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 or many early American 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.