however, the business especially boomed in the month of each spring or fall when the General Court or General Assembly met in Williamsburg during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (CWF, 7.)

How often people ate in the taverns depended on how affordable it was for their family. Those of lower income rarely could be seen in the taverns. While women were allowed in the taverns, more than likely taverns would be filled with men. On occasion, women would stop in for lunch while out marketing. On the other side of this, men and women both worked in the taverns on a steady basis. Most would think that bar rumbles would have been the biggest problem that taverns faced, which is simply not so. Most often, tavern workers would have problems with the college students of William and Mary. While the students were allowed to have drinks when accompanied with an older friend or relative, many times they would sneak in and not be noticed. Many parents of these students ended up paying high overdue tabs to the taverns of Williamsburg (CWF, 8.)

Many taverns of the eighteenth century have recently been renovated and restored to resemble their original structure and often visitors can tour the tavern and even have a meal or drink in the real setting of a Colonial tavern. The particular taverns examined here do bear the original names of their true owners in the eighteenth century.

A man named Josiah Chowning who was passionate about breads originally opened Chowning's Tavern in 1766, which became a popular stopping place for William and Mary students to order his famous round loaf bread served with butter and cider (Booth,19.) His tavern became known for this bread and a wide variety of others. Mysteriously, eighteen months after Josiah opened his business, another tavern keeper publicly announced a new business in the house that had formerly been Chowning's Tavern (CWF, 13.) The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation reopened Chowning's in 1941 to the public restored to resemble that of the colonial era.

Another restored tavern is the King's Arms, originally owned by the widow, Jane Vobe. Her tavern opened in 1772 and served such famous revolutionaries as General Thomas Nelson and the future president, George Washington (CWF, 13.) Vobe began tavern keeping with her husband Thomas, in 1750 and continued in this profession after his death. In the late 1770s she felt forced to change the name of the tavern due to the eminent war that was on the verge of breaking out between the colonists and Great Britain (CWF, 13.) She renamed it "Mrs. Vobe's Tavern" however, in present day the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has restored it as the King's Arms Tavern; it reopened for tours in 1956. This tavern was unique because Mrs. Vobe sold tickets for the theatre, had artists display their work and posted rewards for the return of lost articles within the business. Since its reopening in 1956, the King's Arms Tavern has served such notables as England's Queen Mum and the Queen of Thailand (Booth, 18.)

Christiana Campbell's Tavern is one of the most popular of the restored taverns at Williamsburg. Although it was never officially named this, when it was reopened in 1956 it took this name in honor of its eighteenth century tavern keeper. Campbell inherited the business from her father; however, she never kept her business in one place, instead, often moving to better and more profitable locations. This establishment was more modest and affordable therefore merchants and lower level gentry became very loyal to Campbell's business. Many locals preferred this tavern in the summer months because of the large back porch and garden available for dining (Booth, 17.) As the other taverns mentioned, this one has been restored and is open for public visitors.

Within the taverns, a variety of ales, warm drinks and other alcoholic beverages were available as were a fair variety of food items. For many early Virginia colonists alcoholic beverages were seen as wholesome, beneficial, and safer than water (CWF, 212.) This may be the reason tavern business flourished. In addition to this, ales locally produced were always cheaper than those imported. The most popular food item, as well as an inexpensive dish was hominy; made from poached corn, this is what the poor whites or slaves would eat very often. Taverns served a variation of this called hominy porridge that used milk instead of water to enhance its richness (CWF, 28.) This dish was more popular with the gentry and other tavern goers. Soups were also a cheap and popular item in the taverns mainly because they could incorporate various fresh vegetables, seafood, and meats to meet different tastes and desires. Among the vegetables used, tomatoes were most popular because of their potent effect in spicing and flavoring many foods.

Through the taverns, the society and economy of Colonial Williamsburg thrived during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is just a small glimpse into the taverns of Williamsburg with many other original colonial taverns now reopened today as well as other areas of foods and cooking that were major parts of the taverns' business.

Bibliography

  1. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. (CWF) The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook. Clarkson Potter: New York. 2001.
  2. Booth, Letha and The Staff of Colonial Williamsburg. The Williamsburg Cookbook. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston: New York City. 1971.
  3. Phipps, Frances. Colonial Kitchens: Their Furnishings and Their Gardens. Hawthorn Books: New York. 1972.

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