“Dined at the City Tavern”

Christmas in the 18th century was celebrated quite differently than it is today. Unlike today, one of  the most important (and wildest) celebrations of the season took place on January 6th, or Epiphany. Also known as Twelfth Night, this holiday is more comparable to our present-day New Year’s celebrations in style and entertainment. Our stereotypical views of a supposedly refined time period perhaps conjure up images of classy champagne toasts and highly intellectual conversations. However, much like the Christmas season itself, 18th century parties and dinners any time of the year were actually quite different from that stereotype.

On September 14, 1787 George Washington wrote in his journal:

“Friday 14th.  Attended Convention. Dined at the City Tavern, at an entertainmt. given on my acct. by the City light Horse. Spent the evening at Mr. Meridiths.”

It appears he enjoyed a simple enough dinner at City Tavern in Philadelphia after a day of Constitutional planning, right? Washington was famous; certainly everywhere he went, people provided “an entertainment” in his honor. As you look more into this event, you find that Washington’s simple diary entries may not always reveal the whole story of what happened.

City Tavern as it appeared about 1800 from an engraving by William Birch. This print dates from 1850. Credit: New York Public Library.

In this entry, he notes the City Light Horse honoring him at the tavern. The Light Horse of the City of Philadelphia was founded in 1774. They fought with General Washington throughout the war, including at the battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Brandywine.  They were part of the icy-cold crossing of the Delaware and the snow-covered winter at Valley Forge. In fact, although operating under a new name, the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry remains intact today as a private military organization whose members all must serve in the Pennsylvania National Guard. Due to its close relationship with George Washington, the troop jumped at the chance to show him its appreciation at the tavern as the Constitutional Convention drew to a close. According to Dr. Gordon Lloyd, the Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, the bar tab sent to the City Light Horse remains in the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry Archives. Here is the transcription of the bill:

Courtesy of Dr. Gordon Lloyd, the Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.

As you can see, the total comes to 89 pounds, 4 shillings, and 2 pence. According to the Bank of England, given inflation and changes over time, today this would be approximately £14,083 or around $18,471.

While that sticker price is shocking enough, as we inspect the bill a little more, we notice what all was purchased for the gathering. There are four separate categories on the bill. The bottom section is the fee for the musicians to play. The next section up lists 16 bottles of claret, 5 bottles of madeira, and 7 bowls of punch drunk by the 16 servants and musicians.  Next, comes a line for items broken at the gathering.

Finally, the top section of the bill deals with 55 guests, all men, who were the main party at City Tavern. The men ordered dinner and several different beverages. First, fifty-four bottles of madeira, probably Washington’s drink of choice. Throughout his life, Washington was said to favor this type of fortified wine from the Madeira islands, an archipelago off the coast of Portugal and a frequent stop for merchant ships travelling between Europe and America in the 18th century. Many prominent families in America took a liking to the wine, as it was relatively easy to obtain. According to records at Mount Vernon, Washington ordered Madeira by the pipe, a large, elongated barrel that held about 126 gallons of wine. Often, he ordered multiple pipes at a time. Today, you can still purchase Madeira wine, but be cautious as it runs 18-20 percent alcohol by volume. Similar to its brother, Port, Madeira is often used in cooking and is a staple of French cuisine today.

Next, the sixty bottles of Claret were a French-style wine also popular in America in the 18th century. While Madeira came in both sweet and dry varieties, Claret was typically a dry, dark red. Claret is not a fortified wine like Madeira, meaning it is lighter and only around 13-15 percent alcohol by volume.

The list notes that the gentlemen also consumed eight bottles of “Old Stock”, a term used for whiskey at the time. Perhaps throughout his time as General and President, nights like September 14, 1787 convinced Washington to create his own whiskey distillery later in life. By 1799, the distillery at Mount Vernon was one of the most profitable in the country. During the colonial era, it was not customary to age whiskey. The spirits produced at Mount Vernon, as well as, that served at City Tavern were practically straight from the still.

Whiskey mash in the reconstructed distillery at Mount Vernon. Credit: Elizabeth Hosier.

The porter, cider, and beer listed on the bill are all similar to the alcohols we call porter, cider, and beer today. Porter was a very popular style of beer in both England and America. In fact, the style was so popular, Washington had his own recipe for it to be produced at Mount Vernon.

Lastly, the list claims the gentlemen also went through seven large bowls of punch. Punch recipes varied from tavern to tavern and from house to house in colonial days, but they were typically rum or whiskey-based and often contained more than one type of alcohol. You can read much more about punch and how it was served here and about Mary Washington’s punch bowl here.

With all this drink flowing, we might conclude this was quite a raucous party, but these were rather typical evenings for the people of the 18th century. Keep in mind that water was not always drinkable due to bacteria, they didn’t always have access to fruit to make fresh juice, and certainly soda wasn’t around yet! They were left with few options: tea, coffee, or booze.

Washington returned to the Convention and by the end of the day after the party, the delegates had finished. Copies of the document were ordered, and just two days later, they signed the Constitution of the United States on Monday, September 17, 1787. Washington stated in his journal:

“The business being thus closed, the Members adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other.”

