Historic Hike In Annapolis: Good For Whatever Ales You

November 04, 1990|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The wench poured ale and remarked on how rare it was to see so many fine ladies in the tavern. Samuel Middleton's was no place for a proper lady.

Not in 18th-century Annapolis, where taverns formed the smoky, rum-stained center of the white man's social life.

"Pleasure to have so many women of quality in the tavern today," said the wench, portrayed in 18th-century costume and Colonial vernacular by Pam Williams. "The ladies should come 'round, have a taste of ale. It's medicinal you know."

And she poured it, letting the ale slide out of the pitcher from beneath foam thick as a brick. This on the second floor of Middleton's at the conclusion of the ninth annual Historic Hike offered by Historic Annapolis Foundation. The subject this year was taverns, and the wench was telling what it might have been like when Samuel Middleton opened his place in 1750.

"You should probably come right into the common room below stairs," said the wench, a volunteer from Three Centuries Tours of Annapolis. "It's a very boisterous place. Genteel women do not frequent taverns."

The place would be full of smoke from clay pipes and men would be sitting around playing cards or backgammon. They might be drinking rum, grog -- a mixture of rum and water -- hard cider, ale, wine or rum punch.

Their talk would likely turn to politics, local gossip or the price of tobacco. A traveler stopping for the night was apt to be quizzed at length about doings far away.

"Gab'l Duvall & Wm. Pinkeney both came to town today, Duvall from Philadelphia, and say that there is a fervour Raging there that carried off 40 or 50 a day, they are well and dead in 6 Hours."

So wrote William Faris in 1794. Faris, a clockmaker and silversmith, opened a tavern on West Street under the sign of the Crown and the Dial in 1764. The building no longer exists.

Faris's place was among 20 and 30 taverns that did business in Annapolis in the 18th century. At least there were that many licensed in the city between 1720 and 1790.

"As centers of community life, taverns were very important," said Joan Abel, an Annapolis architect who conducted one of several tours on Sunday to 10 tavern sites in downtown Annapolis, including Middleton's and the Maryland Inn, the only two still being operated as eating and drinking establishments.

John Adams went a step further than Abel in his assessment. In 1761, Adams observed that taverns were such centers of political discussion that, "These public houses are in many places the nurseries of our legislators."

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, before newspapers were widely distributed, a man would find out what was going on in and around town by stopping down to the local tavern for a pint. At a place like Reynold's Tavern on Church Circle -- licensed as a tavern to William Reynolds the hat maker in 1747 -- a man would get news through conversation and through news and advertising sheets called "broadsides" tacked to the walls.

Itinerant tailors, dentists, eye doctors and cobblers commonly stopped at taverns, set up shop for a few days, then moved on.

Like so many tavern keepers, Reynolds ran his business out of his home.

Lodgers found accommodations upstairs. Travelers had to stop frequently along their route as roads were rough and the going was slow. They also could not be too picky about the accommodations. It was common to share a bed and a chamber pot with a complete stranger and to find that the sheets had not been laundered for some time.

Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Patrick Henry are known to have stayed in Annapolis taverns. At Brewer's Tavern, 37 Cornhill St., Jefferson is known to have boarded his groom and stabled his horses.

Washington was known as an avid gambler on horses and cards, and would likely have enjoyed his time in Annapolis. Here the customs were a bit looser than New England, as reported by David Howell, who stopped at an Annapolis tavern while traveling far from his home in Rhode Island. He was shocked to find the company breaking out the cards and the cash on a Saturday night.

"I left the room and was shewed to another," Howell wrote in a letter.

"In New England the table would have been furnished with a Bible and a psalm book instead of two packs of cards."

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