“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

Drinking Vessels and Their Drinks

The goal of studying archaeological artifacts and, indeed, the goal of studying history more broadly is to understand the people who lived in the past both in the small moments and in the times of monumental change.  Something as ordinary as the beverages people drank and the objects from which they drank reveal what life was like in the past.  In this post, we examine three popular beverages, the vessels used to drink them, and their historical significance.

Tea: In the 18th century English speaking world, tea was synonymous with high society. Not only was the tea itself expensive (since it was shipped from across the globe) but the entire culture around tea was costly. One could not serve tea without a proper tea service or equipage. The first English references to tea come from early 17th century English merchants abroad in Asia. However, tea wouldn’t enjoy universal English adoration until later in the century when Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza of Portugal in 1662 and brought the practice from Europe into England. From then on, tea represented wealth and high society wherever the English went, including across the Atlantic. Over a hundred years later, however, Parliament inadvertently changed tea’s beloved status amongst their North American colonists as colonists boycotted the drink to show their displeasure with the mother country’s rule. Even with that change, tea remained a highly-prized status symbol among many and even inspired some Americans to create ‘Liberty Teas’ from locally grown herbs and fruits.

Like the tea itself, teawares (the vessels in which tea was prepared and served) were fashionable and reflected societal trends.   Well-to-do families like the Lewises of Historic Kenmore exhibited their finest teawares and were expected to update their china cabinet with the most stylish wares they could afford.  Silver topped the list followed by porcelain. If those were lacking, elaborately decorated and finely potted stone and earthenwares would do in a pinch.  At the end of the Revolution, Fielding and Betty Lewis were reeling from wartime expenses so their teawares likely resembled this lovely creamware piece with a delicate strawberry flower at the base of the handle.  While not the most expensive teaware at the time, this molded creamware exhibited good taste and was suitable for the Lewis family to use while serving tea to their guests.

Drinking Vessels (2)

Punch: Much like tea, punch was also a status symbol in the 18th century. A punch’s different ingredients usually came from all over the world and were therefore quite expensive. Punch is first written about by 17th century English sailors. The word ‘punch’ is believed to come from the Hindustani word ‘paanstch’, meaning ‘five’, and may explain why historic punches have 5 parts: sweet, sour, strong, weak, and spice. Typically, the sweet was sugar, the sour was a citrus fruit such as lemons, limes, or oranges, the weak was water or tea, the strong was alcohols like rum or whiskey, and the spices could be nutmeg or cinammon. These 5-parts allowed punch to be made from any number of ingredients and to take on unique identities and flavors. Punches varied greatly between taverns and recipes (receipts) were closely guarded secrets. What was not flexible was the necessity of punch. Colonials could hardly have an elegant ball, a large celebration, or even a small get-together without the ubiquitous drink.

As with tea, imbibing punch was a communal event requiring fancy equipage.  The bowls themselves ranged from elaborately decorated to elegantly simple and came in many sizes. The smallest served a single individual while grand bowls served lavish parties with dozens of tipplers.  Some bowls even conveyed political opinions or leveled jokes at members of society.  Suitable for a modest gathering of friends, this tin-glazed punch bowl displayed at Kenmore was owned by the family during their more prosperous pre-war days. By the time they moved to Kenmore, however, this cheerfully hand-painted bowl was falling out of fashion.  Tin-glaze was less refined than later wares and was easily chipped and cracked, making it less desirable.

Drinking Vessels (3)

Fortified wine:  In 18th century America, fortified wine reigned supreme.  Lacking our own wine industry, despite the best efforts of Thomas Jefferson and others to establish wine grapes in the colonies, we relied on imported wines from Europe.  Because of the ocean journey, fortified wines such as Madeira, port, and sherry became very popular.  These wines shared one thing in common:  The fermentation process was halted by the addition of brandy.   This upped the alcohol content considerably and made the wine portable over long distances.   Most wines prefer a quiet life in a cool environment.  Fortified varieties, however, thrive on chaos and age better when subjected to extremes of temperature, humidity, and constant sloshing around in the belly of a huge ship.  These choice wines even exhibited labels documenting their torturous journeys.  Wines that traveled south of the equator before eventually making their way up the coast to the colonies were especially prized.  Once a fortified wine found its way into a household, it was likely stored in an attic or on a portico, where it would continue to improve while battered by cold winters and sweltering heat.

Today, fortified wines are considered desert wines to be consumed after dinner.  The colonists, however, needed no such excuse to pop open a bottle of fine Madeira.  They did, however, traditionally drink these more potent wines from smaller glasses.    This lovely lead glass example is hand-blown and engraved using a copper wheel.  Probably manufactured in England in the late 1700s, one can only imagine the delicious wines it once held!

Drinking Vessels (1)

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services