What happened that night at City Tavern? Unfortunately, no bill from this night survives to give us any clarification, but Washington provides a hint of just how much steam the delegates needed to blow off. The entry in his journal continued that he returned to his lodgings and:

“retired to meditate on the momentous wk. which had been executed, after not less than five, for a large part of the time Six, and sometimes 7 hours sitting every day, sundays & the ten days adjournment to give a Comee. opportunity & time to arrange the business for more than four Months.”

Momentous work, indeed.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

“It is Indeed Bad to Eat Apples. It is Better to Make Them All Cider”: When Cider Reigned Supreme in America

Happy-Thanksgiving-“It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all cider” — Benjamin Franklin

Name a beverage consumed by all age groups, men and women alike, the poor and the very rich, from sun up to sun down, that is touted as healthy and refreshing yet also contains alcohol.  If you were a colonial American, the answer was hard cider.  In America’s early days, cider reigned supreme and, even though the beverage is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, consumption of cider is nowhere near as high as it was during George Washington’s lifetime. To better understand early Americans’ obsession with cider, one must go back to the first European colonization of America (What a great idea! Let’s do that).

It’s the early 17th century and colonists are trying to make their new home a bit more like their old home.  One sure way to do this is to bring over plants to grow the food you already like.  Sometimes, this doesn’t work very well (grapes, for example) but, sometimes, the introduced species thrive in their new environment.  Such was the case with apples.  Technically, there are already two varieties of crabapple native to the Americas but these are not especially good eating compared to domesticated apple varieties in Europe.  Ultimately, the apple became such a popular cultivar, some land grants stipulated that to claim legal ownership you had to plant apple trees to prove you intended to stay and improve the land.

Still Life with Apples, Grapes and a Pot of Jam (1700s) by Luis Meléndez

“Still Life with Apples, Grapes and a Pot of Jam” (1700s) by Luis Meléndez. Credit: Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya / Wikipedia

That North American climate and soil was well suited to apples was especially fortuitous since colonists were also looking for things to ferment into alcohol. Alcohol was a large part of their diet, and it just so happens that apples lend themselves very well to this end.  Think about it, in addition to providing fresh fruit, apples could be dried for storage, fed to livestock in the fall to fatten them before butchering, made into apple cider vinegar which is both useful for medicinal purposes but also a key ingredient for pickling, one of the most common preservative methods at the time, and finally turned into lots of yummy fermented beverages like, apple brandy, and applejack (we’ll talk about this interesting drink a bit later), and cider..

Making apple cider is very simple, and it’s even simpler to make hard cider.  In fact, left to their own devices, apples practically ferment themselves since they are covered with wild yeast that loves to eat sugar and throw off alcohol as a pleasant byproduct.  So, colonists didn’t have to work very hard to turn perishable cider into hard cider, which could be stored longer.  Furthermore, if you expose hard cider to oxygen for too long, it will naturally turn into vinegar. What’s not to love?

Cider Making (c.1840) by William Sydney Mount

“Cider Making” (c.1840) by William Sydney Mount. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikipedia.

Did I mention how much cider was consumed during the colonial period?  It should be noted that even though it did contain alcohol it wasn’t necessarily considered an alcoholic drink.  John Adams drank a large glass of cider every morning (yep) and fancied himself an abstainer of strong drink.  Cider was described as healthy and a thirst quencher, likely owing to the slight carbonation which is also a byproduct of fermentation. Children regularly consumed hard cider, which isn’t nearly as horrific as it sounds when you take into account that it had a low ABV of around 3% and this probably made it safer to drink that most water available.

However, children were not encouraged to partake of cider’s much bigger and somewhat brutish brother, applejack.  Applejack resulted when you allowed hard cider to freeze and removed the frozen water crystals, leaving the concentrated alcohol behind.  The more times this simple distillation process was repeated the stronger the applejack becomes.  This method also does little to remove impurities contained within the cider so the result can be a very high octane skull splitter, which was still much beloved of colonials.

Although cider was a very common drink, it could also be elevated to gourmet status. Just as wine drinking has advanced to a fine art, with enthusiasts who obsess over the distinctive notes each grape produces under distinctive growing conditions, so did gentry colonists enjoy comparing fine ciders from different regions and varieties of apples.  Much was made of the ‘terroir’ of ciders, or the climate, soil, and landscape where the apples were produced.  Modern varieties of apples are much different than those available three hundred years ago so it’s interesting to ponder over the distinct flavors colonial ciders would have had, especially given that they had access to a wider variety of apples than we do today. There were thousands of varieties available across the colonies and early Republic producing thousands of distinct ciders.  So perhaps the saying should not be ‘As American as apple pie’ but rather ‘As American as apple cider’.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Further Reading

Brown, John Hull.  Early American Beverages. Bonanza Books, New York. 1966

Grasse, Steven. Colonial Spirits. Abrams Image, New York. 2016

Oliver, Sandra L.  Food in Colonial And Federal America. Greenwood Press, London. 2005

Root, Waverly and Richard De Rochemont. Eating In America. The Ecco Press. 1995