Alexandria housed over 270 taverns
November 14, 1996
by Jim McKay
This two-storey building, in a photograph from the late-19th century, was constructed in the courtyard behind Gadsby’s Tavern after 1802. It probably held work rooms on the first floor and living quarters for John Gadsby’s slaves above.
In 1748, a teenaged George Washington spent long days in the saddle exploring the Shenandoah Valley and frequently camped out under the stars. Occasionally, he and his companions would happen upon one of the taverns that dotted the countryside, often no more than a simple one-room house in which the owners made food and sleeping space available. On one such evening, Washington wearily turned in for the night only to find his bed "without Sheets or any thing else but only one thread[-]Bear blanket," made all the more uninviting by a large population of lice and fleas. The following evening, the group arrived in Winchester, Virginia, and found much nicer accommodations, including "a good Dinner prepar’d for us[,] Wine and Rum Punch in Plenty and a good Feather Bed with clean Sheets. . ." In one 24-hour period, George Washington experienced both ends of the tavern spectrum of 18th-century America.
Alexandria was founded the following year, and Washington would soon have found a similar situation in his hometown. As the town grew into a city, taverns were among the most numerous business establishments, crowded in among the merchant’s stores, warehouses, artisan’s shops and homes of the bustling little seaport. In small, simple wood-framed buildings, or in large brick edifices with dozens of rooms, anyone who held a tavern license (and many who did not) could operate a tavern. At least 270 people held licenses in and around Alexandria during the city’s first sixty years! Taverns were one of the great crossroads of 18th-century society, serving white and black, young and old, traveler and townsman. Depending on the owner’s wealth and entrepreneurial spirit, taverns provided a range of services such as food and drink, lodging, entertainment, and even horses and vehicles for hire. Some of the larger buildings included "assembly" rooms where groups met, parties were held and the community came together.
Most southern taverns, including many of Alexandria’s, were staffed by black slaves who cooked, cleaned, waited table and generally tended to the needs of customers and their animals. White indentured servants were also employed in Alexandria taverns, many of them recent immigrants from Great Britain. Typically, these workers lived on the premises, sleeping in stairwells or in outbuildings. Their names, and even sketchy physical descriptions, often appear in runaway ads or on the estate inventories of their deceased owners, listed along with other property such as furniture and livestock. Andrew Wales described a runaway named Michael Tracey in 1770 as "born in Ireland, 25 years of age, about 5 feet 7 or 8 . . . fair complexion, pitted with the smallpox . . .wears his own hair, a little curled." Richard Arell also advertised runaway servants, one of whom wore a "new Virginia made Rackoon Hat." Benjamin Sebastian’s inventory, dated 1772, listed seven slaves, four white servants, and an orphan boy. Five slaves appear on tavern keeper Mary Hawkins’ 1777 inventory, while John Gadsby, who operated the large City Hotel that bears his name today, listed ten slaves in 1802.
By the end of the 18th century, more specialized types of taverns appeared in Alexandria, and their names reflected some of the changes. In 1778, Thomas Rose advertised a "Coffee-House and Tavern" followed in 1785 by Henry Lyles’ "Alexandria Inn and Coffee House," and John Wise’s "City Tavern and Hotel" in 1792. Charles Burnett opened the "Market Eating House" in 1799 and John MacLeod’s "Beer House" was in business the same year. Coffee houses were a fad that came late to America after enjoying much popularity in England as early as the 17th century. Their traditional clientele were merchants and traders who could afford to sip the expensive beverage while perusing the commercial journals that many proprietors stocked. The other names indicate a growing diversity among tavern businesses as each owner sought to cater to a particular public demand, whether that was for elegant hotel rooms, beer "of the first quality," or "Oysters, Beef Steaks, Relishes, &c. Provided at the Shortest notice."