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What's in a name? Taverns, inns, hotels, and public houses.

Updated: Jan 29, 2020

With literally thousands of taverns across Colonial America, they took on many names along with reputations not so savory.

Taverns in early colonial America were known by a variety of names including, inn, tippling house, publick house, dram house, ale house, grog shop, ordinary, pub and later, hotel; and many of these terms were used interchangeably. They eventually became, similar to period–and popular–coffee houses, establishments of busy social and political gatherings.

With the ever-expanding road transportation in the colonies came the need for wayside meals and overnight lodging. Most American taverns were located in the earlier-developed East where there was tavern at every mile on the old turnpikes, especially along the seaboard and Pennsylvania. That state contained more taverns than any other place in the country. In 1795 there were 180 licensed taverns in Lancaster, PA alone.

The word “pub” is an abbreviation from the English public house, is still used in America today, although not as often in the UK. An inn named the Publick House, established in 1771 continues to operate in Sturbridge, Massachusetts.

During the American Revolution period, the word “Inn” was looked down upon as being “too British”. This may be the reason the word Tavern became more widely used and accepted in America after that period.

Although most people think of taverns as establishments to consume alcoholic beverages, taverns in early America welcomed travelers for eating and lodging for both patron and their horse.

From Helene Smith's Tavern Signs of America: “Michael Brander's The Life and Sport of Inns, in reference to public houses which were an archetypes of those in America, an alehouse provided ale and some entertainment; a tavern—wine, food and entertainment; and an inn—lodging, food and entertainment. But he too agreed that the terms were used interchangeably.”

Eventually the modern hotel began to replace the earlier tavern or inn, specifically more common by the 1840s. Then term “hotel” was derived from the French.

James G.Blaine, who served in President Benjamin Harrison's cabinet as Secretary of State, hailed from Brownsville, Pennsylvania. In regard to Caldwell's Tavern nearby on the Old Pike he wrote: “We did not use the high sounding hotel, but the good old Anglo-Saxon tavern.”

Whatever standards and whatever the name, public houses needed signs to alert people to their existence.

You can learn more about this “Publick House” sign at the “Trade and Tavern Sign” link at the top of the web page.

Sources: TavernSigns of America, by Helene Smith

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