As English inns grew in number and quality, the taverns of their American cousins changed, too, though not quite along the same lines. “All tavernkeepers are farmers, and the best farmers are tavernkeepers,” said a nineteenth century observer of the American midwest. A settler who began as a farmer often became a tavernkeeper malgré lui. Faced with the sketchy transportation facilities of the time, and the difficulties of getting his surplus produce to market, the wise farmer became a taverner, thus bringing the market to his produce, selling it to travellers who stayed at his inn, and not incidentally making two or three times the profit the market would have given him, without the effort and expense of having to transport it there.
As the pioneers moved west, living conditions in the taverns became harder, then harsher, then simply non-existent, until the term “living” was reduced to its most basic dictionary definition. Of civilization’s amenities there was virtually none. In the tavern’s “dining” area sanitary conditions were difficult if not impossible to maintain, and the pioneer tavernkeeper himself did little to alleviate the situation; primitive thinking seemed to go with primitive living. Watching preparations for supper could cause the sensitive guest to decide that fasting was good for the soul. Flies were everywhere, in the air and in the food. A pile of manure was outside the dining room door, and the open doorway let you know it was there, buzzing with the next generation of dining room flies. Tablecloths were often bedsheets, and if the tavernkeeper needed a “clean” tablecloth (for the table) it was sometimes snatched unceremoniously from the sleeping body beneath. In one tavern a guest who complained about the filthy condition of the establishment’s only towel was told, irritably, that “Two hundred men have wiped on that towel and you are the first one to complain.”
The American pioneers also adopted the old English custom of displaying inn signs, and for the same reason: General illiteracy. While there were talented sign painters in the eastern U.S.A., not many of them went west, judging by the quality of pioneer tavern signs. Chicago’s Wolf Tavern displayed an image that could easily have passed for a sheep, and you would swear it was a turkey that adorned the sign of the Eagle Tavern. Ironically, in order to identify the illustration, you had to be able to read the sign!
The proliferation of outlets for drink was not a British phenomenon. Hardly does man put his foot down in a new land than he’s brewing something. The Pilgrims had just got off the boat in America when Samuel Cole opened the first tavern in Boston (1634). Your elementary school history books might not tell you this, but when Jean Talon arrived in New France he was quick to build a brewery, and made a comfortable profit for the new colony. By 1896 — just a couple of generations ago! — Montréal boasted, if I can use that expression, a greater number of retail liquor outlets than the combined totals of Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, Québec City, Hamilton, Ottawa, London, Saint John, Winnipeg and Calgary. Montréal was a real friendly town.
But in nineteenth century America, the tavern was just getting off the ground, comparatively speaking. What with settling the western plains and exchanging views with the Indians, the pioneers had other things to do with their time. In 1830, the west — and in those days that meant anything on the other side of Detroit — was virgin bush. The western extent of the stagecoach line out of Detroit was the settlement of Niles, Michigan. The line was shortly to reach Chicago, but in 1830 Niles was it; Niles was where you got off, for good. Beyond Niles, commercial accommodations for food, drink, or rest was limited. In fact it was as limited as you could get: Zero. If you wanted to eat west of Niles you took it with you or you didn’t get it.
As the Americans pushed west, the tavern filled various needs. It was the government land office, and even provided a rough pulpit for travelling evangelists. It also served as a courtroom. The circuit judge often stayed at the tavern. His visit was the signal for a holiday, and brought settlers in from the surrounding area to join in activities such as horse-racing, visiting friends, loafing with other loafers on a bench in front of the tavern, or just plain drinking. Drinking was the big activity; so much so that often the noise of the singing, shouting, and general crashing around in the adjoining barroom stopped the legal proceedings. In angry exasperation the judge and his associates would march sternly into the bar — and have a couple of snorts themselves.
Drinking and the political process went hand-in-hand in pioneer America. The tavern was often the polling place in elections, which was a very profitable arrangement for the tavern owner, and of course convenient and refreshing for the voters. It seemed quite normal, if not altogether acceptable, that these voting days turned the tavern into a noisy, brawling, drunken place to be avoided, where it was rare indeed that a voter emerged unhurt. A contemporary reported he felt himself lucky to have suffered only a broken arm and various bruises while having a quiet drink at the bar on voting day.