Myth # 124: Taverns were brothels.

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Cindy Conte, Curator of Historic Michie Tavern, Virginia, wrote, “On a recent episode of Pawn Stars a person was selling an 18th-century tavern license.  The context of the letter included the word “entertainment,” and both the buyer and seller came to the immediate conclusion that this  letter referred to an 18th-century brothel.  

As you know, in the 18th century the word entertainment referred to “maintenance or provision; the term covered eating, drinking, and lodging.”   “Entertainment” was the catchword of tavern keeping. The majority of public house proprietors were licensed to keep an ordinary for the “Entertainment of travelers and Strangers,” and their house signs were embellished with the motto. Tavern owners advertised genteel or “good entertainment” at their houses.  The Moravian supervisors of the Salem, NC tavern even agreed in 1800 that “the word Tavern must be removed from the sign and the word Entertainment substituted.” (Kym S. Rice, “Early American Taverns:  For the Entertainment of Friends and Strangers”.)

Yes, Cindy, I’ve often heard docents at taverns slyly intimate that their building was really a brothel. The myth here concerns the titillating implication that all these taverns were really brothels. While there may have been some genuine examples in early America  (sometimes termed “disorderly houses”), they were certainly the exception. Outside large cities like London and colonial seaports like New York and Philadelphia, genuine brothels were rare, not because people were more virtuous back then but because the population wasn’t large enough. Read Harold Gill’s article on the topic as it existed in Williamsburg, VA at http://history.org/Foundation/journal/Autumn01/Demimonde.cfm?showSite=mobile. 

 

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5 Responses to Myth # 124: Taverns were brothels.

  1. Jean says:

    Mary, I am so glad to read this! In the 1860 Federal census, my great-great grandfather s occupation is Tavern Keeping. So far, no one has suggested that he ran a brothel, if that happens I’m prepared!

  2. James "Jake" Pontillo says:

    Are you sure you have the reference from the Oxford correct : correct? I found this at the Online Oxford Etymological Dictionary :

    bar (n.2) Look up bar at Dictionary.com
    “tavern,” 1590s, so called in reference to the bars of the barrier or counter over which drinks or food were served to customers (see bar (n.1)).

    At our Tavern Nites at Queens Farm we have a Bar AND Grill set up- The GRILL is not for grilling anything, it is made of wooden slates and prevents customers from stealing bottles while the barmen are busy elsewhere ( The people who come to our Tavern Nites would not REALLY steal anything, but we still have the barrier set up and we do business thru an opening in the slats.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the warning, Jake, I’ll go back to the OED and have another look. Meanwhile, I scratched that past part. I’ll revisit it later, maybe next week, in its own post.

  3. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    That was a great post. It hit me–we still use the word “entertain” today when we mean we’re having dinner guests over as in, “I’m entertaining this evening” which I would think relates to the 18th century meaning.

  4. Cindy Conte says:

    Thanks for the post! J

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