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  • Taverns and Drinking in Early America
  • Serena Zabin
Taverns and Drinking in Early America. By Sharon S. Salinger ( Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002 xi plus 309 pp.).

In Taverns and Drinking in Early America, Sharon V. Salinger offers a useful overview of the place and functions of taverns in the mainland American colonies. One of the great strengths of this book is that it draws our attention to the ubiquity of taverns in early America and to a paradox. Colonial public houses were both open public spaces and exclusive quasi-private clubs, and it is the increasing stratification of these sites of sociability that intrigues Salinger. This is the first modern study to look at drinking establishments in all the British mainland colonies instead of one city or colony. Her results indicate that in this institution, at least, regional differences were not particularly significant. Unlike other recent work on early American taverns that explicitly ties tavern culture to the coming of the American Revolution, Salinger eschews the political for the social, and in so doing, she emphasizes continuity over change.1

Salinger's primary exception to this emphasis is her analysis of the divide between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the seventeenth century, she argues, American taverns in both sectarian and non-sectarian colonies closely followed their English and Dutch Old World models. The goals of officials who oversaw these taverns were "to maintain order, to prevent drunkenness, and to sever any link between drunkenness and the Sabbath, as well as to establish the responsibilities of tavern keepers." (84) Eighteenth-century lawmakers, however, had different aims; they wanted to reify hierarchies of race, class, and status. Salinger concludes that they were successful in their attempts to make taverns spaces for elite male sociability, "ultimately sustaining the privilege of well-born white males."(244) Salinger thus follows E.P. Thompson in finding that the limited social mixing of seventeenth-century taverns eventually [End Page 774] separated the plebs from the patricians and created taverns with distinct clien- teles. By creating clubs and other societies that met within taverns, wealthy white men turned this nominally public space, theoretically open to all, into another site for the exclusion of non-elites and for the expression of white male power.

Salinger covers nearly all the colonies, singly or in groups, in each chapter to show that regional differences were slight. Prosecutions for drunkenness in seventeenth-century New England were more frequent than in other areas of colonial North America, but even this variation fades, along with the prosecutions themselves. As the sectarian natures of certain colonies declined in the eighteenth century, so the regional differences in tavern culture disappeared. Authorities, however, preserved a distinction between city and country. In the cities, taverns that catered to the poor, to laborers, and to slaves were much more likely to be prosecuted as "disorderly houses" than those establishments whose patrons were wealthy elites. The goal of the courts throughout the colonies became "social control" rather than control of individual morality.

Not surprisingly, Salinger often finds divergences between the ideals and realities of taverns. Despite the laws that meticulously prescribed who could have liquor licenses, who could drink in a tavern, and how many public houses a community could support, Salinger's detailed examination of business and legal records demonstrates that lawmakers rarely followed their own guidelines. Rather, market demands, personal requests, and simple whim seemed to determine colonial officials' attitudes towards their public houses.

Salinger pays particular attention to the roles of gender and women, who both sold and consumed alcohol. Following traditional English practice, colonial authorities were likely to grant urban women, especially widows, licenses to run taverns. Remarkably, in Charleston, South Carolina, there were usually more female proprietors than male; in 1771, women held almost two thirds of the liquor licenses. (162) On occasion, women drank in taverns, much to the disgust of many of their fellow patrons. With the (substantial) exception of low-end dives, however, "Women were clearly not part of the public culture of drink."(223) Here Salinger could have explored how taverns constructed as well as allowed gender differentiation. Was there a way in...


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