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  • Keeping the TradeThe Persistence of Tavernkeeping among Middling Women in Colonial Virginia
  • Sarah Hand Meacham

There is the Raleigh Tavern, where more business has been transacted than on the Exchange of London or Amsterdam; in that building formerly assembled the rich, wealthy merchants of all Countries from Indies to the pole, from the Tween to the Oracles; here the Exchange of the world, the relative value of money in every kingdom on earth was settled; who has not heard of the fame of the merchants of this ancient Dominion, your Hansons, Brisbanes, &c.

Alexander Macaulay, 17831

Those gentlemen who please to favor me with their custom may depend upon genteel accommodations, and the very best entertainment

Christiana Campbell, Virginia Gazette, October 3, 1771

Taverns mattered to colonial Virginians. In the sprawling farms of early Virginia, taverns were where colonists connected. It was in the taverns that colonists learned current crop prices, purchased goods, read newspapers, and discovered business opportunities. Visitor Alexander Macaulay could mock the provincialism of Virginia's taverns to his European friends (quoted [End Page 140] above), but for the majority of Virginia's colonists the tavern was the only link to the world off the tobacco farm. To Virginians the tavern indeed held the significance of the marketplaces of Europe.

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Figure 1.

"Country Club." Men met at taverns for social clubs frequently. Women often managed the taverns, as this picture suggests. Note the woman carrying in a serving platter in the background. Colonial Williamsburg slide Neg. # C83–829 1955–406.

Interestingly, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries many of these taverns—perhaps two-thirds of them—were run by middling women and prominent widows.2 It is surprising that so important an institution was frequently managed by women because scholars have agreed that women found their options and roles progressively constricted during the eighteenth century. The case of tavernkeeping suggests the need to add to the declension model of eighteenth-century women's lives. Middling white Virginia women during the eighteenth century not only retained tavernkeeping, but also were preferred for it. Magistrates awarded licenses to middling families with previous [End Page 141] female tavernkeeping experience deliberately. Scholars have not previously recognized that magistrates, who often passed their positions from father to son, frequently transferred taverns from mother to daughter.3 Tavern licenses were assigned to men, but both magistrates and license applicants knew that the tavern itself would be run by the petitioner's wife or daughter.

Passing tavernkeeping through middling women was the magistrates' effort at policing the taverns, not because they feared immorality or other challenges to the social order in the taverns, but because they feared the taverns' potential for rendering colonists penniless. Magistrates awarded taverns to families with financial and social stakes in the status quo in the hope that these tavernkeepers would encourage fiscal responsibility in their clients. Market forces assisted magistrates in this effort. Scholars have not noted how expensive it was to run a tavern and how dicey the chance of profits was. These factors limited the trade to families who had experience and could bear the financial risk. In these families, women continued to enjoy the possibility of keeping a tavern as at least one option for a respectable livelihood in eighteenth-century Virginia.

Historians have agreed on a declension model for colonial women, stating that after a moment of potential gender equality in the seventeenth century, women found themselves ridiculed during the eighteenth century until they lost their public roles and former respect. Cornelia Dayton found that women lost access to courts in eighteenth-century Connecticut. Deborah Rosen argued that laws of coverture and inheritance "worked to marginalize women from the growing [eighteenth-century] economy." Jeanne Boydson reasoned that the value placed on women's domestic labor in the seventeenth century declined during the eighteenth century. Accordingly while "the colonial goodwife [was] valued for her contribution to household prosperity," by the mid-eighteenth century, "the denigration of women's household labor was becoming an established cultural practice."4 Kathleen Brown maintained that in eighteenth-century Virginia in particular, men divided women into "good [End Page 142] wives" and...


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