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Taverns on the Green: Drinking in 18th Century Philadelphia

by Ed Mauger

With a tavern for every 25 men and more thirsty sailors than any other port, Philadelphia earned its reputation as colonial America's Number One Party Towne the old-fashioned way -- one libation at a time. Reminders of the City's rollicking past are on every block of Society Hill.

When William Penn arrived in 1682, taverns were so much a part of Philadelphia, that watering holes had already been dug into the caves that lined the Delaware River. Penn's boat anchored hard by the Blue Anchor, a transplanted Irish pub reassembled on a dock in Penn's new "green country town."

Man Full of Trouble Tavern

A cantankerous signboard marks Philadelphia's only remaining colonial tavern, The Man Full of Trouble located at 2nd and Spruce Streets. The sign at Man Full of Trouble depicts a time-bent gent with a monkey perched on his shoulder and a parrot on his hand walking with his wife who is carrying a bandbox with a cat sitting upon it. Not visible from the street is a secret tunnel running from its basement kitchen to the edge of Dock Creek. The tunnel was used as a conduit for smuggled goods. Hating to pay tariffs, but avidly pursuing the good life, Colonials became artful tax dodgers. For instance, in 1765 sixteen chests of tea were legally imported -- but an estimated 380 found there way into the City through other means.

Madeira

Much of Madeira's desirability as the wine of choice in the American colonies came from the ease with which it could be brought to these shores tax-free. It was also the only wine whose flavor mysteriously improved as it bounced across the Atlantic in the hot holds of sailing ships; taxable wines from Europe frequently turned to Vinegar. In fact, if the Madeira had not improved sufficiently, it was sometimes shipped back for a second trip.

As taverns sprang up to accommodate the sailors, businessmen, pirates, artisans and smugglers in America's fastest growing port, the city fathers grew increasingly concerned about rowdy behavior. At one point, they attempted to limit tavern licenses to "widows and decrepit men of good character."

Helltown

This didn't stop a variety of tippling houses and other unsavory night spots from flourishing - particularly in 'Helltown," a section of the city north of Mulberry (Arch)Street which attracted gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, strolling poor, and dealers in Spanish Fly and Jesuits' Bark. There the notorious Cock Robin and his two adopted wives operated out of an establishment called The Three Jolly Irishmen.

So many servants "borrowed" their masters' horses and sneaked out for dissolute nights in Helltown that a special stable was erected to shelter the animals. Even two of Washington's trusted servants were discovered in these pursuits.

City Tavern

The gentlemen of Philadelphia, to ensure a proper and suitably elegant meeting spot, had the City Tavern built in 1773. John Adams pronounced it the "most genteel" tavern in all the colonies. It was the first place the famed and feted Adams was ushered to when he arrived in September, 1774 as a delegate to the Continental Congress.

The next year, with none of the fanfare surrounding Mr. Adams, a young alternate delegate to the Second Congress showed up for his first Philadelphia meal at City Tavern after a hard ride from Virginia. Thomas Jefferson became a frequent trencherman at the Tavern, yet never did become part of the daily table kept by Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, Colonel Washington and other delegates. However, it was Jefferson's contribution to the Congress, Declaration of Independence, that occasioned some of City Tavern's greatest celebrations.

The Tavern's second floor Long Room hosted the colonial delegates for both the first and second July 4 anniversary parties. The second party was especially festive, since General Howe and his British troops had finally departed from Philadelphia.

Party Town

During their occupation of Philadelphia, the British officers contributed enthusiastically to the City's party town image - culminating in the Meschianza Ball, a celebration in honor of Lord Howe. So lavish was the gala which feartued jousters, fireworks, floral-draped river barges, and a sumptuous feast, that it sparked a firestorm of resentment. The Rebels who had departed from Philadelphia to join Washington's army, left behind families in increasingly desperate straits. These men were particularly enraged that some of their fence-sitting neighbors (and in some cases their own wives) were consorting so shamelessly with their enemy.

For their part, the British officer re reluctant to leave the entertainments of America's greatest city to resume the war effort. They even took City Tavern's manager, Daniel Smith, with them.

George Bows Out with a Blowout

The greatest celebration which City Taverns Long Room ever saw must have been the dinner in honor of General Washington at the climax of the Constitutional Convention in September of 1787. General Washington had been initially reluctant to lend his prestige to this dubious venture, but finally agreed to chair the Convention; and the results were amazing.

In today's world, the final banquet held in honor of George Washington seems excessive; but this was a group of men who had spent a hothouse summer in the Statehouse Assembly Room with the windows nailed shut inventing a government. The tab for this 55-man banquet listed 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, 22 bottles of porter, beer, hard cider and 7 bowls of spiked punch. In the same spirit (spirits?), the 16 musicians played their way through 7 more bowls of punch, 5 Madeira and 16 bottles of claret.

The Statehouse was quiet the next day.